Robin Sainty: National game struggling for its existence
- Credit: Tony Thrussell
During lockdown I wrote several columns about the threat posed to the game in general by coronavirus. With no football allowed at the time and no prospect of crowds being allowed in for the foreseeable future the threat of numerous clubs going to the wall was clear for all to see.
After football’s elite returned as a result of Project Restart which saved Premier League clubs from having to make an even bigger repayment to the broadcasters, there seemed to be a chink of light at the end of the tunnel with the prospect of crowds being allowed to return, albeit in limited numbers.
However, despite City’s successful pilot project for the Preston game, rising case rates have resulted in the government putting the project on hold.
Whilst that’s understandable, there are some annoying inconsistencies, such as National League teams playing in empty grounds while fans can gather to watch the game on screens in their social clubs, or the Royal Albert Hall being allowed to house 3,000 patrons indoors.
The bottom line is that with no match day income the football pyramid is dangerously close to crumbling at the elite level (ie, National league and above). Last week a letter was sent to Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, signed by a number of MPs, the chairman of the Football Supporters Association and two former chairmen of the FA, reiterating a plea for support to football clubs that had first been made in May, and setting out the realities of the situation: “Without any plans being made to rescue clubs, many in the EFL and others in the National League as well, are now actively preparing to make all but essential staff redundant, cease playing, close down their youth academies and community foundations, and put their business into administration.”
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The fact that live football is once again all over our screens has blinded many people to the realities of the situation, but the crisis facing a disintegrating framework in which the further down you go the absence of matchday income becomes more and more crippling is very real.
We have already seen Macclesfield Town, formed in 1874, wound up and only the 11th-hour announcement of a government bail-out package allowed National League clubs, including King’s Lynn, to start their season last week with a reasonable prospect of surviving long enough to finish it.
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Even this may not be enough for three Northern Premier League clubs, FC Manchester, Scarborough Athletic and South Shields, whose situations are particularly dire. As their own letter to Dowden points out: “We are facing ruin for having business models that rely on high supporter engagement, something which prior to Covid had always been regarded as the way clubs should be run. Our clubs matter to us, they matter to our supporters, and they matter to our local communities.”
Clubs like these are the very foundation of the game and they deserve support because grassroots football is vital for its health.
While the Premier League, cocooned by the money from TV rights, continues on its merry way with inflated transfer fees and wages, it’s sobering to think that Macclesfield went under for an amount that would equate to less than a month’s wages for a player like Harry Kane, and they won’t be the last.
However, to suggest that the current crisis can be solved by the Premier League alone is both simplistic and underestimates the scale of the problem.
While on the face of it football appears to be continuing relatively normally (apart from the lack of crowds) its whole underlying dynamic has changed. Whereas once the primary target would be to build a successful team, the priority for numerous clubs now is to manage their finances well enough to ensure that if the 2012/22 season starts in something like normal conditions they will still be in existence.