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Southern League column: We must plan carefully to ensure bright future

Southern League clubs are waiting to find out when football is deemed safe to return

Southern League vice-chairman Anthony Hughes pens an exclusive column for The NLP

Covid changed our world and lest not forget the thousands of people who sadly lost their lives, including the many who gave unstinting service to the Non-League game.

Sadly, people are still dying but we hope to continue seeing those numbers dwindle until we find a way of treating this virus effectively or vaccinating against it.

Many have called for this crisis to become an opportunity for the National League System to become something which more actually reflects how Non-League football should look in 2020, and I believe there is merit in that.

After the debates and deliberations over the decisions to expunge the season or settle it on a points-per-game basis, we are now, at least, talking about when to start the 2020/21 campaign.

The decisions made by the leagues, in consultation with The FA and of course with each other, were difficult, purely because there wasn’t a good decision for everyone. It was about trying to do the best of a bad job but also trying to get some uniformity throughout the National League System and working together.

I sincerely felt for some clubs, including some in our own league.

Not so long back, many in the game were thinking we may not be able to start before the end of the year so, with the considerable help of the National League System team at the FA, scenarios were drawn up as to what the season would look like if it started at any time between August and December, and even January 2021.

Now there is more optimism around a possible September or October start and in those situations we would be able to accommodate a full league campaign – even if it meant going into May.

At the Southern League, we recently asked clubs about their feelings with regards to restarting and a number of things became clearly evident.

Over 90 per cent of the clubs told us it would not be viable to play behind closed doors whilst slightly more said they could operate with reduced capacities and accommodate social distancing.

So, to start the season we need clubs’ hospitality facilities to be open for business, as is now the case in England. It is not yet in Wales but that could change in the next few weeks.

The other crucial decision the Government would need to make is to allow mass gatherings. With minimum ground capacities at Steps 3 and 4 being 1,950 and 1,300 respectively, a possible solution could be that attendances would be restricted to a percentage of those capacities.

That could be enough to see us start the new season but will still require significant planning and procedures which I am sure the clubs will embrace but only with the help, advice and guidance of the leagues.

That leads on, of course, to how clubs will cope. We have all feared that some clubs would fall during this crisis and that, sadly, may still be the case. The task for us as administrators is to give clubs the best possible opportunity to function financially and despite a difficult economic situation. We are endeavouring to secure further sponsorship which would enable us as leagues to provide at least some help in terms of equipment and services to member clubs.

There is also an onus on the clubs themselves to plan for next season in a financially sensible manner and to ensure their forecasts and spending plans are realistic, just as we as leagues have had to.

Sponsorship will be a challenge but there is now another element to the planning not taken into account previously. That is the possibility of a second wave of the Covid-19 virus and also the possibility of local lockdowns as we have seen in Leicester just this week.

When the crisis first began in March, the Government did assist. Grants were made available to many of our clubs under the hospitality sector through local government and many clubs were able to furlough staff and players, which was a huge help. Further assistance has come via the Football Foundation.

Clubs were rightly concerned about how they would be able to pay their players before the furlough scheme began, particularly those on contract, and the reality was that either agreements had to be made with players or the contracts had to paid until the furlough scheme came into effect at the end of April. It was extremely difficult for some clubs.

In all the planning we do for the new season, we must take into account the possibilities of a second wave of the virus striking or regional areas of the country going into lockdown. We hope it doesn’t happen and the last thing anyone wants is a second season without promotion/relegation so we must seek out contingencies to ensure that doesn’t happen even if the season was to be curtailed.

I sincerely hope clubs will also take this into account when putting playing squads together because a second wave of the virus coming in January or February could be catastrophic for the clubs as well as public health.

My concern is that it will be difficult for the Government to offer the financial support to business in the way they have this time. Is the money there? Hopefully it would be but what if it was not? I appreciate there are club owners screaming right now… “that is our business, not yours”.

Understood, but…..contracts would still have to be paid unless agreements could be reached with players and for that reason maybe we will see more clubs going down the non-contract route throughout Non-League in order to give them more flexibility at this time. Obviously, time will tell but one thing is for sure – we need to get this fabulous game of ours back on track as soon as possible.

Make sure you get your copy of The Non-League Paper this weekend and have your say in our nationwide ‘return to football’ survey in association with the Football Supporters Association!

Click here to take part before the results are delivered to the Football Association, leagues and other key stakeholders this summer.

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