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Mark Harris: Don’t underestimate our clubs

Mark Harris, chairman of the Pitching In Northern Premier League

Covid-19 is damned clever. Apparently, it knows where you live; whether you are standing up or sat down, and only comes out after 10pm. In fact, it’s so clever that it even knows which team you support – but only in the FA Cup. 

At least you’d think so, judging by the patchwork quilt of conflicting, contradictory and constantly changing rules being imposed on local communities. Non-league football clubs have become victims of politicians’ failure to create measures that are easy to follow whilst remaining capable of flexibility according to local conditions.

The ability of sport to provide safe environments for its customers is seriously underestimated, as is National League System clubs’ facilities and approach to Covid-19 protocols. Central government’s priorities are evidenced, despite DCMS’ efforts, by the illogicality of music and arts venues being allowed to stage events with paying customers whereas Elite sport is prevented from doing so.

Business as usual

Actually, clubs at steps 3 – 6 are lucky to be playing in front of fans when those at higher levels and in other sports cannot. Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston has confirmed that football at our level can continue in front of limited crowds for the time being. But whilst this works for the majority of NPL clubs, a one-size-fits all approach does not help our larger clubs.

I fully support the call from South Shields, FC United of Manchester and Scarborough for the basis of capacity limits to be urgently reviewed. Although Step 3 clubs, their facilities, crowds and operational planning are equal to – if not better than – many at Steps 2. They are being penalised for investing in their stadia and nurturing substantial fanbases.

In reality, this problem is not restricted to our big clubs, and many are turning to their MP’s for help. Angela Rayner is MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in Greater Manchester, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Labour Party Chair. She’s also a patron of Ashton United in the Community. In her letter to DCMS chair Oliver Dowden this week, Ms Rayner writes: –

“It is a flawed perception that grassroots football clubs can sustain themselves within the current government regulations. In addition to [limited spectator numbers], they have to follow strict restrictions set out by Tameside Council…which can mean a further reduction in capacity and changes to how they are able to serve refreshments to fans…which will heavily affect income.”

The intervention of 30 MPs played a key part in getting fans back into grounds in September. Pressure from the same quarters could again prove pivotal.

Local restrictions

There is no reason that a more nuanced approach could not be adopted, especially as government has devolved responsibility for determining restrictions to local authorities.

We have over 40 local authorities on the NPL’s ‘patch’, half of which have imposed additional restrictions on the clubs in their areas. These range from reducing capacities to requesting and even mandating clubs to play behind closed doors. Tea huts have been closed where table service is not provided, and fans banned from taking food and drink onto the terraces.

In some cases, these restrictions are being imposed with little or no first-hand knowledge of what clubs are doing to protect spectators, players and officials.

Some NPL clubs, with the support of the league, have successfully challenged these restrictions by getting local authority and public health officials to visit in person to witness the measures in place. It’s too easy for desk-dwellers to issue written instructions without understanding the true picture, so we have to educate them.

Players need to step up

Despite extensive preparations, some clubs have been unable to fulfil fixtures due to players testing positive and pushing teammates into 14 days isolation. That said, with so many different health messages out there, it’s hardly surprising that they don’t always hit home. 

Clubs can’t control where their players go and what they do outside of football, but they can prevent unnecessary risks being taken by not permitting players to travel together in cars; enforcing the wearing of face masks on coach trips and closely monitoring players’ health.

So far, our league has taken a flexible approach, reversing fixtures where possible, to maintain a full programme. However, the danger is that, unless clubs and players work together to minimise the risks of infection, we may reach a point where we cannot continue.

We must not relax Covid-19 protocols. If we do, government will order us to play behind closed doors. That’s why the NPL will not hesitate to apply the heaviest possible sanctions on any club found to be wilfully disregarding government and FA guidance. 

Government financial support

Congratulations to the National League for securing the financial support from government to enable their clubs to play behind closed doors.

A bid has been submitted to government to similarly compensate clubs at Steps 3 – 6 for loss of revenue, although funding is unlikely unless government decides that we can no longer play in front of paying fans. The issue then will be how much of that income is actually replaced by subsidy. 

At our level, around 30% of clubs’ income does not come through the turnstiles but from matchday spend, sponsorship and other activities. Which means a potential gaping hole in club finances.

The Northern Premier League’s position continues to be that playing behind closed doors is not viable, although we are also pressing for problems unique to clubs in affected areas such as the north of England to be given special attention. 

Things may be tough up north right now, with no end in sight to the Covid crisis, but the NPL will carry on playing as many fixtures as we can until prevented in doing so.

We will continue to lobby for capacity limits to be raised to alleviate the burden on our biggest clubs, and for clarity around any possible government funding. Covid may be a clever disease, but we will beat it by working together.

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