The Coronavirus causing chaos in Non-League football- a view from the clubs 
Photo by Sam Mellish/Getty Images

"With the Football Association's initial decision to postpone all football until April 3rd, the FA issued a statement that they were "committed to trying to complete all competition fixtures."

The majority of the footballing calendar had already taken place and teams were coming to the realisation of what the final stage of the season could mean for them. Promotion and relegation spots were becoming clearer, and, for certain teams, their fate appeared to have already been sealed. 

With the financial pressure in Non-League being a fine line between swimming or sinking, any change or postponement to fixture lists could end up reducing certain teams to the bare minimum to survive.

It sent shockwaves through grassroots football when only over a week later the FA backtracked on their original thoughts, saying, "The FA and NLS steps three to six have reached a consensus that their 2019-20 season will now be brought to an end, and all results will be expunged. This will mean no promotion or relegation of clubs between NLS steps three to six, and no promotion to NLS step two."

The FA have rushed their decision 

The decision from the FA to "expunge" the results of the season has divided Non-League football. Geoff Thompson, chairman at South Shields FC believes the FA decision was "ill-thought-out". Thompson's side currently sit top of the BetVictor Northern Premier Division and 12 points clear of second place.

He and now over 100 club officials from different leagues have signed an open letter to the FA asking for the decision to potentially be re-considered.

Thompson, who is one of the figureheads of the campaign, aims to create an "open dialogue with the FA" and, with the backing of Football League clubs such as Peterborough United and Lincoln behind the campaign, the letter is designed to "get the FA to sit up and listen".

For Thompson, who came fourth in the South Shields local election in 2019, running for Member of Parliament, as an independent candidate, believes there to be a number of problems with the FA’s choices, "The way in which the decision was communicated was flawed; very often clubs found out on social media.

He continues,"So the timing of the decision I think was also ill-judged, and then thirdly of course we want, and we strongly, strongly believe there should be a consistent approach, whether that be the Premier League, all the way through the pyramid; it needs to be consistent and fair." 

Thompson stresses that this is not just a letter signed by teams going for promotion, "I won't mention the club's names, but there are a few in relegation positions but have actually said, we recognize we cannot compete at this level, both financially and from a footballing perspective, so they would have rather have been relegated."

It opens up the question whether the FA, during this unprecedented time, have slightly rushed their decision, to end the season for all grassroots football, potentially so that they can look at the way Non-League football has reacted to the null and void option, and see whether it could work, if filtered up to the professional leagues.

Co-owner of Walton and Hersham Football Club, Thomas Bradbury, thought, "That the season would eventually play out at some point, maybe in May, June or July."

Bradbury is thought to be one of the joint youngest owners of a football club in the world, having taken over the Surrey-based side in June of last year with 6 friends, aged just 19, goes on to say, “The personal opinion from myself is that the FA have maybe overreacted a bit too soon."

He feels there is a slight injustice in the FA's decision to render the Non-Leagues’ season null and void whilst the FA try clinging onto professional football.

Bradbury's side sat third in Division One of the Combined Counties Football League, and were pushing for promotion in his first season as Co-owner. He adds that the FA, "have shown where their priorities are. Money talks, and I feel like the FA do have a habit of neglecting the Non-League quite a lot."

The FA decision was the correct choice

Chairman of Brightlingsea Regent, Terry Doherty, feels the opposite. His side sit at the foot of the Isthmian Premier Division, but in no way did that cement them to a relegation spot, with the bottom six places in the Isthmian Premier being separated by only four points. 

He assertively replies when asked if the decision was potentially rushed," No, not really because I think they (the FA) have been brave, and I think it was the right thing to do."

He looks at the global process on a much bigger scale as to why the FA made the right call. "Just looking at it, I am obviously not an expert on the Coronavirus or any virus for that matter, but looking with what is going on in the rest of the World, in Europe and Asia, this will not stop anytime soon. All you're doing is delaying the inevitable."

Doherty, who is a self-employed painter and decorator whilst also being Chairman of The R's, believes this way of dealing with the Non-League will soon make its way up to the professional game. "For the National League, and one and two, (League One and League two) and obviously the Football League, they are holding on and holding on, but personally I can't see it. I can't see them finishing that season this year."

For Biggleswade FC, a side who sat just outside the playoff spots in the BetVictor Southern Central Division, owner, Jeremy Reynolds, had a different view to sides who found themselves in a similar position.

He commented, “All I would really say is that my opinion, and that of our club, is that we agree with the FA's decision. As hard as it is, it is such a minefield otherwise, it would be too difficult to resolve everything to all teams' satisfaction. 

Have the FA left teams in the dark?

A big problem with how the FA have dealt with this situation is that the majority of sides in Non-League walk a tightrope of financial uncertainty.

For Doherty and Brightlingsea Regent, there have already been major consequences due to the chaotic spell amateur football sides have had to endure over the previous weeks. "We have already decided we needed to make some cost-cutting measures; we have scrapped our reserve team for next year."

However, that is only the beginning: “We are just trying to cost cut as much as we can; we have parted company with our academy, which is based at our local school. There is a view to next season that there won't be much money around or money to spend, and we will have to be very frugal with what we do."

For Merstham Football Club and Commercial Director, Chris Pullen, the biggest problem is, “One, we do not know when it (football) will start up again, and the second is that everyone has had any chance of revenue towards the end of the season and over the summer cut off completely. So we are also faced with a situation when we do restart football of how you find sponsorship."

The FA will be under immense pressure to help Non-League sides through this financial whirlwind. Pullen goes on to explain that for Merstham Football Club, who found themselves in the same relegation battle as Brightlingsea Regent, even though their status in the league is currently confirmed, they will face a difficult period going forward.

"We still face this dilemma going forward, that a lot of semi-professional clubs will face over the next three to six months, which is where will we find the money to pay the players?

Pullen lays down the cruel truth, that the consequences will not only be felt in semi-professional football, he says, "I think there will be a number of clubs who won’t be in existence anymore and I think that extends right up to Championship level."

Amateur football will suffer most from this 

With all the focus on the Premier League, and when that will resume, semi-professional football is set to be hit hardest, with the Coronavirus epidemic set to divide the Non-League. 

Sides at the top will feel a grave injustice that they have been denied promotion, after a large portion of the season has played, and for the majority of other sides, the real struggle now begins, with potential lawsuits and sides coming very close to folding. The FA and the Premier League should be doing all they can to support grassroots football.

For Geoff Thompson and South Shields, they could potentially seek legal action should the FA fail to change their minds. He takes a deep breath and reluctantly confirms the club could look at that option, he says, “I am afraid so. I don't want to sound threatening or litigious or aggressive in any way, because that's not what we want to do, but we have already appointed some lawyers and they have been briefed."

He adds, “I must stress that's not our preferred route, but you know we all have a duty to protect not just the interests of our own clubs, but I think what is at stake here, is the whole integrity of the football pyramid in England, and it is at risk of being absolutely undermined."

Whilst teams fight for what they believe the right way to end the season is, for most clubs the harsh reality is that sides potentially might not survive the Coronavirus period that has already started to slowly break down football teams and remove its vital organs; these are the matchday revenue and the social aspect, which play such a huge part of keeping amateur sides running.

Grassroots football needs protecting as it provides the Premier League with stars such as Leicester City striker and Premier League winner, Jamie Vardy, West Ham winger, Michael Antonio, and Manchester United centre back, Chris Smalling, who was spent this year on loan at Roma.

The Premier League should look to help sides during this turbulent spell after the demise of Bury in the summer and the football pyramid as a whole should be protected in any way it can. 

Football clubs in lower leagues can be integral to the community and with this uneasy time in the world when football returns it can start to bring a sense of optimism back once football is safe to return from isolation.  

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