Mark Carruthers: Non-league supporters are the heart of their clubs - and seeing them return will be a wonderful sight
The importance of the role football supporters have to play in the game has come to the fore over the last week.
As the opportunistic and misguided attempt at a power-grab was hatched by a dozen clubs across England, Italy and Spain, those of us living in the real world continue to contemplate the real challenges facing our clubs.
The prospect of lining their pockets in the name of alleged progress has caused the likes of Manchester United, Juventus and Real Madrid to contemplate the unthinkable and unreasonable.
Yet in the real world, where clubs have been pushed to the brink and every penny count, there are far more pressing matters than attracting “fans of the future” and taking “legacy fans” for granted.
Although the Premier League may be awash with finances from lucrative television deals, the elite clubs are still facing financial uncertainty as revenue streams are slowly drained by the events of the last 12 months.
Those concerns and the lack of stability caused by the impact of Covid-19 are only further heightened as we make our way down the English football pyramid.
Although we are slowly making our way towards what will hopefully be the end of the pandemic, the after-effects will last for years to come as clubs struggle to get back on their feet.
Non-league clubs around the country have spent the last year wrestling with a whole host of key decisions and awaiting information from both the FA and the government.
Uncertainty and a lack of clarity remains – as always in non-league – but normality should return when supporters start clicking through the turnstiles when the 2021/22 gets underway in August.
Put simply, supporters are essential to the non-league game.
They are a key source of income – but their importance is far from limited to swelling the club’s coffers on a weekly basis.
The importance of supporters goes way beyond any balance sheet.
They give their blood, sweat and tears as volunteers, they promote their clubs via social media, they put together the matchday programme and serve in the clubhouse.
At non-league level, supporters are the club.
Maybe other levels of the game are only just realising the importance of supporters, but at non-league level, their importance has never and will never be taken for granted.
There will be no greater sight than seeing supporters taking their place in the stands at the likes of Croft Park, Belle View and Millfield over the coming months.
Their absence has left a void that can not be easily filled by a lucrative TV deal or a multi-million-pound paint sponsorship.
Their return will be a cause for celebration and although the impact of the Covid-19 epidemic will continue, clubs can begin the slow walk back to normality with their supporters at their side.
It seems remarkable that it is only four years since Hebburn Town sent out an SOS as their crowds plummeted and finances became strained to near breaking point.
The plea for help was met in the grand manner as a new committee oversaw a monumental turnaround in fortunes on South Tyneside.
The unwavering work of former manager Scott Oliver set the club on a journey that could lead to one of the most remarkable months in the North East non-league game.
Over the last two years under the stewardship of new boss Kevin Bolam, the Hornets have continued to challenge at the top end of the Northern League’s top tier and have made rapid progress in the FA Vase.
They now head towards the final month of the season with the prospect of being confirmed as one of the three Northern League clubs to be offered promotion into the new look step four league that will be under the Northern Premier League’s control.
There is also the chance of a cup treble as the Hornets prepare to make their way to Wembley for the 2019/20 FA Vase Final against Northern League rivals Consett on the first Monday of the month.
They remain in this season’s Vase too and will host North West Counties League club Congleton Town this Saturday as they look to secure a place in the last eight of the competition.
An opportunity to secure a third trophy inside a matter of weeks went up in smoke on Wednesday night when Birtley Town overturned a 4-1 half-time deficit to see Bolam’s men out of Durham Challenge Cup with a remarkable 5-4 defeat.
Despite that defeat, these are exciting times for everyone connected with a club that is flourishing on and off the pitch and the next six weeks could provide a platform to greater things.
Second chances don’t come around very often in football but West Auckland Town have been given an opportunity to seize one this weekend.
Gary Forrest’s side were knocked out of the FA Vase on Saturday when they suffered a 4-0 defeat at North Ferriby United.
But an FA sub-committee have now ruled that the Northern Counties East League club fielded an ineligible player and have reinstated West into the last-16 of the competition.
They will now travel to face Warrington Rylands – conquerors of Shildon in the last round – this coming Saturday with a possible home quarter-final against Hebburn Town on the horizon.
There is no doubt that this is a stroke of luck for West – but they have opportunity to grasp this second chance and set themselves on course for a third Vase Final in the last decade.
It is one they must not waste.