Mark Carruthers: Anger and bemusement following latest National League decision with lessons to be learned

This week’s Non-League Verdict could have been written at any point following the announcement that the National League were charging a number of their clubs for alleged breaches of league rules.

Wednesday, 31st March 2021, 6:01 pm
Mark Carruthers' non-league column.

The reaction when the email dropped into my inbox shortly before 5pm on Friday was one of anger and bemusement – two emotions I am sure were experienced at the clubs that were listed.

I thought waiting until that anger subsides would be the sensible option to provide an article with balance and context- but with deadline rapidly approaching, that is yet to happen.

This is the latest display of a lack of understanding from the league, who have only increased the uncertainty surrounding the entire situation with a series of ill-judged moves and decisions over the last year.

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Let us not forget, it was a lack of clarity caused by miscommunication between the National League and DCMS over funding to clubs across all three divisions that triggered the vote on bringing a premature end to the current season.

As the outcome of that vote was awaited, clubs correctly chose to postpone fixtures to avoid inflicting unnecessary costs upon themselves.

The result is that those 17 clubs – including the North East National League North quartet of Blyth Spartans, Darlington, Gateshead and Spennymoor Town - have now been fined a combined total of over £100,000 and handed suspended points deductions.

Their crime, as far as I can see it, was simply to protect the welfare of their players and staff and to limit their costs at a time when each and every penny counts.

Should this be so difficult for a league that apparently prides itself on the stringent financial focus it places upon its member clubs?

I understand that there are clubs in all three National League divisions that could have carried on playing with generous backers willing to cover the financial burden of playing behind closed doors – but for many clubs, this is simply not an option.

In the statement released on Friday, an independent panel “expressed its sympathy” for the predicament that clubs find themselves in – but this did not prevent the league from handing out financial penalties in the cruellest of fashion.

The financial stability of clubs in non-league football can fluctuate at the best of time and the impact of Covid-19 has only made matters worse.

So why, in these most turbulent of times, could the league not show leniency, rather than sticking to the rule book and imposing more unnecessary heartache on clubs?

If anything, the National League should be working alongside these clubs and showing a great understanding of the situation they are in.

The league will argue that low interest loans from Sport England are available, but no club would want to burden themselves with more unnecessary debt, no matter how preferential the terms are made out to be.

They seem blind to the situation that clubs – particularly those in step two – find themselves in and blissfully unaware of the financial challenges that are being fought with every passing day.

A vote of no confidence in the National League board was proposed earlier this week and that should come as no surprise to anyone after the events of the last year.

There are lessons to be learnt for everyone in the non-league game when we emerge on the other side of the Covid-19 epidemic – but for certain bodies, including the National League, the biggest lesson is learning from the mistakes they have made throughout the last year.

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The calls for a limited number of supporters to be allowed to attend the FA Vase Final between Consett and Hebburn Town is rising – and it is hardly surprising.

This week brought news that the Carabao Cup Final and both FA Cup semi-finals will be played in front of supporters will have only fuelled the fire that is raging at both Northern League clubs.

As it stands, supporters of both clubs will have to view their historic Wembley date from in front of the television screens via BT Sport’s coverage.

But with three high-profile fixtures that take place before the Vase Final already designated as test events, you do wonder why supporters from Consett and Hebburn could not be allowed to make their way to Wembley on 3rd May.

Talk of a later date for the game to allow the gates to be opened has been suggested – but I understand this has proven difficult with Wembley’s hectic schedule and the Euro 2020 finals to throw into the mix.

Discussions are ongoing between the relevant parties – but now is the time for the key figures to give non-league supporters the same treatment that their Premier League counterparts have been awarded this week.

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After the overwhelmingly downcast tone of this week’s column, I think it would be better the round things off in a positive fashion.

It is just over two weeks since Percy Main revealed that they were resigning from the Northern Alliance and bringing an end to over 100 years of football at Purvis Park.

A lack of volunteers was cited as one of the key reasons for their heart-breaking decision to call time on one of North Tyneside’s oldest clubs.

However, their statement has been met with an “astounding” response and Percy Main will compete in the Alliance once again next season after withdrawing their resignation.

Well done to all involved and best of luck for the future.

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