Mark Carruthers: Clubs need clarity quickly with non-league football starting into the abyss

Non-league football is staring into the abyss as uncertainty and a lack of clarity over what is coming next threatens what should be the pride of the English game.

Wednesday, 20th January 2021, 3:47 pm
Mark Carruthers' non-league column.

Our football pyramid is almost unique and the depth of quality and passion at clubs across all levels is something that is difficult to match across the globe.

So why are the clubs that ply their trade away from the bright lights and billionaires of the Premier League seeing their future being seriously threatened by poor planning and abysmal communication from the authorities?

Life is on hold for clubs below National League North level with their “non-elite” status meaning that all training sessions and matches are unable to go ahead until Covid-19 restrictions are relaxed to a certain level.

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Talks are ongoing over how to complete the current season and clubs across the likes of the Northern Premier League and Ebac Northern League have been asked to take part in a survey by the Football Association to give their views on where the game goes from here.

Offers of funding such as the grants given to National League clubs have fallen silent, low or zero interest loans have been mentioned, but saddling themselves with more debt, no matter how beneficial the terms should be, would be increasing the risk to their future.

Clubs have put their heads above the parapet with Heaton Stannington calling for the season to be declared null and void and Shildon suggesting that the campaign should be paused and resumed from its current point in August.

There are pros and cons of every decision that could be taken but whatever action is taken needs to provide clubs, their staff, supporters and volunteers with a clear plan of what lies ahead and a contingency plan for what will happen if a similar situation arises in the future.

The uncertainty has now spread to the top of the non-league pyramid with National League, National League North and National League South clubs now disputing claims over funding they were expecting to complete their season.

Fixtures have been ongoing since October after clubs received National Lottery funding to aid with the losses accrued by playing behind closed doors.

More funding was expected to follow this month, but DCMS have now suggested that this will take the form of a loan, rather than the granted clubs agreed to receive to kick-off the season back in the autumn.

As I write this column, meetings are taking place over what happens next for clubs in all three divisions and you would expect the season to be ended prematurely if the loan route is taken.

Once again, through poor communication and muddied waters, clubs just do not know what is coming next and the future looks more and more bleak with every passing day.

The tipping point is rapidly approaching.

However, if there is to be a positive to grasp from the dire situation, maybe it could be that it forces us to reassess how the football pyramid functions.

Maybe a radical restructure with echoes in past is needed to make it more viable for clubs across the pyramid to progress during the financially challenging times that lie in wait over the coming years.

More regionalisation of leagues below Championship level, more local derby fixtures with increased crowds (when it is safe to return) and travel costs and time would be reduced.

Could League One and Two amalgamate and be split into North and South divisions?

Could a similar move take place with divisions in the top four levels of the non-league game and could an extension of the regionalised rounds of the FA Vase and FA Trophy be beneficial?

I honestly believe that such moves should be considered because the financial impact of the Covid-19 epidemic will not be brushed away once we are all returning to whatever normal life was before.

The Premier League and Championship remain as they are, but below them would be League One North and South and League Two North and South.

Non-league’s top two tiers would be split into National League Premier North and National League Premier South and similar moves could take place in steps three and four similar to the ones already planned for this summer.

This would allow ambitious clubs to have a more financially viable path up the football pyramid and will provide some breathing space as we move on from the events of the last year.

I also believe that a new governing body should be created to specifically look after the non-league game and their committee should be made up of men and women with experience of playing a key role in running a club at this level.

Of course, the argument for and against such a restructure would be far more complicated than what I have considered in this column.

I understand that the situation is far more complex when TV deals, sponsor deals and arguments over league placements would need to be considered.

More than anything else, the last year, with all the mismanagement and poor communication that we have witnessed, should show us that lessons need to be learnt as we look into the future of the game at all levels.

It is all too evident that change is needed and why not take the opportunity to at least consider how we can make our national game more sustainable for clubs and their supporters for generations to come?

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