Mark Carruthers: Route out of lockdown still fraught with danger for non-league clubs around the country
We should know a little more about the pathway out of lockdown by this time next week – but the route will still be fraught with danger for non-league clubs around the country.
The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted on every area of society and the non-league game has been no different – and just like in the wider society, the game at this level will struggle to shake off the effects of the last year long after life returns to normal.
The vast majority of revenue streams have been cut off, sponsor deals have been limited, supporters have been largely restricted to watching from afar and access to clubhouses has been non-existent.
No matter what the Government announce next week, it seems highly unlikely that the business of running a football club will return to normality over the coming months.
I would go one step further and say that the impact of the last 12 months will not be completely shaken off for a number of years and the non-league game will have to adjust to fully ride out the storm.
As the Football Supporters Association recently stated, the survival of clubs has to be the key consideration as we prepare to move on.
No matter how well the Government’s vaccination programme goes over the coming months, I think it is highly unlikely that a full capacity of supporters will be allowed to attend games when or if the new season gets underway in August.
A step-by-step introduction of supporters seems the more likely scenario, although the presence of any should allow for clubhouses and catering facilities to be re-opened in some way, shape or form.
There can not be many businesses that have flourished during the pandemic so clubs may find that they are relying on the goodwill of any existing sponsors for the vital income that they provide.
New sponsors could be more difficult to attract as businesses look to get themselves back on their feet before looking at taking their next steps.
The practicalities of functioning on matchday in a post-Covid environment will have to be considered.
Will supporters have to show proof that they have received their vaccinations before being allowed to attend games? Will track and trace remain in place and will social distancing still be encouraged?
Perhaps more importantly from a wider perspective, will the governing bodies in the game learn the lessons of the last 12 months?
There can be no doubt that numerous mistakes have been made by the likes of the Football Association, the National League and other leagues across the pyramid.
Their failure to prepare a financial and practical plan to deal with a second season being impacted by Covid-19 and the poor communication being shown to clubs have only added to the frustration of the last year.
I do, however, have a degree of sympathy with the parties mentioned and some leniency can be offered as a result.
After all, nobody in the country, nobody at any level of the game or in any authoritative position has any recollection or experience of dealing with the awful scenario we have found ourselves in.
Dealing with the pandemic, the financial implications, the seismic change it has made on daily life and the impact it has made on the sporting world were difficult to foresee.
But there can be no doubt that clubs have been let down in their time of need and a number of decisions have destabilised them and caused consternation and doubt when reassurance and support was required.
The ridiculous dispute between the DCMS and the National League over funding and loans instantly comes to mind, as does the latter’s reaction to clubs with little or no income postponing fixtures that would ultimately see them running at a severe loss.
However, now we have that experience of what has gone over the last 12 months, we have the knowhow and the benefit of assessing what has and has not worked over the last year.
Surely there can be no better time for all of those with a vested interest in non-league football to work together to put a plan in place to deal with a crisis such as this in the future.
Obviously, we all hope that this pandemic is a once in a lifetime event and life will one day return to normality in the not-too-distant future.
But if something similar should happen at some point, we have to be prepared to safeguard clubs by falling back on a robust plan to deal with the on and off-field business of running a football club.
There should be no pride, bitterness or stubbornness getting in the way of healing wounds that have been caused by the rifts of the last year – we must be ready to work together to forge the path that non-league football will take in a post-Covid environment.
Making such moves will not come easy for those that feel they have been wronged in the past, it will take a little bit of give and take and some understanding from all parties involved.
There are clearly many hurdles and challenges to overcome.
Hopefully the next seven days will give us some indication of how non-league football can begin its recovery from Covid-19 – but the battle will be far from over even when supporters are allowed through the gates and clubhouses are back in business.