Matt Maher: National League provides object in how not to handle a crisis

You wouldn’t agree to buy a house without taking a look round it first.

National League clubs AFC Telford United and Kidderminster Harriers have little in common with those in leagues at the bottom of the football pyramid.
National League clubs AFC Telford United and Kidderminster Harriers have little in common with those in leagues at the bottom of the football pyramid.

Yet that is effectively what clubs in the National League have been asked to do this week, when deciding whether to continue or curtail their season.

That the pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for sport administrators is beyond dispute.

There is growing evidence, however, those responsible for governing the top two levels of non-league football have demonstrated precisely how not to handle a crisis.

The current trouble can be traced back to the autumn, when clubs were persuaded to start the season behind closed doors on the promise of government funding to cover lost gate revenue. Controversy then quickly ensued when, despite having been asked by the league to submit their own financial requirements, it emerged the initial rescue package, totalling £10million in grants across the campaign’s opening three months, would be divided equally.

Clubs like Kidderminster and Telford, who draw attendances of 1,000-plus, found themselves out of pocket while other, smaller clubs with lower crowds were making more than they would if the turnstiles were open.

An independent review was set-up to look into the distribution of funds but while its chair, former FA boss David Bernstein, has been critical of the league, the report is yet to be published. Clubs, quite understandably, are puzzled as to why. Right now there are more pressing concerns. When it emerged last month the next portion of funding would be in the form of loans and not grants, the outcry was enough to bring a halt to the season.

The league accused the government of going back on a promise. The government said no such promise had ever been given. Increasingly, clubs have begun to look toward the league, which has been unable to produce any paperwork from its autumn meetings with the Department for Media, Culture and Sport to prove grants were guaranteed into the new year.

Last week clubs were told applications for loans and grants would take between three to four weeks to process. Yet within days they needed to make a decision on whether to continue the season.

Do you call it a day, furlough players and staff and your losses? Or do you push on in the hope your request for help will be granted, effectively gambling with a financial disaster? It’s a call no club should have to make.

One thing for certain is people who have worked so hard to keep their clubs afloat over the past year deserve better leadership from those purportedly running their league.

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