We have just experienced the worst winter in thirty odd years which has resulted in our football calendar being decimated. No club was immune from the weather, or the namby pamby local authority rules that saw perfectly playable pitches being called off because of dangers to the surrounding areas.
On Saturday 10th January, some 25 hours before West Ham were due to play Wolves in a Sky game the match was cancelled due to “dangerous conditions in the surrounding areas”. The local authority was concerned that fans may slip and fall and hurt themselves. Or were they? Was the concern that they couldn’t actually be arsed to grit the surrounding area and thus any accidents could potentially open someone up to litigation? Or was it Sky putting pressure on so that they could divert their attention to another sporting event? There was no issue at all with the pitch, and temperatures were above freezing point. So who made the decision?
What impact did it have on the fans? Well nothing really. as virtually all Premier League games are based on buying tickets in advanced, the cash was already in the bank. Of course you could have a refund (unless bizarrely like myself you are a Season Ticket holder), but the process was far to complicated for fans to bother. I am sure when the game is eventually played on the 23rd March, again in front of the Sky cameras, there will be few empty seats and little impact on the (overdrawn according to the Circus) bank balances of the club.
But what about further down the leagues where their main source of revenue is gate receipts? This winter has driven a number of clubs almost to the wall. Some help has trickled down from the Premier League to the Blue Square (steps 1 and 2 of the non league pyramid) in the form of a £30,000 payment. But how far did that go? For a club like Luton it was probably eaten up in a few days wages. For someone like Lewes who struggle on on gates of 400 it went along way.
Some of the games that were postponed were the financial bankers for clubs – those games played over Christmas against local rivals where crowds would be bumper. Basingstoke Town, for instance, were due to host Eastleigh on New Years Day. They would have expected a fair few hundred to travel up the M3, each paying £10 and probably the same again in the club house or around the ground. £20 x 250 = £5,000. When that game is re-arranged on a Tuesday night in late February the crowd was 335, some one hundred LESS than their average attendance.
But clubs also suffer due to the silly rules in place. The Rymans League for instance has a rule, rule 8.6 for those who want to know the real details, that states “Where a match has been postponed for any reason, the two clubs concerned must agree within 14 days of the postponement a new date, which shall be within 42 days of the original date”.
So in the case of a club having a number of games cancelled due to the bad weather, they have to cram them all in in a short period of time, meaning in some cases two midweek games a week. Who is the winner in this instance? The players? I don’t think so. combining a full time job in most cases with part time football is going to put a strain on them physically and even financially if they have to take time off from their paid employment to play for their club. What about the fans? How many can afford, in the total sense to go to three games a week? I am lucky I have an understanding wife (God bless CMF) and a daughter who loves any football, but I am not the norm. So fans will not be prepared to come out for two games during the week, and thus attendances will suffer. As attendances suffer, so too do the clubs as the gate revenue will be lower, yet their cost base will still be the same and thus putting more financial pressure on them.
In the Blue Square North for instance, Workington and Stalybridge Celtic currently have six games in hand on leaders Fleetwood Town. They have fifteen games to go and just six weeks to fit them in. The same situation can be seen across all divisions, yet the leagues are adamant that an extension cannot be granted to the end of the season, which bizarrely finishes on the last weekend of April. Why? Well according to the Ryman League this is because:-
“The league must be completed by a certain date (24th April 2010) to enable champions to be decided, end of season play offs to take place and to allow time for the numerous other administrative tasks to take place”
What tasks? The Premier League plays on for a further two weeks and as far as I can see no non league teams are in the last 8 of the Champions League, or Europa Cup. I haven’t seen any players at this level being mentioned for a World Cup call up so why does the season need to end in April? Play offs? Great – three games per division max per team. Why does it matter if they are not completed for a few more weeks? After all, the entry to the leagues does not need to be decided until June. All clubs who were in with a chance of promotion will have needed to complete work on their grounds to bring them up to standard by the end of March, so that is no issue. And recent years has shown that there can be teams who simply pull out of the leagues altogether and thus create opportunities for promotion, or a relegated team staying up (Team Bath and Fisher Athletic for instance called it a day after the end of the Blue Square South last season).
So my message on behalf of the fans, and the financial interests of the clubs is simple – Leagues – be realistic and think about the responsibility you have to ensure the long term survival of the clubs. Rules can be amended and changed. Get out of your ivory towers and look at what the fans, the clubs, the players and our long suffering partners want!