Late last week, Lewes FC along with 223 other clubs who make up Steps 3 and 4 of the Non-League game were asked to vote on a proposal. It is fair to say that the welcome relief of coming out of four weeks of national lockdown were quickly replaced by confusion and disbelief of the new Tiering system announced by The Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock in his statement on the 26th November 2020. The leagues had already pencilled in start dates, giving clubs the opportunities to get their players back in training and arranging mid-season friendlies to get their squads back up to match fitness. Now, the situation had changed dramatically.
Wide areas of the country suddenly found themselves in Tier 3, with clubs based on those areas being now told they could not play any games in front of spectators. For the vast majority of Non-League clubs at Steps 3 and 4, they found themselves in Tier 1, which meant they could play again with similar restrictions on their capacity as had been in place prior to the second lockdown. However, the added restrictions for Tier 2 meant that clubs would not be able to open their bars and club houses, not just on a match day but during the rest of the week. With many clubs relying on the incoming from their bars on a match day (“secondary spend”) and on other days, they faced the prospect of having to incur their normal running costs by playing with a significant reduction in the revenue they could earn, for some due to a restriction in capacity but for most because of the forced closure of their clubhouses.
It was understandably important for the clubs to express their views on how the season should proceed. The major issue with the unknown is not knowing what you don’t know – nobody within football knows whether regions in Tier 3 will move to Tier 2 and if so, when. The number of cases of COVID-19 per region is relatively public data but that isn’t the only factor that will be taken into consideration when the promised tier reviews happen so consequently nobody can predict when clubs now in Tier 3 could welcome fans back and how those in Tier 2 can be allowed to open their clubhouses again. In other words we are in the realms of known unknowns whether we like it or not.
After a lengthy and at times passionate all club meeting on Tuesday night, each club was asked to vote on continuing the current suspension of league fixtures or whether to start again, with league matches to commence by the 19th December as previously planned. All votes were received by midnight on Wednesday and representatives of the three leagues (Isthmian, Northern Premier and Southern) met with the FA on Thursday to discuss the outcome.
The first statement that was issued by the three leagues stated that there was a substantial vote in favour of continuing the suspension of competitive matches until such a time that the Tiers could be reviewed. In addition, answers were needed still on the proposed £14m in funding from the DCMS could be confirmed as being in grants, rather than loans. Substantial is open to so much interpretation – the concept of the substantial meal had been a matter of national debate for over a week as to what drinkers needed to buy to get an alcoholic drink in a pub. One government minister suggested that a Scotch Egg was indeed “substantial” whilst other suggested it was more in line with a Sunday Roast. So in the case of the vote, substantial could be anything from 30% to 99% – it is completely open to interpretation and that is one of the main issues raised by clubs and fans alike.
The Board of Directors at Lewes FC were overwhelmingly in favour of backing the continued suspension of league games. As a club that puts equality at the top of our values, playing in a league that has solidarity is vital. It is not a level playing field if one club, let alone nearly 20% are not able to play in front of fans. We also have to consider the impact of not being able to gain any secondary spend if we did host any Isthmian League games – as I have shared before, that is around £5 per fan that we get in the ground over and above gate money. So if we can welcome 450 fans to a game, we are losing around £2,250 in revenue – that can be the difference between making a profit and a loss on each match day. Faced with those decisions, our decision was to vote with the proposal. You can read the full statement from the board of Lewes FC here.
Statistics updated on a daily basis do not make good reading for those of us in the South East, and by default, the Isthmian League. Infection rates continue to rise or at least not fall in most areas of Kent whilst areas in South-East London, Sussex and Essex are rising on a daily basis. Whilst the tier review from the Government is not due until the 16th December, the facts back that some, if not all of these areas will move into Tier 3.
On the 10th December the FA announced that they had negotiated with the DCMS that clubs located in Tier 3 could admit fans, up to a limit of 15% of capacity. This was a positive step forward and would see 12 out of the 14 clubs currently in Tier 3 being able to have crowds at a level as they had back in 2018/19, the last complete Isthmian season. Only Margate and Sevenoaks averaged crowds higher than the 15% but only marginally so. So this is a winner. Well, not quite as a portion of the attendance includes away fans who would still be prohibited from attending. For clubs who sit close to Tier 2 boundaries, such as VCD Athletic or Phoenix Sports they would also see home fans from Tier 2. There’s still be no movement of the blanket removal of the restrictions on clubs being able to operate their bars (some have been able to get local authority permission with restrictions on where alcohol can be drunk) and the promised detail of the £14m in funding is yet to be seen weeks after it was announced.
We all want to return to playing football but our view, which may not be shared by others, is that we need to do so in an environment where all clubs have the opportunity to compete on and off the pitch. Everyone is a loser in the current scenario – the fans don’t get to watch the game, the clubs lose out on revenue, the players can’t show off their talents and we, collectively, sit opposite to each other, pulling the game apart rather than building on it. Everyone is a loser? Perhaps not. COVID-19 is the winner here – it is the virus that has divided football and playing competitive games now isn’t going to beat it.