On the 31st October, Lewes played their last competitive game, being defeated at Lowestoft Town in the driving rain in the FA Trophy. On the long coach journey back from East Anglia we listened to the update from Prime Minster Boris Johnson about the new restrictions being put in place which would see Non-League football at Steps 3 and below grinding to a halt once again.
The next few weeks saw heated discussion on what the next steps would be for Non-League clubs, with the the overall sentiment that no one could return to competitive action until all clubs could play in front of fans, at least at the previous levels before lockdown in November, and be allowed to open their bars and clubhouses to generate vital income.
On the 19th of November the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced the Winter Survival Package for spectator sports in England. The news was welcomed not only by football but by other sports who had suffered with the loss of income caused by the pandemic. For clubs who played at Step 3 to 6, there was to be £14 million made available to provide financial relief with the details of how it would be allocated to follow.
November became December and the worsening position with the pandemic led to all football from Step 3 downwards indefinitely suspended, with the pre-Christmas announcements from the Government putting the whole country into lockdown. But Non-League football still had the Winter Survival Package to see them through, right? Erm, well nobody knew.
There was radio silence as we went into 2021 on the subject, with no realistic chance of the 2020/21 season being completed by the end of May, with most clubs only having played a quarter of their league fixtures. But it was OK because the clubs had the Winter Survival Package right? No, for a second time.
The ongoing row about the second tranche of funding for the National League clubs (Steps 1 and 2) took up most of the headlines in Non-League circles. The second payment of £11m had gone from the expected grants to now being loans, which no club wanted to take. It should be noted that the original grants given to the National League back in October came with no strings attached and no means testing. Whilst the distribution method determined by the National League board came in for scrutiny and criticism, every club received cash that allowed them to help pay wages for the period from October to the end of the year.
With the decision to suspend games at Step 2 for two weeks announced on the 22nd January, whilst the various parties tried to agree a way forward, news finally trickled out about the package for Step 3 and below. There would be up to £10 million made available in the form of means-tested grants. Ten million. Not £14m, but £10m. And now means tested. Questions were naturally raised as to where the additional £4 million had gone but everyone from the FA, DCMS, Sports Minister to Sport England and the Football Foundation appeared to have their fingers in their ears, unwilling to say what the situation was.
The Football Foundation would handle the grant applications, announcing a set of criteria that didn’t sit particularly well with most clubs both in terms of the period that it covered and the costs that could be reclaimed, including:
- COVID-19 measures
- Non-playing staff costs who aren’t on furlough
- Lease and mortgage repayments
- Loan repayments
- Utility and Insurance costs
- Essential stadium and pitch work
The information required as part of the grant application is extensive. It is also only applicable, unless clubs face extreme hardship, for operational costs due from 1st January to the 31st March 2021. Therefore, any costs that clubs incurred from the moment football ceased (for most clubs) on the 31st October until the end of the year (i.e in the first part of Winter), where most has zero income, cannot be reclaimed from a grant, entitled the Winter Survival Package. However, any predicted spend until the end of March could be claimed even though the payments weren’t yet due.
The other concern was the administrative burden. Based on a review of the application process, it would take each club at least 5 hours to complete the grant process. It would likely take at least a couple of hours on receipt to check it. There are over 800 clubs at Steps 3 to 6. If every club applied for a grant, which according to the details issued, would be paid by the 31st March, then assuming one person could deal with 4 applications per day, working 5 days a week then it would require at least 10 people, assuming no sickness or holidays to ensure that payments were made in March, plus at least the same again to check that the predicted incurred costs in the application will have been paid by the end of May.
Assuming that half of those people will need to be resources at an average cost of £10 per hour, then is that cost really justifiable when the simplest solution would be to just give the clubs the cash without any strings?
At a time where Non-League clubs are facing the biggest funding crisis in their existence and have been desperate for financial assistance for months whilst they have not been able to play, the hope was that long-overdue Winter Survival Package grants would be automatically allocated to every club. But if that isn’t the case, how many will be able to apply and gain the lifeline that they need to be able to play again when football can recommence?
Oh, and if anyone finds the missing £4m can they return it to the DCMS.