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Government announce non-league support yet uncertainty remains

Earlier this week the government announced that clubs at Steps 3 to 6 of non-league would benefit from up to £10 million in grant funding to support them through the shutdown imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is the first award to be announced from the Government’s £300 million Sports Winter Survival Package, and is a significant success after lobbying from clubs and fans ensured that the support for clubs was in the form of grants and not loans.

Clubs at Step 3 will be eligible for up to £27,000 in support, while at Step 6 the funds available are £7,500 per club.

The FSA believes funding assistance is welcome news for clubs who have endured not only reduced capacities as football got back underway but also weeks without income at all under lockdowns in November and January, and with fixture postponements caused by COVID outbreaks among playing squads.

With leagues across all levels at Steps 3 to 6 looking increasingly likely to be declared null and void, however, the funding will only amount to a short-term solution, and longer-term support will be required to ensure clubs survive into next season.

While the Government announcement was good news for clubs lower down the pyramid, clubs in the National League at steps 1 and 2 had their fears confirmed that support over the next three months would come in the form of £11 million of loans, not grants, despite calls from club chairmen and supporters.

With the National League North and South currently suspended and due to restart next weekend, there are real fears that a second season will be lost, as clubs are reluctant to take on debt in order to complete a season behind closed doors, and have no guarantees as to potential financial support beyond March.

Chester chairman Andrew Morris, speaking to BBC 5Live, said: “The decision [to restart on 6th February] came as a surprise. There was no clarity on any of the questions the clubs have asked around how do we safeguard our players, how is the funding model going to work moving forward.”

“Taking on any sort of debt is just kicking the problems into the long grass.

“Grants are the only way that we can continue to play football, because we won’t put at risk the club’s long or short-term future, but also it allows us to do the appropriate things like testing the players that we haven’t been able to do because of the lack of financial support.”

If loans are rejected, as is expected, National League clubs estimate that the cost of furlough to staff across the leagues would amount to £14m from the Treasury – more than was requested in the form of grants that would have completed the season.

A joint statement on behalf of 16 National League North and South clubs including Gateshead, Hereford and Dulwich Hamlet released yesterday said: “Without adequate and fair funding towards COVID testing and to offset against the loss of income, we are unable to uphold the integrity of the football pyramid and insist that the season is curtailed no later than Friday, February 5, to allow all clubs to be assessed for grants.”

Announcing the decision, Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said: “[The] £10 million grant for lower league clubs in Steps 3-6 will act as a lifeline for around 850 clubs in towns and cities across England, and help these clubs through this difficult period until we can get fans back in safely.”

On Step 1 and 2 funding, Huddleston added: “With precious public money, we are providing financial support to the National League Steps 1 and 2 in the form of loans. However if clubs at those levels can demonstrate it needs grant funding urgently to survive, we will ensure that option is available. We will not let clubs go to the wall. Applications will be assessed by the independent board, through the same rigorous process that we apply to other sports.”

The reiteration from the Government that they won’t allow clubs to go bust is welcomed by the FSA, however clubs will be keen to see the detail of any proposals of funding that will guarantee their future.

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