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Restrictions and contradictions mean no level playing field in non-league

A mixture of patchwork local restrictions and lack of a uniform approach to dealing with COVID-19 threatens the future of non-league clubs this season, as additional measures brought in to quell the pandemic in different regions are leaving an uneven playing field. 

A group of six Northern League clubs has this week written to the FA, local councillors and MPs to ask them to review the additional limits on capacity that they face, stating that it is “absolutely critical if impacted Northern League clubs have a chance of survival”

The clubs, including Heaton Stannington, Whitley Bay and Bedlington Terriers, have written to the Northumberland and Durham FAs to urge them to ease further restrictions on capacities brought in last month when the government announced heightened local restrictions in the north east of England. The area is now in Tier 2 of the Government’s COVID alert levels.

The clubs state in their letter, “It should be noted that… the Northumberland and Durham FA’s are the only ones in the entire country to impose these additional measures. Not even clubs in regions under Tier 3 government restrictions are operating under these measures”.

The restrictions are keenly felt in the north east, as the clubs point out that the limit on capacity of 150 only applies to clubs affiliated to the Durham and Northumberland FA, while clubs in the same divisions but located in Cumbria and North Yorkshire are allowed gates of up to 300.

“How can it be fair for some clubs in the same division to have an opportunity to generate double the income of others? This enables those clubs to be in a stronger financial position than others and therefore enjoy a competitive advantage.”

“There has been no subsequent evidence of football matches at this level contributing to any COVID-19 outbreaks or increase in cases and not a single case of a COVID-19 outbreak at a Northern League match.

“We would appreciate your consideration of this as a matter of urgency. The future of many Northern League clubs relies upon the current situation changing.”

Local restrictions in the north west of England are also proving problematic, as Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside have been placed into Tier 3 restrictions.

The implementation at local levels, however, means fans and clubs are left with some baffling realities.

The Manchester FA have released guidance which notes that clubs at Steps 3-6 of non-league are able to continue playing, but spectators can not travel outside their local area. This means that a fan could in theory travel from Wigan 30 miles east across Manchester to watch Stalybridge Celtic in Tameside, which is part of the Greater Manchester region, but not travel 5 miles west to Skelmersdale United, because they are in Lancashire, despite both areas being under Tier 3 restrictions.

The new rules have also affected Tintwistle FC, who play at Step 7 in the Manchester League but who are located just across the Tameside border in Derbyshire. Many of their players live in Manchester and so aren’t allowed to appear at the club’s home ground, which is in a Tier 2 area. The club’s fixtures have been suspended as a result.

As more areas across the country are brought into tighter restrictions the fear within the game is that many clubs will find themselves unable to complete the season, or that leagues will need to call a premature halt to fixtures which could have a devastating impact on clubs which are struggling to survive.

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