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The situation in non-league post-lockdown

Following the end of lockdown and the Government announcement of its new three tier system of local restrictions, non-league clubs and leagues face a number of issues, and clarification on the rules to be implemented throughout the non-league system will be vital to some clubs’ continued existence.

Capacities

The limits on capacity that applied before lockdown at Steps 3-6 will remain, meaning attendances no higher than 600 at Step 3 through to a maximum of 300 at Steps 5 and 6. Clubs in Tier 3 areas will have to play behind-closed-doors.

This is unsatisfactory for many clubs, such as FC United of Manchester and Scarborough Athletic whose case we have highlighted before. With clubs in elite football, which includes the National League North and South, able to allow attendances of whichever is lower of upto 50% of capacity or 2,000 (Tier 2) or 4,000 (Tier 1), we do not see why the same rule could not extend to Steps 3-6.

Clubs at these levels have already done the work to establish protocols and make their stadiums COVID-19 secure for fans to attend, and gate revenue is the largest source of income throughout the non-league pyramid. Further restricting the opportunity for clubs to operate as sustainable and viable businesses seems counter-intuitive.

Food and drink

Another vital source of income for non-league clubs is so-called secondary spend, mostly on food and drink sales. Clarification is needed on what precisely what would be permissible at each Tier.

With bars and restaurants able to offer takeaway options in wider society, it seems reasonable that clubs would be able to serve food and drink via table service, or that is not for consumption within bars/clubhouses, in line with wider Government guidelines. Any further restrictions on clubs operating within public health guidelines would unfairly single out the football industry above others.

Level playing field

It will be up to each individual league to decide when, or whether, to resume fixtures. In some cases the decision will be obvious – the Northern League has already decided to suspend fixtures for a further two weeks, until 16th December, as 37 of their 40 clubs are located in Tier 3 areas and thus would not be able to admit fans.

Other leagues will face more complicated choices based on their geography. It is likely that there will be leagues where a minority of clubs are located in Tier 3 areas. A league could decide that fixtures will resume despite some of its clubs being unable to earn money from admitting spectators, placing those clubs at a financial, and thus competitive, disadvantage.

Strong support is required for clubs not able to admit fans as a result of being in Tier 3 restrictions. This should come in the form of government grants, not loans, as clubs should not be required to take on debt in order to continue to compete when other industries have received similar government handouts during the pandemic.

We will also face a situation where FA Vase and Trophy matches are due to resume immediately. It is not in the interests of fair competition, or the health of players, for clubs who have been out of training for the past month to be forced into competitive matches so soon.

We will be keeping an eye on developments throughout the game, and advising and assisting our community-owned clubs where required.

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