Covid-19 and the lower leagues in England

Bradford was eerily quiet. No manic driving; no half-cut characters in pub doorways. Even Neros coffee house was half full. Covid-19 was in full effect.

St. Patrick’s Day was an afterthought until the strains of Sally Maclennane, slightly at odds with the general atmosphere, wafted from the Ginger Goose.

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Beyond the pub, deaths from Coronovirus stood at 71, with much worse to come. Coverage of the crisis has ranged from sober (Radio 4) to tabloid (5 Live News).

On 5 Live Sport, the serious business of 60 redundancies at Barnet (subsequently reduced through the government wage support scheme) fought for air time with players having to use personal gyms and James Milner cutting his lawn.

Given the health emergency, the blinkered discussion of the problems and ‘integrity’ of the Premier League – a phrase that was used without irony during the programme – grated very quickly.

Fixtures were the top priority, apparently. The EFL and Premier Leagues wanted to finish the season; something a video conference would decide.

There was a feeling that leagues should be completed…we needed to finish the season by June…we should complete as many tournaments as possible. “Domestic leagues have to finish round the world”, insisted Darren Fletcher.

Thankfully the Euros had been delayed a year; there was concern that they would clash with the women’s tournament, but relief at possible refunds for fans who’d already booked.

Worryingly, many players whose contracts finished on 30th June, would be free agents when the transfer window opened a day later. Barnet aside, context was absent.

On 14th March, at the foot of National League, North Bradford PA v Curzon Ashton went ahead. Fans displaced from Bradford City v Leyton Orient and other postponed fixtures swelled the crowd to 685; a full 228 above the seasonal average.

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Special measures included handwipes for every spectator and hand sanitiser in the loos. There were no Rugby League-style holier-than-thou pronouncements – Warrington v Castleford had been played out to such a fanfare – just a mixture of relief and unease that the match was happening at all, and a feeling that this might be it for the season.

A 2-0 win for Curzon, aided by the absence of Bradford strikers Oli Johnson and Adam Nowakowski all but ended Bradford’s survival hopes, and the brief revival that had brought wins over Chester and Kings Lynn Town.

Disappointment was leavened by the knowledge that on this particular Saturday, more important things were happening.

The Park Avenue fixture was one of 23 played in the National League’s three divisions; something that bothered Eastleigh’s Ben Strevens, whose players had travelled to Notts County. He told The Guardian:

The reason it went ahead is because whoever sits on the board of the National League just cared about the money, simple as that.

They didn’t think about the well-being of the spectators, and it’s not only the supporters: we’ve got a kitman who is an old boy, and there’s stewards who are older. They’re the ones that are most at risk.

Looking ahead, England’s top four divisions are suspended until April 30th, making the National League’s proposed restart on April 3rd look totally impractical.

Further down the food chain, such a shutdown could be terminal for clubs of Park Avenue’s size. The Football League has provided £50 million (made up of Basic Award payments and interests free loans) to help its clubs, and was adopting a ‘joined up and collaborative approach’ with the FA and other stakeholders

In the Premier League, the fact that top earners Liverpool received an estimated £149m in TV income, prize money and sponsorship in 2018-19* (Nick Harris, Sportinngintelligence) suggests that 1% of a leading club’s annual income could fund a semi-pro outfit for a whole season.

Thanks to Covid-19, that might have to happen.

The Author

Paul Caulfield

Freelance football writer with 25 years experience of preview and feature writing for listings magazines City Limits and Time Out, as well as 90 Minutes, Backpass and several non-League publications. I have focussed mainly on the non-League game in my magazine work, with online articles covering professional and international football. I also have experience as a club official with Clapton FC (of the Essex League), and learned the realities of running a club at that level.

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