The Bigger Big PictureHow Soccer Can Survive the Pandemic
Nathan O’Hagan looks at the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on grassroots football and finds some green shoots of hope
After presumably discussing the matter in boardrooms thick with cigar smoke, last week Liverpool and Manchester United put forward plans for a proposed restructuring of English football. Going under the appropriately grandiose moniker of Project Big Picture, the fairly radical plans included reducing the Premier League from twenty to eighteen clubs and scrapping both the league cup and the community shield.
Many clubs objected to the proposals, categorising them as a power grab by the top six clubs. Such was the vociferousness of the objections, even Liverpool and Manchester Untied had by Wednesday 14 October accepted the plan as effectively dead in the water just days after it was unveiled.
The plans gained approval in some quarters however, not least from the English Football League (EFL) chair, Rick Parry. One aspect of the proposals that may have swung Parry in their favour may have been the reported £250 million ‘bail out’ fund for EFL clubs, many of whom have seen their revenue streams all but dry up following the UK lockdown, and the eventual interference with the football season.
Even at lower league level, however, Parry’s support hasn’t been universally echoed. While £250 million sounds like a vast amount of money in just about every context, many clubs have complained that it is a drop in the ocean, given the untold billions the Premier League is awash with.
While even clubs in League Two might argue that a share of £250 million is an insignificant amount in relative terms, much further down the footballing pyramid, there are clubs that can only ever dream of even a small fraction of that amount.
Long Buckby Association Football Confederation (AFC) play in the United Counties League (UCL) Division One. The UCL covers teams in the Northamptonshire, Rutland and Bedfordshire regions in the tenth tier of English football, and ‘step 6’ of the non-league system. ‘The Bucks’ are a modest club, with the highlight of their recent history coming in the 2011/12 season when they won the UCL Premier Division. Their two hundred seat Emms Stand didn’t meet league requirements, however, and they were unable to take their promotion. Within two seasons they had dropped down to Division One.
Last season, though, under the stewardship of coach Dan Carter, they went on a superb run, scoring goals for fun, and looked all but certain to gain promotion, before lockdown forced the league to be abandoned.
The effects of lockdown instantly proved devastating for many clubs in the lower reaches of professional football, and in the higher levels of non-league. Even the more modest of clubs at the higher non-league steps have several paid employees and higher gates upon which they rely for a large part of their income.
At Long Buckby’s level, though, the lack of income coming into the club on match days, as well as the nature of how clubs are run, actually provided some level of protection against lockdown. Clubs like this are grassroots football in its purest form. Only the bar staff in the social club are actually paid employees; everyone else, from ground staff to the people in the ticket office, is a volunteer. The revenue may be minimal, but, by design, so are the operating costs.
Lee Thomas is typical of the kind of people that make the survival of the likes of Long Buckby AFC possible, being one of a handful of people who take on several roles within the club, some specified, some less so, to ensure the viability of the club. As well as being a committee member, Lee is responsible for the club’s social media output, and can frequently be found performing maintenance and repair work at the ground. He is also one of the coaches for the clubs under 11’s team. With his week filled by coaching, repair work and planning, as well as his full-time job and young family, the fact that Project Big Picture died in its infancy had little to no impact on him
“It has absolutely no relevance to anything in relation to us or as far as I could tell non-league. There was certainly no talk of any financial support lower down,” he told Byline Times.
While the lack of benefit from any footballing trickle-down economics may be frustrating at times, Long Buckby, and many other clubs like them, actually manage to stay viable precisely because there is so little money flowing through them. Existing entirely outside any modern football finance model, clubs like this were able to keep going through lockdown, and when football returned, were ironically in a healthier state than many far bigger clubs.
Many non-league clubs have benefited from fans being unable to go and watch their favourite professional teams, as turnstiles remain locked at grounds in the top tiers of the game, especially those teams lucky enough to be based in football hotspots like London, Liverpool and Manchester. Located in the heart of Northamptonshire, not exactly a hotbed of the beautiful game, Long Buckby don’t have this benefit, but even they have noticed an increase in attendance.
“We were getting around fifty-sixty for a home game pre-lockdown, which was an increase on the previous year and there has been a noticeable change,” Thomas says. “While the numbers haven’t taken off there are a couple of differences. We’ve had a number of new ‘fans’ because they aren’t able to go see their league team and thought they would give us a try. It is noticeable that the amount of away fans has also increased for all matches. The most noticeable difference is that a cold Wednesday would usually see numbers drop significantly, but we’re seeing the same numbers attend. There’s also quite a few from (a nearby town) Daventry coming to watch as they want a little bit extra throughout the week.”
While fifty to sixty people is roughly the number of people you might have to fight through to get served at one of the many bars at Tottenham’s stadium, such low but steady numbers ensure a sensible and sustainable financial model, one in which, unlike most clubs, Buckby doesn’t rely on the income from gate receipts.
“In all honesty, we’ve not relied on gate receipts at all. Most income comes from the social club. However, because of the increase in numbers we’ve noticed an increase in gate receipts and this has allowed us to pay for all the officials, re-stock on the tea bar and have enough left over to help towards the club costs,” Lee Thomas told Byline Times. “Player’s fees are still covered by the social club, which is where most of our income is generated. It’s open seven days a week and has an excellent members base. While we were hoping that this year we would increase numbers through more marketing, COVID-19 put a stop to that. We still have a good amount of customers and this has ensured that we can continue in a similar vein to last season.”
With Coronavirus restrictions being tightened across the country, many clubs fear for their future in the event of a second full lockdown, but Lee is confident Long Buckby is run in such a way that they would largely be able to wait it out.
No club in the line was immune to the impact of lockdown, of course, but in Long Buckby’s case, Lee felt the impact was largely felt away from the financial side.
“Aside from being forced to miss out on a likely promotion and not being able to compete in the FA Cup, lockdown didn’t really affect the football side of the club. Players aren’t contracted so we weren’t obliged to pay any fees. The financial side of the club has always been run very well so losses were minimal. The most detrimental aspect was that the few employed bar staff that we had were unable to work. A significant number of our regular customers count on the social club to meet each other so I was worried people’s mental health would have been impacted.”
This shows how important local non-league clubs can be to their communities, providing a social hub for many beyond watching a game of football. With a huge number of fans likely to be locked out of their team’s grounds for some time yet, more and more may come to appreciate clubs like this.