Comment: National League funding crisis is turning ugly – and it promises to only get uglier

The National League funding crisis is turning ugly. And it threatens to get even uglier before the result of a vote to potentially scrap the season is known.

Friday, 12th February 2021, 3:46 pm
Hawks take onEastbourne Borough in a National League South encounter last month. Picture: Neil Marshall

Once that result is made public, it could get uglier still. Sorry, WILL get uglier.

Since the South and North divisions’ two-week suspension was lifted on February 5, some clubs have refused to return to action.

They say they will not play again until the result of the vote is published - and that might not be known until the end of this month.

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Those clubs have quickly been charged by the National League for failing to fulfil their fixtures - an action condemned by one of those clubs, Dulwich Hamlet, as ‘bullying’.

Dulwich’s South rivals Slough, Chippenham, Concord Rangers and Bath City have also received similar charges, via emails from the league’s interim general manager Mark Ives.

They have been charged under league rule 8.39 which states: ‘Any Club without just cause failing to fulfil an engagement to play a Competition match on the appointed date shall for each offence be liable to expulsion from the Competition and/ or such other disciplinary action the Board may determine, including the deduction of up to a maximum of three points from the offending Club’s record, any expenses incurred by their opponents, and a fine.’

The league can issue fines of up to £10,000, but this afternoon they issued a statement explaining ‘this process is merely a mechanism for the League to deal with each of the occasions for non-fulfilment. No fines or sanctions have been raised or recommended and this will be considered at the next stage.

‘An Independent Panel will be appointed to hear each case and it will be at this stage the issue of ‘just cause’ as outlined in the rule will be objectively assessed in each case based on the evidence before them.‘In the interest of fairness of all parties, the cases will not be heard until such time as the outcome of the resolutions (voting) are known.’

Prior to the league’s statement, Slough joint-boss Jon Underwood had said he was ‘embarrassed right now to be associated with the league we now manage in. Absolute shambles.’

Concord chairman Ant Smith said the fact his club will be trading insolvent in a few weeks’ time was ‘just cause’. It is hard to argue against that comment.

The 66 NL clubs were sent voting forms on February 1, asking whether they want the season to continue or not.

Under company law, they have 28 days in which to respond - but the result could be known in the next couple of days.

As soon as it is published, there is no way a line will be drawn under this whole sorry saga which has painted the National League in a poor light.

One of two things will happen: clubs who voted to null and void will be told to carry on, or clubs keen to continue - such as Hawks - will be told they have to stop. Some will just accept it, but others - whether it’s those wishing to stop or those wishing to carry on - could be very vocal.

And what happens to those that say they can’t - or won’t - carry on for financial reasons?

That would, though, be a hammer blow to the league’s integrity - a word bandied around like confetti during the funding crisis.

You can’t have a season finishing with, say, two-thirds of the clubs that started it with the other third just deciding they don’t want to play.

Can you?

It is a right mess - ‘shambles’ is a better phrase, and ‘total shambles’ an even more accurate one - and there are no obvious ways out of it unless the Government stage a phenomenal U-turn and award grants instead.

But no U-turn appears remotely forthcoming, meaning clubs will have to apply for a Sport England loan - as part of the Government’s Sport Winter Survival Package - if they want financial help.

Jim Parmenter, the Dover chairman, resigned from the National League’s board last weekend. He subsequently issued a statement saying that what Sport England are offering are actually AGAINST the NL’s own rules regarding loans.

While the Sport England loan is unsecured, it is not subordinated to all other creditors. In layman’s terms, a subordinated loan is when a director of a company invests money in the form of debt, rather than in the form of stock. If there is a liquidation the director is paid before stockholders – assuming there are assets to distribute after all other liabilities and debt have been paid.

Though technically against the league’s own rules, surely not even the National League would fine a club for taking a Sport England one when they have specifically told clubs to apply for them?

Parmenter is certainly against taking out a loan during a time when ‘elite’ football remains ongoing behind closed doors. ‘We play football for our fans and our community and, in their absence, I can see no logic in burdening the club with hundreds of thousands of pounds of debt to complete a meaningless season,’ he said this week.

You can see his point, but you can see other club’s viewpoints as well.

It must be mentioned that Dover are currently in the National League relegation zone, nine points off safety. While it might be a ‘meaningless’ season for him, for clubs challenging for promotion it is less so. Tell Dorking Wanderers or Dartford it is a ‘meaningless’ season.

Never forget, in a vote like this, clubs will (rightly) look after their own interests first. There is very little altruism shown in sport, and you can ask the question - why should there be?

The National League will be desperate for the top flight to carry on, to protect their promotion/relegation relationship with the EFL and commercial deals with the likes of Vanarama and BT Sport.

At South and North level, I wouldn’t be surprised if the desire to see those seasons completed is not so high.

It is likely there won’t be any relegation from those divisions due to the FA null and voiding step 3 for the second year running.

And you can hardly promote clubs from the sixth tier on a PPG basis when no-one has yet even completed half of their season’s fixtures.

Hawks, for example, have only played 32 per cent of their South fixtures in a campaign which began in early October and is due to finish on May 29.

The North could vote to stop and the South could vote to carry on. What then? Surely you have to apply the same ruling to both divisions; if you don’t, the word ‘integrity’ flies out of the window.

Based on public statements, Slough, Bath, Dulwich, Chippenham, Maidstone, Hampton & Richmond and Tonbridge Angels want to null and void the season. Only four more clubs need to share that view for it to be a majority decision in the South tier. But if 14 vote to carry on, will that mean those seven can opt out of joining them?

Integrity anyone?

Next Tuesday Hawks are due to travel to Chippenham. As it stands, they have no idea if the game will be on. The Wiltshire club could decide over the weekend, if the vote of the result is made public, to resume playing. But, then again, they might not. And this is an ‘elite’ league, lest we forget!

An ‘elite’ league unlike the Premier League, the Championship and the two EFL divisions. There, professionals play professionals.

In the National League, certainly at South and North level, some of the players are part-time - they could be spending most of their weeks on building sites where social distancing can be tricky, to put it mildly.

Would Liverpool ask Sadio Mane or Mo Salah to get up close and personal to defenders who have been on building sites all week? It’s a hypothetical question - they don’t have to - but it’s a very real scenario in the National League.

From next Monday, the NL will be paying for twice weekly Covid testing at all clubs. You would be right to ask why it wasn’t offered earlier, as that sound you can hear is the stable door being shut after the horses have bolted.

It might be too little too late to save 2020/21, certainly at South and North level. But if it’s not, and the majority of clubs vote to carry on, the ones who voted to stop will make sure their voices are the loudest ...