COMMENT: Why National League clubs are sweating on the king of the U-turn to produce one more to keep their season going

Four decades on, it is still remembered as one of her most memorable quotes.

Wednesday, 27th January 2021, 1:43 pm
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Government have produced numerous U-turns in recent months. Now they need to produce another one if the National League South and North seasons are to be completed. Pic: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking at the Tory party conference in 1980, regarding speculation of possibly changing tack on her economic policies, Margaret Thatcher stated: ‘You turn if you want to … the lady’s not for turning’.

It was a neat play on words - ‘The Lady’s Not For Burning’ was a 1948 play written by Christopher Fry - and came to characterise Thatcher’s controversial 11-year spell at 10 Downing Street.

It is safe to say current PM Boris Johnson is the total opposite. He has shown time and time again during the pandemic that he is VERY much for turning. He seems to love a good U-turn.

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That is potentially good news for Havant & Waterlooville and their National League South counterparts in the wake of the funding crisis that has seen the season suspended.

Johnson has presided over a series of high-profile U-turns in the last 11 months regarding free school meals during holiday periods, exam results, pupils returning to school, the track and trace app and lockdown restrictions.

Now his Government will need to produce another one in order for the sixth tier of English football to complete a pandemic-scarred 2020/21 season.

To stage an about-turn and decide that a proposed £11m loan package to the 66 National League clubs - to cover January, February and March - can instead be offered as grants wouldn’t dominate the national news agenda.

Not in the same way that the Government’s U-turn A-level and GCSE grades would be based on teachers’ assessments rather than a controversial algorithm devised by regulator Ofqual.

And certainly not in the same way as Marcus Rashford’s campaign on free school meals forced a double U-turn last year.

But while one footballing superstar was able to change Government policy, it is left to a handful of MPs - those with National League clubs at the heart of their constituencies - to go into battle on behalf of more than a thousand semi-pro players.

Johnson is now the National League’s Obi Wan Kenobi - their only hope.

Their only hope of carrying on the South and North divisions when the current two-week suspension ends next Friday.

Clubs from across the three divisions of the National League were asked to get their local MPs involved in lobbying Government to stage another U-turn.

Many already have, though Hawks have yet to talk with Havant MP and Westleigh Park season ticket holder Alan Mak, the vice chairman of the Tory party. For his part, The News understands that Mak had ‘a long conversation’ with Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston – a good friend of his – last week.

Hawks’ south coast league rivals Eastbourne Borough spoke with their local MP Caroline Ansell in a 30-minute Zoom call this week.

Club chairman Dave Blackmore reported: ‘Caroline is fully supportive of our cause.

‘This of course is not a party political issue – it is about our town and our community.

‘Eastbourne Borough is warp and weft with our local community – and the same is true of football clubs like us right across the country.

‘Caroline is planning to talk to as many MPs as she possibly can, to try and form a body of support, as well as directly contacting Nigel Huddleston, Oliver Dowden and Tracey Crouch.’

Dowden is the secretary of state for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCSM) and Crouch was Huddleston’s predecessor as Sports Minister.

Elsewhere, NL North trio Leamington Town (Matt Western), Chester (Chris Matheson) and AFC Telford (Lucy Allan) have got their MPs involved.

‘It seems wholly unjust to force substantial loans on some of the country’s smallest community clubs even when fans, their major source of revenue, cannot return to grounds,’ said Western.

Chesterfield MP Toby Perkins is also aiming to use his position to lobby Government, saying: ‘All the soundings from Government were that clubs would have fans in before Christmas.

‘Obviously the pandemic situation has made that impossible, but there is no logic that I can see for funding the league on a different basis during the January lockdown to the September tiers.

‘It is possible that if the funding is offered as a loan, not a grant, many clubs will vote to finish the season immediately.

‘This is bad for the fans and the game, but ploughing on with either unsustainable loans or no income will put many clubs at risk of permanent closure.

‘That would be disastrous for communities like mine and be a waste of the grant funding previously provided.

‘It is also a false economy, because whilst the funding required to finish the season is around £11m, the likely furlough cost to Government of all three National League divisions furloughing their staff is likely to be much more.’

Hartlepool MP Mike Hill and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen have written to the Government on behalf of their local National League club, while three MPs - Jon Cruddas, Andrew Rosindell and Sam Tarry - are fighting the cause on behalf of Dagenham & Redbridge.

Those MPs have a bigger role in this funding crisis than some of them might believe. Put simply, if they can’t use their positions to sweet-talk ministers and civil servants into a rethink the season - certainly at South and North level - is as good as over.

There is no obvious Plan B.

The National League certainly can’t afford to hand out free cash to clubs. Last season Hawks’ central payment from league coffers was under £7,000. To place into context, they banked £90,000 of National Lottery money in the last three months of 2020 to help keep them afloat.

Most clubs cannot carry on playing matches behind closed doors - and therefore paying wages - if only loans are being offered. Why should they?

It’s like telling pub landlords they have to pay staff to stand behind their bars all day, even though they can’t open the doors to let punters in. Oh, and if they want some state hand-outs to help them afford those wages, it’s only a loan which needs to be paid back at some point.

The Premier League, at the Apex of the English football pyramid, have deep enough pockets; after all, Rupert Murdoch’s cash cow pumps hundreds of millions into the elite’s bank accounts on an annual basis.

Surely they could spare £11m to keep the National League season going?

Well, they could but they won’t, and why should they? The Premier League agreed a £50m financial aid package for League 1 and League 2 clubs only last month, and they will say - possibly quite rightly - that their pockets are only so deep.

The Premier League do actually give money to the National League every year as part of a ‘solidarity package’. Last season it was around £2m, and Hawks’ share was the same as every other sixth tier club - around £13,500.

That’s not much - perhaps the Premier League should give more? Personally, with regards to the pandemic, I don’t think they should.

It’s not Liverpool or Chelsea’s fault that Hawks can’t welcome fans in - the Government have decided that.

Therefore, the Government should compensate them.

And anyway, if the Government bankrolled the National League for the first three months of 2020/21 surely it should be them who continues providing the cash for the next three months?

But if, for once, Boris is not for turning then Hawks’ most recent match - a 2-1 loss at Bath City on January 19 - could well be their 12th and last league game of their season.