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Ideas & Observations

A cycle of null-and-void: COVID-19 and its impact on non-league football in the North East

As with every industry you can think of, COVID-19 has made an impact on football across the UK. But it isn’t just Newcastle United, Sunderland and Middlesbrough that have been affected, as Greg Rosenvinge discovers from talking to non-league football journalist Mark Carruthers, South Shields FC chairman Geoff Thompson and Gateshead FC chairman Neil Pinkerton

With the new season around the corner, it feels like the football never ends.

Just days after the excitement of England reaching the Euro 2020 final, the big kick-off is on the horizon.

This season, though, things feel different. After the cancellations and closed doors of the 2020/2021 campaign, the vaccine rollout means we are close to seeing crowds again.

Any fan will attest that reuniting the professional game with spectators can only be a good thing.

But what about non-league football across the North East? Its COVID-19 story, after all, has been even more troublesome.

For the second season running, the National League North and below had their seasons cut short in the wake of the UK’s third national lockdown.

“Every club across the non-league pyramid and the North East has faced significant challenges,” says non-league football journalist Mark Carruthers.

“The phrase I keep hearing from clubs is that every single revenue stream has been turned off, especially from gate receipts and sponsorship money.

“Every time we seem to have gotten somewhere, it has ended up being one step forward but two steps back.

“Before this season just gone was declared null and void, much of the season for the National League and National League North was played behind closed doors, which is devastating for non-league clubs that especially rely on the gate receipts of matchdays.

“While many clubs did resort to streaming their matches to fans online for a fee, the demand just wasn’t the same as going to the match in person.

“The hustle and bustle and community soul of the North East non-league pyramid was just abruptly stripped away by COVID-19.”

At least, according to Mark, there were some silver linings, namely how no North East clubs higher up in the non-league pyramid went out of business, which he says is probably largely due to the Government’s Job Retention Scheme keeping clubs’ staff infrastructure on life support during extensive periods of little to no income.

However, clubs lower down the pyramid, such as in the Northern Football Alliance, have been less fortunate, including Shankhouse FC, in Cramlington, which withdrew from the Northern Alliance Premier Division ahead of the upcoming season.

This was an especially sad story, as Shankhouse was one of the founding members of the Northumberland FA and was founded as early as 1883 – a history that precedes Newcastle United.

“The Chancellor’s furlough payments have been crucial in keeping clubs such as ourselves alive and afloat,” says Geoff Thompson, chairman of South Shields FC.

“And that’s not just for the playing staff – with a few exceptions, we furloughed everybody, including non-playing and management staff.”

The null-and-voiding of the previous two Northern Premier League seasons especially affected South Shields.

Geoff cites how the 2019/20 season was curtailed just as the team topped the league by 12 points with nine games to go, depriving the club of the opportunity for promotion.

“It has been unfortunate for us in particular from a sporting perspective, but we take a long-term view on our potential on the pitch, and so we can only look ahead and plod on with our aims and objectives.

“Alongside furlough, the grant payments we have received have also been useful.

“We also managed to raise some capital doing something we always intended on doing anyway – opening up ownership shares of the club to the fans.”

Working alongside London-based investment platform Seedrs, South Shields FC has raised almost £380,000 from just over 1000 investors in fan share sales since the November 2020 national lockdown at the time of writing,[1] including Little Mix popstar and hometown hero Jade Thirlwell, who has been honorary president of the club since August 2020.[2]

“We also sought out EIS approval from HMRC, which meant that once our fan ownership scheme was approved, share-buying fans could claim tax relief on their investment,” adds Geoff.

“I have always seen South Shields as a community-based club and we intend to continue and increase the part-fan-ownership structure well into the future.

“Alongside going professional and full-time during the pandemic, installing new toilet blocks and bar facilities, and making plans to renovate the stadium so it meets the minimum requirements for the English Football League, our goals for the club remained very clear – we want to return South Shields back to the top four tiers of the English pyramid, as we have been before in our history.”

In the 2018/19 season, the last to have been totally unaffected by COVID-19, South Shields boasted the highest average attendance (1502) across the Northern Premier League for home games.

The club also recorded eight of the top ten individual attendances for the season, including the highest, of 2061, versus Scarborough in April 2019.[3]

“South Shields is a big town – we took around 20,000 fans to Wembley when we reached the final of the FA Vase in 2017 and beat Cleethorpes Town,” says Geoff.

“And so, with our fanbase, I don’t think our sporting aims and objectives are unrealistic – we just need to manage the impact of COVID-19 in order to achieve them, and hope we aren’t barred from potential promotion again if another lockdown strikes.”

For Neil Pinkerton, chairman of Gateshead FC since May 2019 after heading a fan-led consortium to purchase the club, working with Gateshead Council added another dimension to how it has managed COVID-19.

“When we took over the club, we were immediately hit with the consequences of the previous ownership, and not just financially, as we had to attend a lot of hearings and were ultimately demoted a league as a consequence, despite finishing ninth in the previous season,” says Neil.

“It’s just the way it goes, but had we managed to hold on in the National League for another season, not only would our seasons not have been null and voided, as the National League finished both COVID-19-impacted seasons behind closed doors, but you would have thought we would have been barred from relegation too.

“We had managed to clear the debt and restore the finances of the club just before the pandemic struck and curtailed the season, so it is just unfortunate timing.

“You set out your budget for the season and line up your sponsorship partners, but in reality, at our level, all that stuff is minimal, especially as we do not have a major benefactor to lean on when the going gets tough.

“We were in the same boat as say 95 per cent of clubs around our level where your finances do just operate from hand to mouth, and so when something like COVID-19 comes around and turns off the income tap, it does affect you.

“Fortunately, with being able to furlough our staff and sourcing funding from the National Lottery, Sport England and some generosity from our board of directors, we managed to maintain our workforce and keep plodding on at a reduced capacity.”

For Neil, the focus for the future is restoring the pride and sporting ethos of the club, while working alongside the council to ensure it emerges out of COVID-19 as safely as possible.

“We are looking towards restoring Gateshead to the glory days of its history – such as in 1953 when we reached the quarter finals of the FA Cup, alongside big names such as Arsenal, Aston Villa, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur, and beating Liverpool along the way at our old home ground in Redheugh Park.

“But as to the here and now, COVID-19 has ultimately had a big and unfortunately timely impact on us as a club.

“Gateshead Council has been very supportive to us while a lot of public services have had to close down facilities and a lot of resources have been diverted across the board in order to tackle the chaos of the pandemic.

“But they have always been on hand to help.”

The council owns Gateshead International Stadium where the club plays its matches, and therefore Neil has had to strictly follow local public health guidance.

He says: “As owners of the stadium, they are the risk-holders.

“We have to respect that, but it’s not great on a financial planning front, especially compared to other clubs in the region that own their grounds.

“Having said that, we will be able to run the concessions ourselves for the first time in the upcoming season.”

This is significant, as Mark gives examples of clubs such as Consett AFC and Hebburn Town being able to rent out their 3G pitches during the pandemic, alongside other means of maintaining a steady income while matchday attendances had been curtailed –  even with the noted caveat that the grassroots level had ground to a halt at certain points during the pandemic.

But how are Gateshead and South Shields feeling ahead of the new season – are there any anxieties that this might not truly be the end after two COVID-19-affected seasons?

“I think for us at Gateshead, we have to have a quite short-sighted outlook on the season and always plan for the worst-case scenario,” says Neil.

“A lot depends on how we or opposition clubs react to positive tests, how testing is administered and how the Government sets or amends their guidelines in the coming weeks and months.

“But, touch wood, we are looking forward to the season ahead.

“We managed to get some good signings in early, which has helped us in our pre-season and given us stability for the season ahead.

“We just have to wait and see what the future holds.”

Geoff adds: “We are certainly planning ahead, and are certainly trying to be ambitious.

“We want to get promoted as soon as possible to the National League North, as a first step towards reaching the English Football League.

“But there is always a risk, at least in our minds, that there may be another wave of COVID-19, that the season might get curtailed again.

“It’s the same for everybody not just across football, but across business and society in general.

“We can only hope that the vaccination programme has done its job, as I think we are all fed up of COVID-19.”

It might yet be an uncertain future for non-league clubs in the North East, but it is reassuring to see how resiliently they have coped with the sudden turning off of the taps from COVID-19.

Non-league football in the North East possesses an important role across the cultural landscape of the region, and long may it continue.