The first article in our new ‘Grassroots to Stadiums’ feature sees Harrison Rogers take a look on the impact Covid-19 has had on grassroots and professional football.
You may be forgiven for wondering why, considering the state of the world, football and all the noise surrounding the ‘beautiful game’ continues to dominate front and back pages alike. Twenty-two people kicking a ball around for 90 minutes pales in comparison to the genuine and sustained hardship that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused millions of people across the globe. Inexplicably, however, football has arguably never mattered more. It has offered much needed moments of respite. It has provided us with both a sense of normality and depending on whom you support, rare moments of joy and indulgence. As the legendary Italian manager Arrigo Sarchi so eloquently said, it ‘is the most important of the least important things in life’. Although, despite this continued centrality, football in England is facing a genuine crisis. Both the amateur and professional game, due to the effects of the pandemic, are facing a fight for survival.
The impact on the professional game has been extremely varied. At the very top, the gargantuan reserves of money that exist mean that this crisis is as much rhetorical as it is real. The vast majority of clubs can swallow the financial costs of the pandemic for the time being, especially considering the inexplicable need of elite clubs, like Liverpool and Tottenham, to top up their funds with the taxpayer’s money. At the very worst, financial outlooks will change, wage structures will be redefined and transfer sums may be lowered but ultimately, in ten years, it will be nothing more than a blot on their financial records.
However, once you manage to tear yourself away from the unbreakable spell of the Premier League, the picture becomes much bleaker. The effects of the pandemic, namely the continued lack of matchday revenue, have significantly impacted upon those that exist at the lower levels of the English professional game. For many clubs, especially in League One and below, matchday revenue from tickets, merchandise and food sales forms the bulk of their income. As a result, even traditionally bigger clubs who now languish at this level, such as Ipswich, Sunderland and Portsmouth, are set to lose millions. For the vast majority of these clubs, a combination of rich owners, financial reserves and a harsh programme of redundancies, means they will survive, even if it is by the skin of their teeth. However, for the less fortunate professional clubs, there is a very real possibility that this will be the end. For many, pre-existing problems have been brought into sharp relief and new ones are continuously emerging. Already, Macclesfield Town, founded in 1874 and the heartbeat of a relatively small northern town, have ceased to exist and they probably will not be the last. In July, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports committee estimated that around 20% of EFL clubs could fold. The financial implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, like removing the wrong wire in a low budget 1980s action film, has rapidly sped up the ticking time bomb of insolvency and highlighted the chronic unsustainability at the heart of the game. Southend United are teetering on the edge of oblivion with an HMRC winding-up petition hanging over their head. Many National League clubs, in light of the latest government U-turn of fan attendance at games, will struggle to plug the ever-increasing financial holes. Even at the top of the professional women’s game, the momentum gained by many teams since last summer’s World Cup may turn out to be too little for clubs who are not backed by some of the traditional ‘big clubs’. Consequently, whilst many fans may have been pleasantly surprised that the professional game is currently continuing to survive, this reality could soon change. Without the imminent return of fans or a substantial programme of financial aid that seeks to address the gross financial inequities at the heart of football, fans of many clubs could soon start to despair.
Whilst the professional game deals with its own issues, the amateur game is also struggling. Of course, the picture is not one of complete hopelessness and the latest rules have allowed for football to be played which, to some degree, has kickstarted many amateur organisations. They have allowed for Hackney Marshes to be filled again and provided a much-needed opportunity for funds to start flooding in. However, despite this, many commentators have already noted the long and enforced break that occurred had a profound impact on the grassroots game. The deadly combination of poor finances and a lack of necessary expertise meant that many clubs and organisations struggled to deal with a loss of income and numerous logistical issues throughout lockdown. Thus, whilst amateur football is back, the infrastructure in which it exists is not as healthy as it once was. Moreover, wider socio-economic issues have a more individual impact at an amateur level. People who participated before the pandemic may not have the time, nor money to do so anymore. Additionally, the lack of any real safety measure means that some will choose not to play due to concerns for their own, or their family’s safety. Consequently, much like the professional game, the amateur game is currently surviving, but it is no means thriving. It faces a unique set of challenges that may have long-lasting impacts. The transient existence of many clubs at this level means that if some had disappeared due to the pandemic, they can easily re-appear under a different name. However, the number of these that will be able to re-appear depends on both the wider socio-economic picture and whether they will fall prey to the government’s scattergun, and seemingly arbitrary, re-application of restrictions.
Ultimately, what this article has attempted to highlight is that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into focus the gross inequity and unsustainability at the heart of ‘the beautiful game’. Despite the fact Premier League clubs do their very best to feign hardship, they are immensely privileged. Whilst amateur and professional football clubs, who represent the humble and community orientated origins of football, are on their knees, they continue to spend extortionate sums on players and incessantly moan about inconsequential refereeing decisions. The best we can hope for is that those at the top of the game recognise that and address this exponentially growing imbalance. Whilst that hope may be futile, for some clubs it is all they have.