'Furlough saved our football club' - non-league clubs' struggles to stay afloat

Joe Whight launches a long throw into the danger area, as AFC Sudbury go on the attack at Brentwood.

AFC Sudbury's Joe Whight launches a long throw into the danger area. 'Non-elite' non-league has taken a big financial hit over the last year - Credit: Archant

Suffolk's leading non-league football clubs are going to take a big financial hit if this season is declared null-and-void, like the previous one, which now appears inevitable.

In fact, it is only the ability to furlough players that has prevented many clubs, up and down the country, from potentially folding, including Suffolk's own AFC Sudbury.

Manager Mark Morsley admitted yesterday that "furlough has saved our football club," with reference to AFC Sudbury's potential financial plight if the Government's Job Retention Scheme had not been introduced from last March.

Social distancing at Compton Park on the opening day of a stop-start season, as Bury Town take on hosts Cogenhoe United in...

Social distancing at Compton Park on the opening day of a stop-start season, as Bury Town take on hosts Cogenhoe United in the FA Cup - Credit: Archant

Meanwhile, Bury Town chairman Russell Ward faces the prospect of having to refund a large number of season tickets at Ram Meadow, while Leiston chairman Andy Crisp has the task of trying to keep sponsors interested and on board.

The Trident Leagues, incorporating the Isthmian League (featuring Bury Town, AFC Sudbury and Felixstowe & Walton United), the Southern League (including Leiston, Needham Market and Lowestoft Town) and Northern Premier, communicated with all their clubs last week with regards the  fate of the 2020-21 campaign following the latest lockdown measures to combat the spread of Covid-19.

It seems certain that the leagues across Steps 3 and 4 will terminate the current season, once the results of a survey of clubs are known, with the steps below also likely to follow suit.

Indeed, last week's statement included the phrase: 'Independent of that survey, all three of the Trident League’s boards hold the view that the season should cease immediately and be declared null and void.'

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Here are the latest views of some of the leading figures on the Suffolk non-league scene:

AFC Sudbury manager Mark Morsley, feels let down by the Isthmian League

AFC Sudbury manager Mark Morsley, so thankful for furlough in helping to keep the Suffolk club afloat - Credit: Archant

MARK MORSLEY (AFC SUDBURY MANAGER) 

"Where to start with AFC Sudbury? We are a business, not just a club, and although our Academy has been OK with scholars still being educated at school, we have made big losses elsewhere.

"There's the loss of bar takings, the loss of revenue from weddings and parties which would have taken place in our function area, plus the loss from pitch hire and other facilities like yoga and dance sessions.

"In fact, the overall loss of revenue is eye-watering.

"But like other clubs, we have been lucky enough to furlough the players. All our first-team players were under contract to give protection to the club and the players, but of course these are unprecedented times.

"At least the extension of the furlough to also cover April will take us to the end of the players' contracts.

"When the pandemic first started, last March, I voluntarily made myself redundant to help the club finances, and we had asked some players to do the same before we knew anything about the prospect of the furlough scheme.

"In fact, furlough saved our football club, and probably a lot of other clubs as well.

"Even so, it's been a tough ride for clubs. Of course this season should be cancelled, without even having had the need to survey the clubs for their opinions, so that we can all plan ahead to next season."

Bury

Bury Town marksman Cemal Ramadan, who was bang in form, as were his team, before the season was halted - Credit: Neil Dady

RUSSELL WARD (BURY TOWN CHAIRMAN)

"As a club we would like to try and play football again, if we can, this season.

"Our thoughts are that we would like to play everyone once, to get the season concluded, though of course that would depend on the start-time.

"Our preference is to continue the season, if it can be continued and if it is safe to stage football again.

"As it stands, all fixtures have been postponed up to and including March 6, and the league have also said that there would be a two-week grace so that everyone could get up and running again, although that would then take us to March 20.

"If that were the case, then we would struggle to get the season finished with our proposal of clubs playing each other once, but hopefully that time for training could be reduced to one week from two.

"It all depends on what all the other clubs think. I think the majority of clubs want to play football if it safe, because that's what we all do.

"But the problem comes if some restrictions are lifted in one county, and not the other, because you might end up having some clubs still in Tier 4 who are unable to play.

"If that were the case, then you would have to call it a day and end the season. But if the restrictions are lifted across the country, then we would have a chance.

"Of course we would to take a financial hit, if the season was cancelled.

"Our biggest concern is the refunding of all season tickets, and also the need to make it right for our sponsors as well, because they will not have had their worth out of their sponsorship.

"We would hope to offer fans the chance to hold onto their season tickets into next season, and the same with our sponsors and their needs, although that would of course create its own headache for next season's income.

"We have not had so many outgoings, having been able to furlough the players, but we still have bills to pay, like electricity and gas, and the rent to pay.

"So we will take a financial hit at some point, although some season ticket holders have already been in touch to say that they would not want a refund, and would buy a new ticket for next season instead.

"That's great, but not everyone is in the same financial boat and so able to do this. Nearly everyone has taken a  hit over the last year.

"We have actually offered the football club as a potential site for a vaccine centre. We have masses of unused space, and a big car park, so it would be ideal."

Will Davies celebrates scoring the opening goal for Leiston in their 3-2 home defeat to Barnet in the FA Cup. Picture...

Will Davies celebrates scoring the opening goal for Leiston in their 3-2 home defeat to Barnet in the FA Cup earlier this season - Credit: Archant

ANDY CRISP (LEISTON CHAIRMAN)

"Reluctantly, it makes sense to end the season now, because there are more important things going on in the country.

"I can't see it being safe to travel, even after March 6, so I think it is odds-on that the league will call it a day.

"Although we don't have that many season ticket holders, we have still taken a financial hit. Many of our older supporters haven't been coming to games, even when we half-started again, and then there is all the sponsorship and advertising.

"It's a challenge to keep sponsors interested in our club, and to keep them on board, perhaps negotiating a more favourable second year deal at a loss to the club, although that's better than losing sponsors altogether. 

"There will be a shortfall, but being able to furlough players have been a saving grace for us, and hopefully we can start next season reasonably on time.

"If clubs hadn't been able to furlough players, then some might have had to let players go, which would then have meant problems trying to field a competitive side for the start of a new season."

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