'Living hand-to-mouth' - How Merseyside's Non-League clubs are dealing with the coronavirus crisis

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Don Rimmer Litherland REMCYA 2019-20
Litherland REMYCA
The likes of Bootle, City of Liverpool, Litherland REMYCA and Southport are doing all they can to make the best of a nightmare situation

The lights are on but nobody’s home.

The gates of the Berry Street Garage Stadium are closed, for now and for the foreseeable future.

No fans, no football, no fun. Only fear of what’s to come.

The scene is repeated across Merseyside and beyond. Up the road at Litherland Sports Park, at the Marine Travel Arena in Crosby, on Breckside Park in Anfield, Valerie Park in Prescot and, further north, at Southport’s Merseyrail Community Stadium. Goal nets flutter in the wind, pitches glisten in the sun, but stands remain empty, car parks deserted, clubhouses closed. 

And all the while, uncertainty mounts for clubs and staff.

Football, like society, remains in limbo. But while those at the top of the game worry about broadcast revenue and Champions League places, concerning themselves with Liverpool’s title win and Leeds’ promotion and just what will happen to the transfer window, further down the pyramid the issues are more immediate.

And, potentially, far more serious.

“It’s a hand-to-mouth existence at this level,” says Don Rimmer, chairman of Litherland REMYCA, who play at step nine of the pyramid, in the North West Counties Premier Division. 

A proud community club, ‘The Remy’ can boast Sheffield United defender Jack O’Connell among its former players. The first team attract modest crowds – their last home game, on February 29, drew an attendance of 76 – but its youth programme is enviable.

REMYCA run 40 male and female teams from under-7 level upwards, all of which naturally rely heavily on subscription fees, donations and sponsorships, as well as the time and dedication of volunteers and parents.

“These are difficult times,” says Rimmer. “At times like this, football doesn’t matter, and how can a football club ask a parent or a local business for money to keep afloat?

“There are more important things going on, but you still wonder what the future holds. Thankfully, we don’t have massive overheads, but you worry for a lot of Non-League clubs because once the income is cut off, there’s not much they can do.”

Bootle FC 2019-20

A mile or so from the REMYCA is the Berry Street Garage Stadium, home of Bootle FC and City of Liverpool FC.

Each weekend, it is one of Non-League football’s most vibrant, colourful venues. Often, it is packed out. Last season, the two clubs attracted a crowd of more than 1,300 for a crucial promotion fixture. 

Football, though, is not the only attraction, nor the only source of income. The sparkling ‘Frank’s Bar’, named after former Bootle chairman Frank Doran, opened at the stadium last summer, and is now a fully licensed pub, open seven days a week. 

Now, of course, it sits empty. Functions have been cancelled, the bar forced to close in line with government instruction. Its seven casual bar staff have been left without work, as has the club’s groundsman.

“That’s been a huge blow, losing the bar,” says Joe Doran, manager of Bootle FC. “And had Sky not allowed customers to freeze subscriptions, we’d be in a tough place, for sure.

“Fortunately, we only have two players on contract. Our overheads are not huge compared to some clubs, so that’s been a bit of a saving grace. But the loss of gate income, which is essentially all our profit as a club, is massive.”

Lodgers City of Liverpool play at step eight, in the Bet Victor Northern Premier League, and pride themselves as a Non-League club run differently to its peers.

Formed in 2015 as a Community Benefit Society, its community arm has always been as important as its football team. Socialist principles underpin the club. And in these unprecedented, frightening times, it is that which is shining through.

“Football isn’t important,” explains chairman Paul Manning. “This is about life and death, and we are desperate to do whatever we can to get that message across.

"I still don’t think football has got its head around the severity of the situation yet. The fact that some games went ahead last weekend (March 14-15) was disgusting.”

City of Liverpool’s fixture, at home to Pickering Town, was postponed after two players displayed coronavirus symptoms. The club, though, say they had no intention of playing the game regardless.

“Forget money or ‘getting on with it’,” says Manning. “This was about public safety, right and wrong. How could clubs think about money at a time like that?”

There will be no football here until at least the start of May, though even that looks an optimistic assessment at this time, but that doesn’t mean City of Liverpool are sitting idle, far from it. 

In fact, their community programme has been busier than ever.

Last Tuesday, they were due to open a Food Union, the Purple Pantry, at their offices in Smithdown Road, near to Liverpool city centre. They had already taken delivery of stock from sponsors Regenda Homes and PLS Foundation.

That plan was postponed in light of the coronavirus crisis, with the club instead making up food parcels to deliver to those in need. An initial fundraising target of £1,500 ($1,750) has already been smashed, with up to 50 volunteers now delivering packages containing cereal, pasta, rice, long-life milk and other essential items across the city. 

“That’s what it should be about,” says Manning. “It’s good to see communities rallying together, but how sad that it’s taken a pandemic to bring it to the surface. 

“The use of Food Banks is a stain on our nation, and a consequence of 10 years of government underinvestment. We just hope that things like this can help and we’ll continue to do whatever we can.”

They are not the only club seeking to make a difference, either. At National League North club Southport, the message to supporters has been ‘We are here for you’. Southport, as both a town and a club, has an ageing population, and last week the club phoned all of its season-ticket holders aged 65 and over, to provide reassurance and support at a time of uncertainty and, for many, loneliness.

Football is not merely a sport, for some it is a way of life, a way to connect with the world, to make friendships and to give life purpose.

Southport, having spoken to the local hospital, are also finalising plans to open the club’s doors, allowing NHS staff to send their children to Haig Avenue between the hours of 8am and 5pm. They have also offered to provide storage space for essential supplies, if needed.

All this, of course, is done against an uncertain financial backdrop. There has been talk of a £17 million ($19.8m) bailout from the FA for the 68 National League clubs, but Southport secretary James Tedford says there are still huge concerns as to how the next few months will impact clubs at Non-League level.

“Our income is based largely on gate receipts,” he says. “At Southport, more than 50 per cent of our revenue comes from matchday income. 

“I’ve already had to speak to gas, electricity, WiFi providers to explain our situation and defer payments. We’ve already deferred our HRMC for March. That’s OK if we get games back, which at this stage is far from guaranteed, but we still have to pay those bills at some point.

“We can only plan, financially-speaking, for this month. We’ve reduced expenditure massively in the last 18 months, and we’ve put measures in place to give us greater protection – most of our contracted players are on 46-week contracts rather than 52-week ones, for example, so they don’t run through the summer – but we have seven full-time staff, and contracts still need to be honoured.

"One option we are being forced to look at is asking them to take a 25% reduction in wages, which could ensure everyone gets paid.”

Southport FC 2019-20

Already, one sponsor has cancelled its contract, and more are likely to follow, while the loss of income from events at the club’s bar will be felt keenly.

The funeral of long-serving club statistician Geoff Wilde took place on Wednesday but the reception, which was due to be hosted by the club, had to be cancelled with a heavy heart. It will be a while before the bar is re-opened for business, Tedford admits. 

As for the help being given to clubs from the powers that be, there remains scepticism, understandably so. 

“The question is will the money come, and how?” Tedford says. “The £17m fund talked about works out at £250,000 ($290,000) per club, but everyone doesn’t need the same amount. How do they decide who gets what? Is it based on spending, or is it done fairly?

“In the Football League, the talk is of advance payments, of taking money from next year’s pot. That is no use to clubs like ours. That’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. You’re not fixing the problem, you’re just delaying the inevitable.”

Lower down, the fears are even greater.

“The Premier League and EFL clubs talk of compensation and so does the National League,,” says Don Rimmer. “But that won’t reach us."

Joe Doran agrees.

"Asking for handouts brings its own risks," he says. "Because people can abuse the system and have done in the past. 

"But if Premier League clubs put money into a pool, and if that pool was properly regulated and fairly distributed, then they could save grassroots football. They could change the face of Non-League football forever, if they wanted to."

Rimmer adds: "Without the clubs at the bottom, at grassroots level, the clubs at the top suffer. What do you see at kids' games on a Saturday or Sunday morning? Scouts in Liverpool, Everton, Burnley, Blackburn, Wigan coats, looking for players. No player starts playing football in an Academy, they start at a local club, and local clubs need protecting."

REMYCA and Bootle, along with fellow local sides Lower Breck and AFC Liverpool, have already floated the idea of a ‘ground-hop weekend’ when football is eventually able to restart, which would allow supporters to attend multiple games, boosting the income of all.

A pre-season tournament between the local clubs has also been suggested, while there is hope that professional clubs may offer crucial support too, perhaps sending a team over for a friendly match or providing funds, guidance or expertise.

Everton’s under-23 side plays its home games at Southport and the clubs have, James Tedford says, “an excellent relationship". Doran, meanwhile, wonders if apprenticeship schemes for things like ground maintenance could be set up, where professional clubs teach Non-League clubs how to look after their pitches or improve their marketing or social media.

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Across the region there is a determination that this crisis, which has engulfed far more than just football, can and will be beaten.

What the future holds, though, remains to be seen.

Football, like the rest of us, just has to sit and wait and hope, for now.