‘The life and soul of our communities’ ,,, you bet they are, Boris

The familiar sight of empty seats at King's Lynn Town Picture: Ian Burt

The familiar sight of empty seats at King's Lynn Town Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

The days when non league football bred the professional players of tomorrow are long gone.

Social-distancing at local football... what happens next? Picture: CARL MARSTON

Social-distancing at local football... what happens next? Picture: CARL MARSTON - Credit: Archant

Along with the village pub and post offices and jumpers for goalposts.

But without the grassroots game the football pyramid collapses: the big old blocks at the top come tumbling down if the bricks and mortar at the bottom, built by the hands of volunteers and, in many cases, handed down by generations of the same family, are taken away.

In a world where information goes in one ear and straight out of the other at an alarming rate of knots, football has to be in the public conscience from the very beginning. It doesn’t start with the Premier League. It starts much further down: the majority of Britain’s footballers play at a very local level. For the lucky ones who get into a professional club at any level or age, only one per cent will play pro football.

Football is a game of levels - and there are many steps between the huge base at the bottom, and the tiny peak.

Which is why, while Premier League and EFL clubs will, inevitably, be staring at financial black holes following the government announcement of restrictions on sporting activity for the next six months, the problem worsens the further down the pyramid you go.

This is the view of Chesterfield chief executive John Croot: “We’re okay financially for the time being. Speaking to other clubs there are some out there who are weeks away from real issues.”

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It isn’t healthy anywhere, but when your club’s very future is probably dependant on whether one man and his dog shows up and wants a Bovril with his pie, then it is clear the game needs help. What it got from the government yesterday was, on the face of it, far from helpful.

The nitty gritty is yet to be sorted, with the leagues that have already started - the Isthmian North, the Thurlow Nunn and the Anglian Combination – all waiting for guidance to see if they can continue,

No gate money, no point?

Gate money is critical at the lower end of the pyramid – King’s Lynn Town’s home crowds doubled to just over 1,400 last season as they earned promotion to the National League. The expectancy was they’d grow again. Budgets were planned accordingly, plans made – and then an almighty spanner was thrown into the works by the prime minister yesterday as he moved to ease growing concerns over a swiftly increasing coronavirus infection rate. Lynn have had no spectator income since March, when the game was initially suspended: to complete its play-offs, the league was granted elite status, but that came back to bite them when they were refused crowds for pre-season friendlies. You could watch Lynn at Stowmarket, but you couldn’t watch Stowmarket at Lynn. Work that one out.

While clubs below Lynn’s level (the National League set-up is Steps One and Two) are awaiting clarification on crowds, the picture is as clear for Lynn as it is for Liverpool. No fans are allowed in.

I’m a fighter - Linnets ownerIt leaves owner Stephen Cleeve with an obvious problem. First off, if the league starts, how does he pay his bills? The playing squad costs him a five-figure sum every week, with gate receipts covering a huge chunk of that. Even worse, if the National League decide the season shouldn’t start, what does he and every other owner do with a squad of players and a management team on contracts? How do they pay them with no income? And what are the ramifications when they don’t?

The answer to question one may be live streaming of games: Cleeve, not surprisingly, doesn’t want to reveal how many live feeds he needs to sell to pay his squad, that’d be giving away sensitive financial information. But you can bet it’s more than the 1,400 crowds of last season.

Will people pay a fiver or a tenner to watch?

Here’s where we come back to the beginning: they are more likely to if it is relevant. If non league football is suspended, it is out of the public eye. It is out of the sporting debate. It could be lost forever to a generation of young people. That’s not over-stating the case: you have to get your timing right to catch a youngster between Peppa Pig and a junior iPad.

Non league/grassroots football is part of our lives – take it away for one season and it will take a long time to fix again.

Boris Johnson did say on Tuesday that “I recognise the implications for our sports clubs which are the life and soul of our communities, and my right honourable friends the Chancellor and the Culture Secretary are working urgently on what we can do now to support them.”

“The life and soul of our communities” ... let’s hope the PM lives up to the recognition that sport is for all. Not just a select few.

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