‘It is critical that the government don’t base this on historical attendances’ - Linnets owner
- Credit: PA
It’s been a long time coming, but King’s Lynn Town finally know they will kick off their new season this weekend. Head of sport Chris Lakey reports
It could only happen in football.
Three days before arguably the biggest match in the history of King’s Lynn Town – and its defunct predecessor come to that – no one knew whether or not the season would even begin.
Around lunchtime on Wednesday, anyone connected with the world of non league football was switched on to the House of Commons, waiting to be told the government had ridden to the rescue of a level of the game that was in danger of falling in between the cracks.
There’s a well-established hierarchy in football: the Premier League, the Football League and non league, in which the National Leagues reside. Except the National Leagues are classed as elite – as are the EFL and the Premier. That’s meant matches have to be played behind closed doors. Below National Leagues level, fans are allowed in. So you can watch football at Dereham or Fakenham or Feltwell. But not at The Walks.
The lower you go down from the very top, the more important is revenue from supporters. For King’s Lynn Town, it is vital. Take it away from National League clubs and it is effectively the end for most of them. The Premier League have been asked to bail out the EFL clubs. But who bails out the National Leagues? Turns out it was the government who stepped in. Because they had to.
Football clubs are at the heart of communities. It’s a cliche, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
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The problem facing Lynn was that promotion to compete at the National League level for the first time costs money. Cleeve won’t reveal his budget, but you can guarantee it is five figures each week. That’s just for the playing side.
He faced the prospect of empty grounds and the only income coming via live streaming of games: owner Stephen Cleeve is a businessman, and not many of them have been unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Would Lynn have lasted the season without government help? No chance.
“Without this the club could not have continued throughout the season,” said Cleeve. “We would have started and played a couple of weeks but in reality it would have been pointless starting because we wouldn’t have finished.”
That they kick off, in front of the BT Sport cameras, against Yeovil at The Walks on Saturday at 5.30pm, is down to the words of Nigel Huddleston, department of culture, media and sport minister.
“Yesterday we provided the National League with assurances that financial support from the government will be forthcoming so they can start this season this Saturday,” he told the Commons.
“Funding will be focused on those most in need and it will be based on the loss of gate receipts. I can’t give details today. We are working on those details as I speak.”
It’ll be fun calculating that figure: Lynn’s attendance doubled last season to over 1,400 for home games. The game against York City attracted a crowd of 4,019 – the best in the National League North.
Clearly, they’d be looking at home gates of more than 2,000 this season. But how does government work out exactly how many and, therefore, how much ‘compo’ to give Lynn?
And is compensation for absent fans better than allowing in only, say, 300 fans? Clearly that depends on the extent to which government subsidises clubs.
“It is critical that the government don’t base this on historical attendances,” said Cleeve. “Our budgets are based on what we expect to happen in the new season. If the Yeovil game had been open to fans I believe we would have had at least 3,000 fans at The Walks. That is the sort of figure it needs to be based on.”
The absence of supporters is an emotive issue: matches with and without them are two completely different experiences.
Huddleston said the government wanted to see a return of spectator sports “as soon as possible”.
“We all want our fans back in stadia as soon as possible. Sport without fans is poorer in so many ways,” he said. “We did trial the return of fans with 12 successful pilot events, however rising infection rates across the country meant that the government had to act and we could not proceed on October 1 as planned.
“We have to contain the virus and given the backdrop of rising infection rates we had to press the pause button.”
When the collective finger comes off the pause button no one knows: football isn’t unique in these difficult times in having major problems to tackle, and it isn’t claiming to be. It’s just that trying to get its house in order seems to attract unwarranted criticism by those who think the game is being selfish.
At Lynn’s level it is not selfish.