Stephen Cleeve: We must have some common sense to help out clubs

King's Lynn Town owner Stephen Cleeve 

King's Lynn Town owner Stephen Cleeve - Credit: Ian Burt

This season will live long in the memory - but for all the wrong reasons.

What should have been a celebration for King’s Lynn Town with back-to-back promotions has turned into a financial disaster that is not of our own making.

If we look at how the National League is dealing with the Covid issue we are really only playing lip service to the regulations. Lateral flow-testing kits have been provided by the league this week, but these have only a 40pc accuracy. We understand that we are the only Elite league in Europe of any sport that does not have the proper Covid test. This test costs at least £80 and although the PFA pays for clubs in Leagues One and Two to be tested, no one pays for it at National League level. 

The Covid regulations that National League clubs adhere to are simply bizarre. Let’s use Weymouth’s trip to The Walks on Saturday as a typical example.  When Weymouth arrive, they will be given a hospitality area to use as a dressing room and can use the away dressing room for showers, which is limited to four players at a time. They will be provided with seats in the stand with at least two seats between each player, as well as lots of other safeguards. 

The bit that suffers from a lack of joined-up thinking is that the entire squad will have been sitting in the same coach together for at least four hours on Friday and another couple of hours on Saturday. On Friday night the players will have shared rooms at The Belfry in Cambridge, all of which makes a mockery of the precautions taken when they arrive. I am not having a dig in any way at Weymouth - we did exactly the same thing when we visited the south-west, just swapping Cambridge for Bournemouth. I am just highlighting the madness of the policy.

The financial issues are just as cloudy. The government gave a grant, via Camelot, to all clubs in the National League. But this scheme finished in December, even though we had been promised that it would continue if fans were not back in stadiums. National League clubs were supposed to get two central payments a season, but the second of these has not been paid because the league finds itself at the mercy of a possible court case brought about by some clubs who were unhappy about the grant distribution. Clubs were told by the National League board to apply for loans to Sport England and, if loans were deemed unaffordable, grants would be given instead. The first 20 applicants received by Sport England included King’s Lynn Town. However, they were all found to be able to repay the loans and were therefore not eligible for grants.  This in itself is madness as every year our club loses money and with a 20-year loan hanging over its head the club would lose even more.

I plugged the £140,000 shortfall last season, but I simply do not have the funds to do this again.

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To make matters worse, Sport England felt that we needed more than the £330,000 requested and worked out that our shortfall would be just short of £500,000 in order to ensure that we survived until next March (when it is assumed that fans will be back in stadiums). So, assuming clubs are prepared to pay a loan arrangement fee, plus 2pc interest and be in debt for the next 20 years, you could argue that all is well in the football world. 

However, the next problem soon arrived: the National League’s own rules prevent any secured borrowing. As Sport England insist on a floating debenture, our debt would fall neatly into the secured category. I was told by the league’s CEO Mark Ives to apply to the finance committee for loan approval which, he said, might be forthcoming if we guaranteed to complete the season, but it would not be approved if we were to take the loan and not finish the season. As yet I have not heard back from them, so I have no idea if we can or cannot take the loan.

Jim Parmenter, the chairman of Dover, who until recently was on the National League board, said that taking any loans was simply not possible from a legal standpoint and the rules could not be altered by the board. Indeed, another current board member has privately backed up his assertion.

Dover have decided that they cannot jeopardise their club’s future and have stopped playing and furloughed everyone. For doing so, they have been charged and their fate, which could include relegation, points deduction and large fines, will be decided by an independent tribunal. Jim himself seems resigned to his fate, feeling that he was left in a no-win situation.

If the league can change the rules to allow clubs to take these loans, then why can they not change the rules to ensure that clubs are not charged for being unable to play?

To put the whole argument another way: if we lived in a Covid-free world and I asked the league at the start of the season for permission to take out a half million-pound secured loan to spend on player wages as I fancied having a real go at promotion this season, I think we all know how my request would be dealt with; and rightly so.

Kevin Dack, an associate director at Norwich City, kindly suggested a scheme whereby football fans could pledge the club £300 and in exchange the club would let those doing so into the next 10 first team matches at The Walks. We took up his suggestion and to date 40 Norwich and King’s Lynn fans have pledged £300 and others have kindly pledged lesser amounts that they can afford. 

Dr Sarah Greaves even gave the club a four-figure sum in memory of her late father, Barrie Greaves, who was a well-known Norwich City supporter. I have to say it is wonderful that our close friends at Norwich are also helping the club in its time of need.

Surely some common sense should be applied. Clubs are in this situation because they were promised grants which have not materialised. They have been punished enough and to punish them further for events beyond their control seems unjust. Let’s hope for once that common sense prevails.

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