Non-league football clubs need help to stay afloat as hundreds of jobs at stake
Saturday at 3pm, Dagenham & Redbridge FC kick off their first competitive match in six months, at Halifax Town.
The team will make the long journey north to West Yorkshire with no travelling support, and the game will take place behind closed doors.
Until earlier this week it wasn’t clear the match could go ahead at all.
An 11th-hour £20million government bailout to struggling non-league clubs – the details of which are still vague – has allowed the season to start.
But Julian Knight, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, called it “a sticking plaster over a gaping wound”.
Meanwhile, football fans have been quick to contrast it with the £1.4billion bailout given to the arts.
Like the other 66 clubs in the National League, National League North and National League South, the Daggers’ future is hanging by a thread.
Saturday was due to be the moment that limited numbers of fans – made safe by social distancing – returned to the game, along with desperately needed gate receipts.
The club were hosting one of the pilot matches on Tuesday at Victoria Road only for the game to end in despair when the Prime Minister chose the same moment to announce there would be no fans allowed at games for the next six months.
“We’re more than just a football club – and we’re not unique in that,” says Steve Thompson, the club’s MD. “Our clubhouse is open to everyone, 365 days a year.
“We’re almost a community centre.”
Home to parties, events and a massive range of local projects, the club holds weddings and funerals, and is a hub for food banks.
In 1949, Jamie Joyes’ granddad, Dave Thake, returned from the war to become a founding member of Dagenham FC, which went on to become Dagenham & Redbridge.
Introduced to the club by his mum Barbara, Jamie went from ball boy to turnstile manager.
“The club has put an enormous amount of energy into putting things in place to make sure we were Covid secure,” he says.
“But suddenly it was all finished again. It was very sad having to tell everyone. It’s crazy to think you could watch the game in the pub indoors but not be here outdoors.”
The club spent £35,000 on an e-ticket system, £11,000 to get set up to stream matches, and may have to refund season tickets.
The cost of Covid-19 tests for players is estimated to be around £4,000 a week.
“People think footballers earn thousands and thousands a week,” says defender Jamie Sendles-White, who plays for non-league Aldershot.
“But when you filter down to League Two or the National League, you don’t earn the sort of money where you are financially stable.
“There have been months when players haven’t been paid at all, or they’ve been furloughed or whatever, so it’s tough to pay your bills.”
In March, Wealdstone FC celebrated promotion to the National League. On Wednesday, their plight was raised in Parliament by their MP, Bob Blackman.
“The team currently play in the Prime Minister’s constituency,” he said, pointedly.
“As part of their promotion, they were required to improve their ground, and they spent more than £100,000 on providing capacity for up to 4,000 people.
“They are totally dependent on gate receipts and money taken at the bar and other refreshment facilities.”
Football’s cash crisis has been building for years, a result of mismanagement and the breakaway of the Premier League. In the National League, Macclesfield has lost a 150-year-old club.
In the English Football League, Bolton Wanderers’ unpaid staff have been using food banks, while Bury FC’s loss has been felt by the town like a bereavement.
Wigan, Southend, Charlton and Gillingham are on the brink.
the pandemic has, as ever, exposed and exploited the weaknesses in a broken system. And now clubs desperately need help.
While the Government wrings its hands over the decline of Pret A Manger Britain and bails out the arts, hundreds of jobs are at stake in the theatre of football, which is just as critical to local economies and people.
It’s not just stewards and hospitality staff, cleaners, tea bar workers and pie stalls, it’s the nearby pubs, cafes, hotels and taxi firms facing obliteration too.
“What the £20m government support means is that in six or nine months we’ll still have a club here,” Steve Thompson says.
“But there is no work for bar and hospitality staff, stewards or cleaners or the tea bar.”
Jamie Joyes has another job as well as the turnstiles, but says his club wages usually “pay for Christmas presents for my children and family”.
While lower-tier clubs beg for help, Premier League clubs have spent £1.1bn on transfers this season.
As Carol Shanahan, owner of Port Vale pointed out this week: “Man City yesterday paid £65m for a player. That would run League Two for a season.
“But the Government could help. How can they say they will help culture and arts but not football?”