FootballPremier League

The Coronavirus outbreak could devastate non-league football in England

March 20, 2020

LOCATED in Urmston between Old Trafford and Manchester United’s Carrington training ground Trafford FC, in England’s eighth tier, hoped for a bumper gate last Saturday.

“No other teams were playing and we expected 400 against Pontefract who are up there, that’s about 100 up on our average crowd,” explains chairman John Eadie. Several non-league teams enjoyed big attendances, with the 3,274 who saw South Shields v FC United the stand out.

Trafford had no such good fortune. Gun shots fired in their car park the day before the match meant police forensics sealed off their car park.

“We understood that the area would be cleared by Friday night but when the groundsman arrived on Saturday morning he was told that the game would have to be cancelled,” explains Eadie. “We’d ordered pies, printed programmes and were awaiting sponsors. It felt like insult to injury.” Police searched five addresses miles from Trafford’s ground in relation to the incident. They found a cannabis farm and arrested two men.

These are tough times for everyone including those involved in non-league football. Trafford were due to play FC United of Manchester in the Manchester Premier Cup final next month. That game, like every one, is now in doubt. “The uncertainty is difficult,” says Adrian Seddon, chairman of the board at FC, formed in 2005 after the Glazer takeover at Manchester United. They play to average gates of 1,700 in England’s seventh tier.

“The league is suspended until April at least – and that’s after a season which has been decimated by the weather. We still have six home games left and as we’re playing well, pushing for promotion and second in the league, we were hoping for some 2,000+ crowds. That has all gone. We have to make assumptions and we’re working to a scenario that we’re not going to play those six games and we’ll return in September. We can try and ride that out, but if this goes on for 18 months then it’s another matter.”

FC don’t receive TV money. “We get limited sponsorship money in this division too,” Seddon points out. “Our money comes from gate money, season tickets, food and bar, hire of our 3G pitch, merchandise, our academy programme, using the ground for photo shoots and functions. The spring and summer is the busiest time for functions and they’ve all been cancelled. Some will be put back, but birthdays will pass and functions won’t just start immediately. People book them months in advance. The 3G bookings have gone too.”

Seddon tells me FC are still doing their sums. “We’re looking at being £100,000 down. And that, unplanned, is a huge amount for a club at our level. The Government announced a freeze of rates and there may be a VAT freeze which would help.”

FC’s financial health is much improved from a year ago. “We were in a precarious position and I doubt we could have even tried to ride this out,” explains Seddon. “We worked hard to get where we are and now this. Season tickets will go on sale now and our message to fans is buy them and buy them quickly because that will be our entire revenue.”

FC have seen other clubs laying staff off. They don’t want to do that. They have a small full-time staff in administrative work and on the bar and catering side.  “We’ve been honest with staff who are worried about their jobs and said we’ll do the best we can,” explains Seddon.

Football clubs also have their players to pay.  “We have three on contracts until the end of the season. The rest are non-contract and we were five weeks from the end of the season. Realistically, they’ve had their last pay day from us but we're going to try and help them with a call to arms to fans. It’s heartbreaking as some of the players are coaches and their entire income will dry up.”

FC’s total playing bill is around £3,000 per week and their players, under manager Neil Reynolds, have earned their pay.  “We were bottom of the league at the end of August and we’re second now,” explains Seddon. “We came down last season and if we go up we get a lot more in sponsorship but we’ll accept the league’s decision whatever it is and won’t contest it.”

Trafford are ninth after a mixed season, but their fortunes have been good as average crowds have gradually climbed towards 300 under manager Tom Baker, a former teammate of Jamie Vardy at Halifax Town.  There’s a community feel about Trafford but money is tight. “We have about £2,000 in the bank and that will be swallowed up by the PAYE payments for this month,” chairman Eadie says.

“Our pitch is well used for junior finals in April and May and we'll miss out on around £10,000 from that as the fans buy drinks and food in our small clubhouse. We have four contracted players and one has agreed not to take any money from us since he understands our position. We appreciate that.”

No Trafford player earns more than £200 a week and the only paid member of staff is the assistant groundsman on £100 a week. He’s been in touch with Eady to say that he doesn’t want to be paid: “He’s a fan who doesn’t want the club to suffer and we appreciate that gesture. We’ve had to cancel our end of year dinner which raised £2,300 last year. We don't know whether we’ll get our deposit back because hospitality is in a difficult position too.”

Trafford have no overdraft facility. “We banked with RBS but they closed their branch in Urmston so we switched to Santander. They told us that they don’t offer overdrafts to football clubs.”

Several Manchester United coaches are close to Trafford and the club were happy for Kieran O’Hara, now first team goalkeeper at Burton Albion, to go on loan to Trafford when he was 16. He loved it.

“Men’s football,” explains O’Hara, now a full Republic of Ireland international. “I wasn’t ready for it but I wanted it and I needed to play football which wasn’t going to happen much at United. That’s the inconsistency of youth football.

"Trafford were offering me 40 games a season so I went to watch my first game, a night match in the rain. I liked it, you don’t play many night matches as a youth footballer. The game was tough; there were 200 fans there. The pitch was beautiful. Paul McGuinness, my coach, said that playing for Trafford would be good for me and I trusted that judgement. He was right.”

O’Hara spent a season at Trafford.  “I was a kid, I was skinny but the lads looked after me. I had mental strength too and was fine playing at the level. We played Altrincham in an FA Cup game and it felt like the big time to me, it really meant something. Brian McClair came to watch me too and Alan Fettis, my goalkeeping coach, never stopped encouraging me and he’s been a massive part of my development.”

Trafford and FC United are community clubs who play an important part in football’s food chain, surviving and thriving in football mad Manchester despite having United and City on their doorstep. From the Ashtons of Curzon and United to Hyde, Droylsden to Altrincham, Radcliffe to Stalybridge, Greater Manchester is packed with semi-professional non-league clubs. For now, like the rest of us, they all face much uncertainty.