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Non-League Season Under Threat as "non-elite" football postponed again.

calendario 04.01.2021
by: Zach
  • England
  • Vanarama National
  • Step 1-2
  • Step 5-6
  • Northern League - Division One
  • Vanarama National - North
Non-League Season Under Threat as "non-elite" football postponed again.

Steps 3 to 6 of the non-league pyramid halt again as millions move into tier four following the government's latest coronavirus update. Rounding off a rough 2020, the government doubled the amount of tier four areas in the UK on December 31, bringing the percentage of English residents in the highest tier to 78%. As tier four prohibits "non-elite" sport, a term which already divides the pyramid in two, the regional approach causes havoc in leagues with differing coronavirus warnings, leading to cancellations and discrepancies in games played. This signals a crisis over concerns for the season. The decision arrives after months of uncertainty, coinciding with often unplayable winter weather conditions.

Of course, this issue is not confined to grassroots and non-league football. The pandemic affects the upper echelons of English sport. The only differences appear when teams have different resources with which to combat infection. When the likes of Manchester City's Kyle Walker and Gabriel Jesus tested positive for coronavirus, along with three other players, the club had a squad deep enough to continue playing and enough resources to provide Walker and Jesus with safety precaution. Four leagues below in the National League, near the limits of the "elite sport" definition, Sutton United cancelled their match with Dover Athletic on December 27 after just one player tested positive. 

Even further down the pyramid, where clubs straddle the "elite" line, local tiers jeopardise valuable revenue streams and put further strain on vulnerable grassroots institutions. The FA also announced the postponement of the Buildbase FA Vase, a crucial platform for grassroots and semi-pro clubs across England. This comes as a blow for sides like Liversedge, who made it into the last 32 of the competition from the North Counties East League. Based in a now-rare tier three region of Yorkshire, Liversedge could theoretically play, but their next opponents Hebburn Town hail from tier four Tyne and Wear.

When December ended, it also spelt the death of a vital chunk of funding for the elite steps 1 and 2 of non-league football. The National League, in negotiations with the government and the FA, secured £10 million from the National Lottery to cover losses from missing ticket sales when playing behind closed doors. While there is other funding set aside from the government in the new year, it arrives mainly in the form of loans, not grants. Crucially, the new tiers and the grant-drought follow a year in which, for eight months out of twelve, clubs played no football at all. Even with a couple of months of season time, grassroots football is reeling. 

Every corner of England had a new county moved into tier four at the end of December. One such county was Lincolnshire, a region rich with footballing history and proud non-league teams. One Lincolnshire town, Boston, hosts two non-league sides. Since entering tier four, Boston Town FC, in non-elite step five league the Northern League Division One, has postponed all fixtures. By contrast, Boston United, in elite step  two National League North plays on behind closed doors. In their last fixture, four days before they entered tier four, they thrashed Farsley Celtic 4-0. 

The fate of non-league football displays all the cruelty of the pandemic and its consequent restrictions. It threatens lives and livelihoods; it offers hope then crushes dreams. Fans and officials alike are already recalling last season, which in the National Leagues was decided with PPG, but lower down the pyramid was declared null and void. 

For some, like AFC Sudbury's Mark Morsely, season cancellation "can't come soon enough." With young grassroots players last on the list for the vaccine, season cancellation would spell an end to the agony of indecision and offer a chance to reflect and plan for a more robust and sustainable footballing future. 


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