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Sun, 29 November 2020

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Football's future is hanging in the balance - Government assistance is urgently required to save EFL clubs

Football's future is hanging in the balance - Government assistance is urgently required to save EFL clubs

"A beacon of light was our pilot event with supporters. Alongside the local council, we got it right, and the positive response was phenomenal," says Steve Gibson, Chairman, Middlesbrough Football Club | Credit: PA Images

9 min read Partner content

The outbreak of COVID-19 has presented football with a challenging and unprecedented set of circumstances that threaten the very fabric of our national game. Owners from Clubs across the English Football League provide a unique viewpoint relating to the individual and collective issues we face now and in the future.

Steve Gibson (Chairman, Middlesbrough Football Club) - Championship

To me, the place to begin with any difficult situation is to identify the problem, and this one is in two parts: the immediate, caused by the virus, and the essential need for structural change to ensure sustainability in football.

Looking at the EFL in particular, Clubs will lose £250million by the end of the current season, a problem the League is powerless to solve.

The real power lies in Government, as well as with the Premier League and PFA. Specifically, Government’s power lies within the ability to allow fans to return to stadiums, as well as providing financial support.

Exploring where we are at the moment, we haven’t lost a club yet, because the Premier League have advanced solidarity payments and we were granted a three-month deferral on PAYE and NIC. These income streams have got us through but have ultimately added to the debt. Now, it’s all about what happens next.

The current situation cannot be sustainable.

Government, the Premier League and PFA have a big decision to make, and the question must be this: ‘do we want the current pyramid structure to stay in place?’

In the short-term, if we want to maintain the current footballing pyramid, there simply has to be some help. In the longer term, this is an opportunity to provide sustainability.

Put simply, a PAYE and NIC holiday is essential and must be introduced for so long as Clubs are denied meaningful crowds. In addition, VAT has been reduced to 5% for the hospitality industry and this should now be extended to football clubs. This would assist in making Clubs more affordable to their supporters.

We must not underestimate the wider impact this is having locally, because the money spent by the club and fans has dried up; it is affecting local businesses, pubs, taxi drivers, restaurants and cafes. 

These direct interventions by government supported by action from the PL in respect of additional funding and the PFA on player wages would allow the Clubs to survive until the proper return of fans to stadia is possible.

A beacon of light was our pilot event with supporters, which was handled extremely well. Alongside the council, we got it right, and the positive response was phenomenal.

Supporters miss the anticipation of matchday and the nerves in their stomach – it’s a huge part of their lives.

We must not underestimate the wider impact this is having locally, because the money spent by the club and fans has dried up; it is affecting local businesses, pubs, taxi drivers, restaurants and cafes. 

It's a huge part of the economy and I would worry for the businesses and people that have had this this taken away from them.

For many, this is a vital social activity and I remain unsure and confused as to why we can let people inside the Albert Hall but not Old Trafford.

Without action, we will lose football Clubs and, without football Clubs, we will lose jobs, both within the industry and through the supply chain.

This is biting at the heart of our communities, and you have to remember the work of the Clubs’ Foundations and charitable trusts within these communities and the impact they have on people’s lives, never more so than at this current time.

Should the unthinkable happen, all talk of ‘levelling up’ will not be achieved, and towns and cities – particularly in the north of England - will suffer decades of decay.

In these circumstances, there cannot be an ‘us and them’ scenario – we must be united.

The solution does not lie with the EFL or Premier League alone.

We appreciate the challenges faced by Premier League Clubs who also have no crowds and notwithstanding the significant income streams, have planned their own finances on the basis of the match day income as well.

That said the finances of the Championship are significantly distorted by the manner in which the income is distributed between the Leagues and, the disparity between the Premier League and Championship.

The parachute payments, coupled with a lack of appetite by the Premier League to sanction promoted clubs who deliberately abuse the cost control measures of the EFL, is not without consequence and must be thoughtfully considered and addressed.

It is not in the EFL’s gift alone to save the pyramid.

If the government, the Premier League, and the PFA’s decision is to save the pyramid then they must all contribute to the solution sooner rather than later

Pete Winkelman (Chairman, Milton Keynes Dons Football Club) - League One

At present, professional football is in a very difficult place and, if I have learned anything over last 20 years, it is the importance of fans and season ticket stakeholders to the game.

Our Clubs remain at the very heart of their communities, and there is an unequivocal sense of frustration felt by myself and colleagues across the nation, because we need those supporters back.

Despite the fantastic streaming service provided by the EFL, football is simply not the same, and it should not be treated uniquely.

Collectively, we have done tremendous amounts of work behind the scenes to develop protocols and processes that allow for people to attend an outdoor event in a COVID-secure manner, and I have noted some extraordinary occasions at which supporters have watched games inside cinemas because they are not permitted within an open-air stadium.

Our message to Government is clear: we are not asking for supporters to travel around the country; we are asking you to continue to work with us in order to take the next step in getting season ticket holders back into our stadiums.

Should fans disengage from their Clubs, it will not be healthy for our national game, and we are already seeing an effect on grassroots football which could be detrimental to the future of football.

Eighty per cent of our income comes through the turnstiles; a significant amount that is under threat for every club within the EFL. That is a fundamental you cannot get past.

So, we are appealing to you in order to say that we know what we are doing, we are following the protocols, and that this is about home supporters coming to home grounds in a secure way. Realistically, I believe we can do this.

Football is our national game, and it thrives throughout communities all over the country.

EFL Clubs have already shown they can, and will, follow all the necessary guidelines.

Government has already recognised this, allowing fans into pilot games across the league back in September, but it must now be taken one step further. We all understand how difficult things are at this moment in time, but the harsh reality is that, if this does not happen soon, we are going to lose Clubs.

Eighty per cent of our income comes through the turnstiles; a significant amount that is under threat for every club within the EFL. That is a fundamental you cannot get past.

Our message needs to be clear: let’s keep football alive and COVID-19 at bay. I know that, together, we will make it work.

Gary Neville (Co-Owner, Salford City Football Club) - League Two

English football has been the fabric of this country for 150 years and, as such, is respected and admired all over the world.

Its competitiveness, excitement and unpredictability, combined with the success of our pyramid system, is the envy of world football. Now is the time to look after that, and ensure that it is protected.

We are in the midst of a pandemic which is causing many problems to Clubs up and down the country, and so the need for immediate relief is clear, but we also need to look beyond that, and there is no better time to move forward with a new approach for English football.

The power to make that change lies within Government and the Premier League, and starts with a fairer distribution of funds throughout football.

It is unfair that the Premier League has billions of pounds but EFL Clubs don’t have the revenue to be self-sustainable; that the National League doesn’t get a fair distribution of money, and that our fans don’t have a more accessible and affordable sport to watch.

The need to discuss a new way forward is an absolute must.

Now is the time for reform, and for Government to step in and help resolve the issues caused by COVID-19. I am urging them to intervene to ensure that football is protected.

Clubs are in trouble, and without a rescue package or supporters being allowed back into stadiums safely, there will be no pyramid.

The Premier League is not a closed shop, we are a membership of 92 Clubs. Just 45 years ago, Manchester United were playing in Division Two, while Manchester City were playing League football as recently as 18 years ago.

There has never been a more important time to protect our Clubs, and football should be at the heart of the effort to support Government’s efforts to ‘build back better’ from this pandemic.

The EFL should not be undersold, for it has formed the Premier League’s history and will also form its future. It is - and has long been - a breeding ground for world-class football players, something evidenced by the current England squad alone, whose players were raised in the EFL and are ambassadors for many of your constituencies.

The importance of EFL Clubs extends beyond the quality on the pitch, of course, and I would also like to stress how critical the League and its Clubs are to towns, cities and communities up and down the country. The reach they have is unlike any other.

The Premier League is watched by 1.5billion people worldwide and the EFL is the most attended sporting competition in the UK, with more than 18 million fans coming through the turnstiles every season under normal circumstances pre-COVID.

Combine those numbers with the amount of people participating in club community programmes, and the number potentially impacted by football Clubs ceasing to exist is unthinkable.

There has never been a more important time to protect our Clubs, and football should be at the heart of the effort to support Government’s efforts to ‘build back better’ from this pandemic.

It is time to protect the programmes that these Clubs run in their communities - which help tackle a range of social issues and promote wellbeing across the nation.

Let’s find a way to move forward safely and sustainably.

 

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