Local Football Clubs Say Their Communities Will Lose Much More Than Football If The Pandemic Kills Them Off
Weekly trips to cheer on your local team have become one of many casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic, with stands and grounds across the country left deserted for much of 2020.
With no fans passing through the turnstiles, dozens of football clubs have been left in dire financial straits - with some unsure whether they will be able to survive.
This week, 10 northern football clubs wrote to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to ask for extra support and for the Premier League to step in to help smaller teams, warning they were on the edge of a "precipice" and had already had to lay off staff.
“Many are now failing to meet payroll and are making swathes of redundancies to keep their heads above water," they said.
“These redundancies are destroying structures that have taken decades to establish and will take decades to replace.”
Among them is League One side Sunderland AFC, which has been at the heart of the north east city for more than 140 years.
The Foundation of Light, the club's independent charity arm, runs more than 40 programmes aimed at improving the lives of local residents, including physical and mental health support, food packages and skills courses.
Last year it was named Best Football Community Scheme outside of the Premier League for investing £3-4 million a year into the community - and saving the public purse £29 in health and social care costs per £1 invested.
Managing director Jamie Wright said the foundation is able to reach people who need support better than many other agencies, thanks to its connections and history.
"I think we've always used the club to break the door down, so to speak, then we use our staff, who are excellent at building relationships and connections with the community," he told PoliticsHome.
"If Sunderland wasn't a club any more, I think the effect would be massive and I think a lot of people's Saturdays and Tuesdays or whatever would be ruined.
"The football club is the focal point of the community and if we were to lose that it would have a massive impact on people's mental health, and there would be lots of other knock-on effects as well."
When the first lockdown period was announced back in March, the foundation's staff sprung into action, setting up calls and messaging groups for people who might need support.
Since then, Mr Wright said, the organisation has taken on other contracts aimed at reaching deprived areas in Sunderland.
"We are working with all ages and all abilities to keep them engaged, to keep them active and keep them mentally active," he added.
"Something as simple as giving some of the elder communities a phonecall on a weekly basis, just so they have got somebody to talk to...getting that interaction can be the difference between feeling isolated and feeling part of a community."
But the potential losses are not confined to the north. Alex Tunbridge, CEO of Stevenage FC, has warned a lack of ticket sales has caused "concern" for the Hertfordshire-based League Two side.
Its charitable foundation reaches around 2,500 people each week through fitness schemes, community kitchens and participation in the National Citizen Service.
During lockdown, it has run prescription collection services, support chat lines and delivered sandwiches and food to thousands of vulnerable people.
"There is a need for government to recognise the social value of a football club and the impact it has," Mr Tunbridge told PoliticsHome.
"In every working week, the percentage of time spent playing football is very small compared to our engagement within the community."
Stevenage FC is taking "forward steps" and recognises its own financial responsibiltiies, the CEO said, with salary caps already introduced to keep the player wage bill down.
"But it’s a far wider problem and we are not expecting to sit here and have money pushed across the table to us," he added.
"There needs to be a collective responsibility within the football industry and within society. If you lost the club, you would lose the heart of the town.
"You’d lose a lot of vital services and the social element would be gone. It doesn’t matter if you are Stevenage, Rochdale or Oldham - it's being part of your town and community."
Clubs need fans safely back in the stands if they are to weather the storm and those who have written to the government want ministers to set out a plan for doing so.
"We are aware that this is an unknown and that there are lots of safety concerns. But back in June and July we went through getting our facilities safe...put restrictions in place where they were needed and to be shut down again feels like a backward step," said Mr Wright.
According to English Football League figures, more than 800,000 people took part in a wide range of activities and more than 500,000 hours of group activity were delivered by clubs across England and Wales during the 2018/19 season.
Ministers claim they have been assured by the football industry that no clubs will be allowed to go under and are working to get fans safely back into stadiums as soon as possible.
A spokeperson for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said: "Having spent £1.2 billion in the recent transfer window, professional football has the means to support clubs through the pandemic.
"The Premier League has been clear that it will ensure that no club will go bust due to the pandemic with an offer on the table. Clubs can also benefit from the government's Covid business support schemes. We urge the EFL and Premier League to finalise a deal as soon as possible."