The Future of Non-League Football

The announcement that fans will be returning to stadiums soon has come at an extremely important time for many football clubs up and down the country, with many teetering on the edge of administration and extinction. This news comes as a sign of hope for Non-League football clubs who are completely reliant on match day revenues to survive. However, whilst fans returning to stadiums may be the life support that many clubs need, many are certainly not out of the woods yet. I sat down with Worcester City FC and Worcester City FC Supporters’ Trust board member Luke Cox to discuss the future of non-league football, Worcester City and fan ownership. If you want to find out more about the club’s fan ownership model then see our previous interview with Luke.

Since we last spoke Worcester City have made the move to Claines Lane and started their Midland Football League Campaign. How has this season been off and on the pitch for the club and how brilliant was it to have fans back watching City actually in Worcester? 

“The headline there is the fact that we are finally back playing in Worcester at somewhere which we can call home and somewhere which gives us some sturdy foundations to grow and develop. For fans to come back and watch the City back in Worcester is just fantastic – the real shame is the fact more people couldn’t have come to the games due to 300 capacity restrictions. Every home game in which fans have been allowed in to watch we have sold out and we’ve had even more people trying to get tickets. The first game we had over 500 extra people trying to get tickets which is such a shame because having 800 people at that first game back in Worcester would have just been fantastic. 

We have so much to thank the supporters for because they’ve come to the games in these real difficult circumstances where at the games you are trying to stay socially distant, you have to wear a face mask, have your temperature taken, etc (added in is the fact the ground wasn’t completely finished when the season started) but still we sold the games out and the supporters have been really patient with us, and we really owe them a massive thank you.

On the pitch it’s been a bit of a rough start, but I think there’s been some really good performances and we have been unlucky at times, but we know that it’s been a little bit disappointing. The manager knows that and understands that as well, but there is still a large chunk of the season left to play.”

In our previous interview you said that you felt confident about the clubs long term survival, mainly thanks to its fan ownership model. Are you still confident regarding Worcester City FC’s future despite the crushing effects of the pandemic across the footballing pyramid?

“Absolutely that’s still the case but of course the pandemic has had an effect on things. To come into a facility like Claines Lane has unlocked so many new revenue streams and its really helped us to work towards being a sustainable business. That’s the ultimate objective of the fan ownership model is to ensure that the club runs sustainably. What we now have with this facility at Claines Lane is the ability to build the revenue streams we need through sponsorship, getting people to games etc.

I find it so baffling that from the top to the bottom of the football pyramid it’s acceptable for clubs to not run sustainably and be reliant on a wealthy individual or a couple of people to plug funding gaps in order to grow as a club. Our fan ownership model will give us that reliable and diversified way of building a football club which you don’t get by relying on a businessperson.

Our model is the contrast to what we see up and down the leagues and instead of having one person put lots in we have lots of people putting a little bit in and by doing that they get that influence and the feeling of being part of something bigger.”

There has been a lot of talk regarding ‘Project Big Picture’ and a focus on how the Premier League will support the Football League and the National League. Are there any plans in place to support the long-term survival of Non-League football specifically? And if not, what do the Government and the footballing governing bodies need to do?

“In principle there have been agreements for bailouts for League one and League Two clubs and the same with the National League Clubs but for the rest of non-league football there’s really not been a fat lot of support. There’s been a few grants here and there to get grounds ready with regards to COVID regulations and a few things to get them in shape to play on. The biggest thing up until the second lockdown was the allowing of fans to come into the ground at our level because if they didn’t there wouldn’t be much point in Non-League continuing on. But apart from that there hasn’t been any support at all for Non-League football other than for the National League. There’s nothing outside of what any other business might get really.

Ultimately that’s a real shame because Football clubs should almost be treated as listed buildings because they are so socially important, not just what they do in the community but what they mean to people, they’re way beyond just being a normal limited company and they need to be protected but so far they haven’t quite been given that distinction. We’ve already seen some clubs pull out of playing competitive football for this season and I’m sure we will see more.”

What do you feel the long-term effects of the pandemic will be on the English game? For example, if the Premier League moves to a permanent model of Pay-Per-View/showing all games via subscription or streaming services, will this affect Non-League attendances?

“I think there’s been enormous backlash around the PPV system and as a result that’s been scrapped. Now it depends on what they do next long-term – if they do something else which supporters can grin and bear and which they’re comfortable with, then it may be the case we see all Premier League games on TV and an end to 3 o’ clock black out. How that affects Worcester City and Non-League football in general is an interesting one. People that watch Premier League on the TV don’t watch the Premier League for the same reasons they would go and watch Worcester City – it’s a completely different experience altogether. I always like to talk about watching Non-League football as it being imperfect but authentic – yes you might be watching more skilled players in the top leagues, yes you’re not going to see as many wayward shots but it’s a lot more authentic of an experience at our level. Its rough around the edges, its pies and pints and what many used to say football was all about. There’s a sense of belonging which is helped with the fact you can stand at Non-League games (and it helps its affordable at Non-League level for tickets). You can’t be naïve that showing Premier League games at 3 on a Saturday isn’t a threat but I think people watch both mediums of football for different reasons I would say.

Taking about reform more generally, I think before there is change in the English football system we will see more clubs go out of business and I think that’s inevitable to be honest. There are a number of clubs that are well known to be teetering on that edge currently. In terms of more clubs going towards fan ownership, unfortunately more often than not fan owned clubs develop out of the supporters having to pick up the club from a dire situation because of either bad ownership or poor decision making at that club by executives. If we see more clubs go out of business perhaps we will see more phoenix clubs emerge who pursue a fan owned model.

We’re at an interesting crossroads with fan ownership. AFC Wimbledon had to sell some of their shares to private investors to get their ground completed – it’s still fan owned but they’ve had to dip into the private sector a little bit. Portsmouth have sold to a former Disney CEO and then Wrexham are in the news in the minute as well. These sort of examples are leaning towards some arguing that to climb up the leagues you have to spend beyond your means and be supported by wealthy investors and therefore that perhaps fan ownership will only be viable in League 2 and below. However, I’d spin that around and say fan ownership is a way, when worked correctly, to ensure that the football club is a sustainable business and will be there in 10, 15, 20 years time, whereas the private model can’t necessarily guarantee that. With these clubs that have gone back into private ownership you are only one sale away from a bad owner and you as a fan base have completely lost your power to affect that because you sold your stake in the club earlier on.”

A separate point; but sadly there was a racist incident earlier in the season in which the Worcester City FC manager was the target of abuse. In what has been a big year in terms of racial equality do you think enough is being done to deal with racism in English Football?

“I can talk about our circumstances and its actually three times in the last year that our management team has received racial abuse and each time we have done what every other club would do and that’s condemn it and ensure our guys are okay and report it to the relevant people. But then when it happened again this season, we had a board meeting and we all said this just can’t continue, we can’t have it that our staff members have to keep going through this – we can’t just sit by and say ‘we condemn these actions’ and leave it there, we have to be more proactive. We know we’re only Worcester City and we can’t change the world, but we know if we can affect our local community then that’s what we have got to try and do. We’ve signed the Equality Charter with Kick it Out, so Worcester City FC are a equality chartered club now, but for me I didn’t want that to be a pat-on-the-back exercise. Having that charter should be the bare minimum and every club should commit to something like that. We understand it’s been a really important year in terms of the fight for equality so as a club we want to continue to be more active in this matter. Our board members are going to be enrolled on an equality and inclusion workshop because I think that’s massively important to make sure we have our own house in order. 

Do I think more needs to be done – I think we can all agree we are nowhere near, in terms of football, what it used to be like in the ’80s. But I do think there is a long way to go; I wouldn’t be surprised if near enough every week in every league there will be a racist incident. There is a lot of ground to cover but to be fair to the likes of Kick it Out they are trying to cover that ground. Sadly this work gets sometimes lost in the news when the FA shoot themselves in the foot with something like the Greg Clarke incident a week after they released their diversity in football plan. But as a club we are looking to always do more in this area.”

If you are interested in becoming a member of the Supporters’ Trust and want to have a say in how the Trust and the Football Club is run, you can sign up for just £10 a year. As the Trust’s website says: ‘By joining the Trust, which is equally owned by its members, you become an equal owner of Worcester City FC.– an exciting opportunity for football and non-football fans alike. You can also help the club out by buying items from the club shop or by donating to one of the club’s Team Builders.

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