In the final Terrace Thoughts of 2018 I asked, “Is football getting dafter?”
The answer is obviously ‘yes’. So what does 2019 hold for lower league clubs and their fans? Financial sustainability remains the critical challenge; as it always has been. I recently came across a blog by Stuart Fuller dated 15 June 2013 for the award winning ‘The Ball Is Round’ (theballisround.co.uk website) – despite its age this article is well worth repeating in full – just remember that it is old! That I borrowed it and that I might not agree with everything in it!
THE BLUEPRINT FOR THE FUTURE OF NON LEAGUE FOOTBALL – FINANCIAL FAIR PLAY PART 1
Great minds think alike, so they say. So whilst I was half way through writing my final piece in this year’s series of Blueprints for the future of the non league game, in pops a suggestion from Jenni Silver, the Goddess of Gloucester City FC which couldn’t have matched my thoughts any better.
How much does it cost to run a non-league team? You could argue, with two Conference South teams entering administration last season and numerous others across the pyramid struggling for cash to pay their bills that perhaps it is beginning to cost too much.
Despite the perpetual argument that there is no money in non-league it seems clubs are still spending wildly, rarely on infrastructure but usually on wages, which continue to rise against a backdrop of unsteady gate numbers, recession and supporter apathy which stalks the lower leagues.
The haves and the have nots are growing further apart – one look at the Conference Premier shows some teams towards the top half of the table spending more on the wages of single players than some teams in the league below spend on their entire squad. Full time teams now exist in the Conference North and South yet some Step three teams can still turn players’ heads with an offer of an extra £20 or so a week than teams in the league above can afford.
With financial fair play in non-league seemingly a long way off – as one conference official noted last season, the turkeys won’t be voting for Christmas any time soon – there must be an alternative which helps stabilise spending and provide a positive example to the next generation of players and fans.
I will admit my Blueprint for Non-League is a bit “out there” but it is getting to the point where there needs to be a revolution – the top part of non-league is a mess, ex League clubs struggling to adjust, ambitious upstarts spending their way to the top and players commanding daft wages because they know the clubs will pay somehow and the chaos is filtering down to the lower leagues too. In short it is damaging the game.
My idea for a shake-up could do away with some of this, it might even mean the end of the AGM cup and it all came about by thinking of a land far far away. On the other side of the world the A League has evolved slowly over the past decade or so to become a sustainable, solid league attracting the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and er Emile Heskey. It has also bred a new generation of Socceroos and attracts thousands upon thousands of fans in a country where football is far from the being the national sport.
It has grown to become something sustainable, something which promotes youth development and something which is popular and attractive to families – what non-league team wouldn’t kill for a slice of that?
The A League has set rules which could be applied to the first three steps of non-league in a bid to damp down the flames of crazy spending and financial idiocy which burn through the leagues each season – yes it would be radical, but something’s got to give.
Suggestion 1: A wage cap
Let’s get the contentious bit out the way first. A wage cap would be a quick, although probably not an easy or popular way of controlling the spending. It links with the equally unpopular and as yet unenforced financial fair play rules which demand a club can only spend what it brings in in revenue and sponsorship but takes it one step further, a top level cap on wages.
OK, the Football League doesn’t have a wage cap and the Premier League won’t be even thinking about the idea any time soon but that shouldn’t be a reason in itself for non-league to not consider it, especially when you have such a disparity across the pyramid. It seems a bit scary that there are clubs in the Conference Premier spending more that some League Two clubs. Hard and fast figures for wages are notoriously hard to come by and most teams will argue that they pay their players a couple of bags of Quavers and a bottle of pop but players talk and if the figures I’ve heard are true, well I wish I was a non-league footballer!
Imposing a wage cap alongside an A-League style squad quota (more of which later) would mean managers and clubs would be forced to spend wisely and include local players. The leagues could be evened out – no more Phoenix teams spending their way up the leagues, going pop and then repeating the process all over again. The teams with less money would still spend less but the big budget blowouts would be limited.
Of course the players wouldn’t like it but capping wages could benefit clubs in the long term, attracting players who are value for money and who aren’t just chasing a wage. Interestingly the A League also has a set minimum wage for players, which might not work for part-time football but could easily be applied to the full-time clubs at the top of the pyramid.
So, it’s a bit of radical thinking but bear with me, combined with a bit more wisdom from Oz it might just work.
Suggestion 2: Squad numbers
Forest Green Rovers, arguably among the biggest spenders in the whole of non-league have ten strikers on their books at the moment, ten! Manager Dave Hockaday isn’t, as far as we know, planning to play them all at the same time but even with some serious squad rotation ten seems a bit, well, much.
Look to the two leagues below and last season two teams, under transfer embargo due to various financial woes were forced to play a goalkeeper in midfield as their squad was hit with injuries and the departures of unhappy players. The turnover of players at some clubs across the space of a season is staggering – no wonder there is lack of stability when there is so much movement.
Setting a maximum squad number – the A League has 23, with 14 eligible for selection for each playing squad – would create a fairer system; of course Forest Green could still sign ten strikers if they wanted under this system, it just might leave them short elsewhere.
Suggestion 3: Mandatory places in the squad for
When Gloucester City took to the field against Colwyn Bay on the last day of the 2012/13 season the starting line-up included eight youth team graduates. One was the all time appearance record holder in his 13th season with the first team, three were first team squad members with a handful of appearances between them, the remaining four were current under 18s. Whilst City’s hand was forced due to injuries it showed that a strong link between youth and senior set-ups can pay dividends. But it is a rarity now to see young homegrown players making regular appearances for their local team – you have the smattering of players, like City’s Tom Webb, who are established and who have long histories with their clubs but newer talent is harder to come by, especially when League clubs are offering out their younglings for loans. There is the argument that the step up from a youth league to a senior league is too steep but the kids have got to learn somewhere.
The A-League demands that three players from the club’s youth set up are included in the senior squad. And while there is a youth league which runs parallel to the main A-League there is no reason for a similar quota to be applied to non-league. Although the Elite Player Programme has sent shock waves through youth development most clubs will still be running under 18s and youth teams. As Putajumperon pointed out in his Blueprint, children are the future – having former pupils playing for their local team is a big pull for schools – everyone loves a local hero and it cements a club’s place in the heart of the community.
Suggestion 4: Marquee players and guest signings
With so many ex pros swarming around the non-league pyramid and many more being released each year it is easy to see how wages have started to spiral, there is an expectation that because a player started off as a pro they deserve a certain level of wages.
In Australia teams are allowed one “marquee” player, a star player, whose wages sit outside the main capped budget – along with a junior marquee player (under 23, with a capped wage) and a home grown marquee player. This means your Heskeys, Del Pieros and the like – the big stars who command the top wages, but increasingly it has also meant Socceroos regulars and home-grown stars too.
Applied to the first three tiers of non-league on a sliding scale this could balance out the spending to some extent, appeasing some of the restrictions of the wage cap.
It would stop the Wembley FC nonsense of publicity signings and give a level of control back to the clubs, no more journeymen following the wages, a marquee player would be forced to prove he is worth the money or take a pay cut to fit within the budget. The sliding scale could work with say three marquee players in the Conference Premier, two in the league below and one at step three – optional of course but for the big boys, three big stars is your lot.
New to the A League is the guest player signing – essentially loanees and temporary contracts, aimed at attracting big name players from overseas (your David Beckham to Milan during the MLS off season kind of thing) – again this could work, for your big loanees from pro clubs or for the random blasts from the past who pop up in non-league from time to time (see Lee Trundle at Chester last season).
So there you have it, it’s a bit radical, probably a bit bonkers but if non-league is going to continue to evolve something big needs to happen to stop the rot. Too many teams have been lost or maimed due to wild spending and financial fecklessness. Think of all the changes to the game in its history, most seemed mad at the time; maybe it is time to be bold?
A thought provoking article – got me thinking about who we could have as guest players – a pre-retirement run out for Stuart Downing? The path back to full fitness for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? The timely return of Steve Howard? Is now the right time? Nurse! Nurse! My medication!
The above article is old but the underlying issues remain and a quick look at the forum of our near neighbours (darlo uncovered) shows some interesting (and worrying) discussions on the subject of ownership and funding models (the 2 January 2019 thread ‘Ownership and Finance’ is particularly relevant) – all this emphasising that the future of Pools is by no means certain and that we must all continue to watch what is happening at other clubs, and to learn from their mistakes and to focus on good ideas. We really don’t know if 2019 will be the year that HUST is needed – or if it will be another year for the Trust to further develop its financial and human resources in readiness for the day we all hope will never arise.
Another cracking article on the Ball Is Round website is ‘When the money runs out’ by Stuart Fuller – https://stuartnoel.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/when-the-money-runs-out-by-stuart-fuller.pdf. Well worth a read, as is ‘Listen to the fans’ by Andy Ollerenshaw which can be found under https://theballisround.co.uk/non-league-notes/.
Stuart Fuller is Chairman of Lewes FC, is on the Board of Supporters Direct, and has written a number of excellent books – so he is a Top Bloke in my humble opinion.
Anyway, what does 2019 hold for clubs such as Pools? Hope? Money having three youngsters on the bench against Gateshead was concerning on some levels, but you’ve got to give them a go at some stage. Let’s take the positives out of this. But what can we really hope for, outside of a run in the FA Trophy and decent end to the season? There’ll need to be further cost cutting and where will that take us – and the often talked about ‘Three Year Plan’? Yes, we must hope. Despair? I despair about many things in lower league football but my major gripe is the growing lack of respect for the punter – we, the primary source of revenue, are treated pretty appallingly by many clubs and players. Players self-diagnosing fitness as seems to have been the case in the run up to the Gateshead match (as clearly implied in Wednesday’s Mail). Anyway, so long as we avoid the despair of early 2018 I’ll sort of be happy! Success? Well someone has to be successful: the question is ‘when will it be our turn’? And what does success look like? A return to League 2 or stability/ survival where we are now? Failure? What does this look like? We’ve suffered much; but it could have been worse: and we may yet have to face the demons of financial meltdown again. And we don’t need to only look below and around us in the pyramid for clubs which may be lost forever: Bolton Wanderers? How long can they trot on? Luck? We need it! The Gateshead fans had cause to question both of our goals on New Year’s Day. Luck, or something was on our side that day. But we need much more of it.
During half-time of the Havant & Waterlooville match the Abba tune ‘Money, Money, Money’ was played.
“Ooh, that must be for the new manager”, remarks a lady standing close by.
“Aye, the announcer couldn’t find his Dire Straits album” replies her partner.
Showing my age I got the point of the reply and, after having had several fine ales in the Hops & Cheese, I did smirk at the comment – but then the cynicism hit me. Dickie Dosh had had less than two matches in charge and the fans are already making cryptically critical remarks. Cynicism should be expected, I suppose, from any long suffering Hartlepool fan, but what must any recently arrived manager or player think when they read or hear such comments? Some of his selections have had me scratching my bald bits, but he needs to be given the benefit of the doubt for now.
Tomorrow sees us take on Maidstone United and the probable return to Pools action for Jake Cassidy – personally I’d like to see him get a run in the team and think that it might bring out the best in Luke James. But it also sees the return – as Assistant Caretaker Manager – of Simon ‘Fist Pump’ Walton! I never really warmed to Walton and his ‘wikipedia entry’ speaks volumes when, after a lengthy piece about his time at Plymouth, under the heading ‘Hartlepool United’, it reads, “Walton was released by Plymouth in July 2012 so he could be closer to his daughter, and signed for Hartlepool United on 6 July”. Well, he went on to play for us on 73 occasions, notching four times. I recall that ‘Fist Pump’ (like Steve Howard) ended his Hartlepool career with a red card – against Morecambe at Fortress Vic on 21 April 2014 (this coming shortly after his dismissal at Oxford United on 21 March 2014), finishing a season during which he picked up 10 yellow cards in 46 appearance (this season he’s managed to collect 7 yellows in 18 appearances, two of which were for Billericay Town during his two appearances for that Conference South outfit).
Now Steve Howard was a player who I warmed to during his first spell with Pools and I was sorry to see him leave for Northampton Town but, despite his two goals at Sheffield Wednesday on 29 December 2012, his second time with Pools is best left alone.
So I’ll close with best wishes for 2019 to Raj, the new HUST Board, and all you loyal and long suffering supporters! A little less turmoil than 2018 would be nice!