Woking FC: Life in Lockdown Outside the PL
Much of the football coverage about the pandemic has been focused on the Premier League. The reality is that the lockdown could have a far greater impact on clubs lower down the league pyramid.
We got in touch with Ian Nicholson, a Woking FC Director (representing the Supporters Trust on the Club Board), to find out how the club are dealing with this unprecedented situation.
Many companies and clubs across the world, whether they are in the sports industry or not, are having to run differently due to the lockdown restrictions. On a day to day basis, how is the club currently operating?
Woking FC is still running but the ground is in lockdown and nothing is happening except for the regular blood donor sessions. We have skeleton staff covering accounts and club matters and everyone else has been furloughed. The Club Board meets more regularly to monitor affairs, particularly the club cash flow and projections.
All football fans miss watching the game but is it practical and economically viable to restart National League football behind closed doors? Will there be enough TV and sponsorship money to cover costs?
At Woking’s level match day income is key because media and TV income is marginal. We might have managed finishing the season and, hopefully, the play offs behind closed doors but even a few games without the fans would be hard to sustain for any club without a large amount of outside help.
Presumably the club will need to look at ways to raise extra funds to make up for the financial implications of the pandemic.
The standout idea for Woking has been to give all fans the opportunity to have their names woven into next season’s shirts (#GETBEHINDTHESHIRT). There has been great take up. It’s pretty unique and a great example of innovation in difficulty. One advantage that clubs like Woking have is that the buy in from fans is immense and longstanding.
Many people will be wondering whether the Premier League are helping to fund lower league clubs.
The Premier League has advanced £125 million to lower league football but just £2 million has gone to the National League. This situation is a great chance for the FA, and football generally, to ask what we want the game to be. Of course money plays a part but the financially driven nature of lower tier football has been in real danger of getting out of control. All clubs need to take an honest look at who they are and why they exist. Clubs at our level would love financial help in order to come out the other side of this, ready to kick into action.
As a semi-professional club, most of your players have day jobs. What has that meant for the club and the players right now?
It’s actually helped both us and them. The players have been furloughed until the end of the season, which gives them an assurance of regular income. As always, Woking will treat its players well. In other ways the chaplaincy at the club has offered support to any players who need help. The vast majority of players are out of contract at the end of the season but these are unique times so the club will remain available to support the players in any way they can before things become clear.
Will the pandemic lead to a change in the structure of the National League? Could there be an influx of loan players to keep wage bills down?
Who knows?! Clubs have a limit of loan players they can use at one time. However, many experienced heads in the game are expressing a desire to see football reset and take this opportunity to change. This could, hopefully, mean more part time teams, realistic pay levels, less agent involvement and perhaps regionalisation of the National League and, possibly, League 2. This would also mean fewer clubs going bust like Bury or Gateshead. The National League is very strong and many clubs would be competitive in League 2. An additional automatic promotion spot is hard to argue against and perhaps even a merger between the National League and League 2. These are just my views though!
Could this crisis result in any positives for the world of football?
History tells us that post-crisis attendances at football have seen a boost. I am sure there will be some initial nervousness but hopefully there will be a positive, celebratory bounce back. Football roots people in their community, it has seen us through two World Wars and is going nowhere. When football resumes it will be a bumper time of celebration.
Woking’s manager, Alan Dowson, contracted the virus and thought he "was a goner". How is he now?
Dowse, in his own words, had taken the virus quite lightly but is now very clear that it is serious and not the flu! He was ill for several weeks, spent a short time in hospital, saw others far worse off than him but thankfully is now recovering well and is full of energy and ideas for taking the team forward.
One final message to the fans who are missing football?
At heart we are all fans! Saturdays weeding the garden and wandering around aimlessly is not the same. Like all fans we love the anticipation, the friendship and the moments of exhilaration like Swindon, Watford, Wealdstone or Welling last year. Sadly, exhilaration also goes hand in hand with despair and depression. That is football. Hang in there and when this comes out the other side, Woking FC, which has been there since 1889, will be there for you. See you soon. Come on you Cards!
Our thanks to Ian Nicholson and our best wishes to Woking FC for next season.