Photo: Peter Talbot

By Callum Crabtree

The Covid-19 pandemic, which has put an abrupt end on the 2019/20 campaign, has been at a detriment to all clubs in the non-league game. The gate receipts missed out on, the post-season functions that have had to be postponed, even down to the cup of tea you might purchase at half-time, all add up.

South Shields, managed by the duo of Lee Picton and Graham Fenton, were planning to utilise those finances in a new division next year. The Mariners were 12 points clear at the top of the Northern Premier Division with nine of their games to go before the lockdown, and the National League North was looking within touching distance.

However, the season since being declared null and void has left the South Tyneside outfit devastated at being denied a famous promotion. Owner and chairman Geoff Thompson, who has led a remarkable turnaround of the club’s fortunes since taking over in 2015, has stated that the decision should be re-addressed.

“First of all, I must stress that football is not important at this time, as everyone’s health and well-being is of most importance,” he said. “I accept it’s not safe to play football and watch it currently, but there is a better way to end the season.”

“If you look at what’s happened elsewhere, like in Scottish football, they’ve decided it on sporting merit by going with PPG (points per game),” he continued.

“It’s also being applied in other nations, like in France and Belgium, so for us in Steps 3-7 at the moment, the whole season is seemingly being expunged, and that’s the decision we’re trying to challenge. We’re currently taking legal advice and we will take matters further, sadly.”

There has been no such decision to halt the EFL and Premier League as of yet, with many clubs deliberating on when to resume the season once it is safe to do so. When asked if it was seen as an easy decision to expunge the majority of non-league divisions, Geoff said the disparity in the football pyramid is plain to see.

“Could you imagine that decision being applied to Liverpool in the Premier League or Leeds in the Championship? The reality is that it wouldn’t have done.

“The decision-makers would’ve faced litigation charges and unfortunately, that’s what we’re going to have to do, because it’s about the principle. We’ve got this football pyramid and what I’m trying to say is that it’s not really a pyramid, and it’s a different set of rules in different parts of it, and that can’t be right, that can’t be fair.”

The club, like so many others all across football, are feeling the strain the lockdown has bestowed upon them.

However, Geoff has praised the government’s furlough scheme, which is helping his side get through these challenging times.

“What it’s meant for us is that most of our staff have been furloughed, including the players and management. The club’s effectively in complete lockdown and the revenue has been dried up.

“I have said that before the Chancellor announced the furlough system that I made a commitment that I wouldn’t let my staff or my players down. We were paying everybody 100 per cent of their salaries, but thankfully, the government have stepped in with their 80 per cent furlough scheme.”

With such an extensive lead at the top, Geoff explained that the financial modelling of upcoming seasons were with the National League North in mind. The league ruling has naturally meant those plans have come to a halt.

“If you look at our financial modelling for next year, we’ve assumed that promotion into National League North was going to happen, and now that’s severely in doubt or not going to happen at all. We made certain revenue assumptions for next year that now have to be questioned, not just because of the pandemic and the social isolation after it as well, but also in the National League North we would have had a lot bigger crowds in normal circumstance, and more local derbies.

“We would have faced the likes of York City, Darlington, Spennymoor, Blyth Spartans etc. In the absence of that promotion, we face another season in the Northern Premier League, and now the added complications around revenue and when the season might begin.

“Our biggest costs, in rough-cut terms, are around £50,000 a month, and with no income, it doesn’t take a mathematician or an accountant to work out how difficult that is. It’s a tough one, but we’ll get through it.”

Geoff also spoke about exciting plans the club had for the community before everything was put on hold.

“If this whole thing hadn’t happened we were about to issue shares to fans and the whole community to make the fans shareholders,” he said. “The idea behind giving shares to the fans was not just so the club is cemented in the community, but it’s owned by the community; that is the intention.”

In and amongst the uncertainty, the positives at the club outweigh the negatives. Shields have already sold an incredible 400 season tickets for next season, despite the ever-growing concerns of when 2020/21 will commence.

That community spirit is what Geoff explained makes the club so great.

“We’ve tried to do as much fan engagement and community engagement as possible. We’re doing simple things, such as a Sunday lunch delivery service, various online quizzes and online lotteries to generate a small bit of income.

“Also, many of our fans and sponsors have stepped up, as we’ve sold quite a large number of season tickets already for our level for next season, even though we don’t know when that season is going to begin. We’ve got some short-term challenges, as many other businesses and football clubs, but that’s also across the entire economy as well.

“But, we will get through it. We sit in a passionate area of the country, in the North East, and we are a town of 80,000 inhabitants, and 160,000 in the whole of South Tyneside.

“I know that the whole community are right behind us. It’s going to be tough, but we’ve got a strong team of players who are secure and contracted to the club, so we’ll come back next year as strong as ever.”

Interview/article by @CallumCLC

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