National League clubs told they will receive emergency grant from government

By Dan RoanBBC sports editor
Players 'worried' if National League season does not start

National League clubs have been told they will receive an emergency grant to enable them to start the new season this weekend.

Officials have been in talks with the government over funding to help cover the losses incurred by a ban on fans.

Last week the government scrapped plans for a partial return of spectators from 1 October.

The National League said it was hopeful a "critical financial support package" could be agreed.

National League North clubs said they did not want to begin playing without crowds, and there had been fears some would withdraw from the FA Cup to avoid triggering player contracts they could not afford to continue.

But on Tuesday clubs received an email from the league's chief executive Michael Tattersall telling them that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was "working at pace… to design a package of support that will give the National League the reassurance it needs".

"This will include grants to cover essential revenue lost from fans not returning on 1 October as planned."

Clubs were told "the government recognises the immediate pressure National League clubs are under in respect of starting their season and are committed to play resuming in a viable way".

The size of any grant is yet to be confirmed, but BBC Sport understands the league is hoping for around £2-3m per month.

Tattersall wrote that more details were needed, but that the update was intended to "provide reassurance to the National League ahead of the season starting this weekend".

On Wednesday, speaking in the House of Commons, minister for sport Nigel Huddleston confirmed the financial assistance, but said the criteria were still being developed.

"It will be based on those most in need. It will absolutely be focused on gate receipts," he said, adding that other sports would "definitely" be included.

"This is giving us a lifeline to get the season started behind closed doors," Aldershot Town chairman Shahid Azeem BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "I am extremely relieved".

The National League - the fifth tier of English football - is due to begin on Saturday, 3 October with the regional sixth-tier North on 5 October and South on 6 October.

The 2019-20 season was ended in April as a result of a vote by clubs after all three leagues were suspended because of the outbreak of coronavirus.

Clubs then voted to decide the final league tables on a points-per-game basis, with promotion play-offs subsequently played in all three divisions.

'Premier League is being hit from all directions'

On Tuesday the Premier League held what were described as "measured" talks over a possible £250m bail-out of the English Football League (EFL), but no agreement was reached.

Clubs are known to have concerns over their own finances, and will hold a further meeting next Tuesday.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden had said he was "hopeful" a deal could be struck this week, but the Premier League is known to see such a timeframe as unrealistic.

Brighton chief executive Paul Barber told BBC Radio 5 Live putting the return of fans on hold was a "gigantic step back" and Premier League clubs were "being hit from all directions".

"We're being asked to support the football pyramid but what we're asking for is to be able to sustain our own businesses to put ourselves in a better position to be able to do that," he added.

"We're not being permitted to run our own businesses to generate our own income, we're supporting where we can the government's messages and everything else they're asking us to do but at the same time we're also being asked to help others - it doesn't seem quite right."

Huddleston, also speaking on Wednesday, added there had been "constructive conversations" with the Premier League and EFL.

"They do recognise their responsibility," he said. "They are at the top of the pyramid and it is perfectly fair and reasonable that those with the broadest shoulders carry the biggest burden."

Meanwhile, it has been estimated 300,000 jobs could be lost in the next six months from the UK's sport and fitness sector.

The Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity (CIMSPA) says there are likely to be a "significant number of closures" of gyms and leisure centres in coming months.

"It is vital for the government to recognise that saving professional sports clubs (while also hugely important) is a totally different challenge from that of protecting the grassroots sport and physical activity sector."

Sports and leisure organisations have been given until today to tell the DCMS how much they estimate they will lose as the government works on an emergency funding package.

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