Stalybridge Celtic finance director Keith Smart chronicles how the club fared during the first 12 months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
We have all heard the phrase ‘it’s been a very strange year’ many times recently. But being involved with running a non-league football club over the last 12 months has been even stranger, simply because there hasn’t been a lot of football played and more challenges than usual.
When we lost 2-0 to Warrington Town on March 7, 2020, we didn’t know that match signalled the end of the season.
It was also decided that there would be no promotion or relegation. This decision didn’t affect us in those terms, but it certainly had a significant impact on clubs at the top of the league standings. Some felt they had been denied the chance of promotion, having invested heavily to achieve that goal.
While we were not denied promotion, we were denied the opportunity to hold five home games. That equated to almost a quarter of the season’s match-day income and included the financially important Easter game with local rivals Hyde, so represented a significant financial loss.
As we progressed through the late spring and early summer, and the country went into full lockdown, we were in a period of uncertainty. Huge questions abounded. Would there be a season 2020-21? Should we sign players? If games were allowed, would we be able to have fans in the ground?
As the weeks passed under lockdown, a multitude of regulations and instructions began cascading down on all businesses, including ours. For a couple of months, the club was effectively put into hibernation.
In late summer we were informed there would be a 2020-21 season, but it would begin in September, a month later than normal. But the big question of whether we could have spectators in the ground still remained.
Clearly, the uncertainty over whether we would be able to generate matchday income made planning and budgeting very difficult. Most clubs at our level, including Celtic, felt that beginning a season while playing behind closed doors was simply not a viable option. It would be financially catastrophic and would spell the end of many clubs.
Finally, in August friendly matches were sanctioned, though behind closed doors. The loss of income from not having paying spectators was one thing, but the added costs of administering these games was immense. Covid temperature testing for all, segregating the teams and officials into areas of the stadium which would not normally be used as changing rooms. This meant additional cleaning costs etc.
We were eventually informed that fans would be allowed to attend matches once the season began in September, obviously a great relief. However, there would be restrictions on how many people could attend matches, social distancing measures had to be implemented, new Covid related signage needed to be installed, everyone entering the ground had to be temperature checked and track and trace details obtained.
Because different areas of the country were put into different tiers of lockdown, each with their own travel restrictions, some matches were designated as being only for Tameside residents. To administer this, we had to introduce an online ticketing system whereby match tickets could be bought in advance.
To everyone’s relief, football returned on September 12 with an away win in the FA Cup, live on the BBC at Stocksbridge Park Steels. The league season began a week later with a 1-1 draw with Lancaster at Bower Fold. We were very happy to have football back, with spectators in the ground, and were able to look forward to a degree of normality.
Sadly, over the following few weeks, Covid infection rates began increasing and on November 5 another full lockdown was introduced and the season ground to a halt. Only nine league matches had been played by Celtic, in fact some clubs had only played six matches.
Once more we were placed into limbo, waiting for instructions from both the Government and the FA as to whether it would be possible to resume the season. Again, the need to have spectators attending games was paramount, but as weeks passed, and lockdown continued, it became apparent that this was going to be impossible. So, a second successive season was designated as a write-off.
With the hugely successful roll-out of the vaccine programme, we can only hope that the next 12 months will be nearer to normal than the last 12. I genuinely hope all clubs at our level have been able to survive the real financial strains of the last year and will be able to return to competitive action for 2021-22.
Yes, it’s been a very strange year.