15 January ~ The floodlights were on last Tuesday at Cantilever Park – home of Unibond Division One North side Warrington Town. However the players were not carrying out their usual pre-match warm-up. Instead, armed with wheelbarrows and shovels, they were attempting to make the pitch playable for the first time in five weeks. Despite their best efforts, and those of 20 or so volunteers, this Saturday's game against Halifax has been called off with more inclement weather forecast for the weekend. It's a similar story throughout the country and as a result of postponements many non-League clubs are facing the prospect of a month with no revenue from gate receipts. Commendably the Blue Square Premier have brought their funding payments forward to help clubs through the difficult financial period.
After the recent cold snap Sir Alex Ferguson suggested that a winter break would be beneficial for Premier League clubs. A knee-jerk reaction perhaps, with top flight games rarely affected by the weather and a mid-season break also conflicting with the international calendar. However, the non-League fixture list is severely disrupted year on year with clubs unable to rely on a large army of full time groundstaff or state of the art undersoil heating. Instead of wasting efforts in a losing battle against the elements, some are wondering if non-League football could be converted into a summer sport. The outgoing Chester City manager Jim Harvey recently offered his assessment of the attempts to get matches on during Britain's coldest winter for 30 years: "Playing football in the current conditions that we're experiencing is nonsense, he told the BBC. "Summer football is the obvious way to go. The pluses it brings are immense."
A club like Warrington Town, for example, are competing with six Premier League clubs within a 30 mile radius. If their matches were played during the summer attendances and revenue would increase substantially. Admittedly non-League teams would be in competition with the established summer sports but they would not provide anything like the obstacle presented by the media monster that is the Premier League.
The idea of moving the non-League fixture list to the spring/summer months has two potential stumbling blocks: the reluctance of clubs to waive their participation in the FA Cup and the logistics of a club being promoted to (or relegated from) a division in the regular football calendar. The FA Cup conundrum could be best solved by beginning the preliminary rounds earlier in the year with the first round proper played during the first weeks of the regular football season, providing a grand finale to the campaign for those non-League clubs who have made it that far.
If the non-League season begins in February, playing two games a week, and with very few or any postponements, the League season could be finished by mid-July giving those promoted a six-week break before the regular season starts. There is no denying the two clubs would be at a severe disadvantage the following campaign. However this could be offset by a bonus payment paid by the Conference out of the increased revenue generated from moving to a summer fixture list. The logistical problems facing two clubs each season would be overridden by the total benefit to the non-League football pyramid as a whole. Such a wholescale reform is unlikely to happen in the near future but at a time when some clubs are looking at nearly two months without football, it should at least be given due consideration. Steven Quick