Future of Eastbourne Borough is in the balance: 'Without paying spectators, we cannot survive'

“The very future of our football club is in the balance.” Eastbourne Borough CEO John Bonar could not have put it any more simply or starkly.

Wednesday, 23rd September 2020, 6:00 pm
For how long must Priory Lane remain empty?

No crowds, no club: and Borough are staring over the brink. Semi-professional clubs at their National South level had expected permission to re-admit spectators from the start of October – but that hope has been snatched away. Only clubs from Step 3 downwards can play in front of real crowds.

For some, the future and welfare of a modest semi-professional football club, somewhere in south-east England, may seem an irrelevance. Who needs football anyway? And are there not greater affairs of state to deal with – matters of life and death? Yes, of course, and nobody at the Borough is being flippant.

But the Sports are suffering from a Law of Unintended Consequences. Non-league football grounds have not been singled out as Covid-19 hotspots, nor their members as reckless rule-breakers. Transmission rates are not identified as unusually high in the open air in postcode BN23. On the contrary.

The scene we all want to see soon - Eastbourne Boro in action at Priory Lane - with paying fans present

But the Government clampdown was designed to manage crowds at huge gatherings and major sporting events. Nobody could be too surprised to find, say, a Twickenham Rugby international put on hold, with its usually heaving bars, packed car parks and squeezed concourses.

There is an argument for carefully managed and limited crowds at the major fixtures – such as Brighton and Hove Albion trialled recently at the Amex Stadium, with apparent success. But the Amex is not Priory Lane.

Here’s John Bonar again. “Has Eastbourne Borough more in common with Manchester City, or with Chichester City? Even on a good day, our gates barely touch four figures. You can do a complete circuit of the ground, during a match, without physical contact with another human being! You can even have a natter at two metres distance, or offer the linesman your opinion of his offside decision! We have space to spare.”

What also frustrates Borough is the moving of the goalposts. “We were given specific rules to follow, and we followed them. We have spent thousands in the process. We take temperatures and mobile numbers. We have signage everywhere. We disinfect religiously.

“We were given clear pointers towards October 3 as our re-opening date, and that has now been snatched away. Most ludicrously of all, the very same stadium where the tenants, Langney Wanderers, can legally play is barred to the landlords! It’s disgraceful.”

What about the Elite Status Question? Why is National South stamped with the same seal as the EFL clubs? “The Elite definition means that your employees earn most of their income through football, Not true, for virtually all of our players. The classification happened without our knowledge. In the summer, the biggest clubs in the National League, the division above, were desperate to fulfil their play-offs, and so keep their automatic promotion to the EFL.

“We had no issue with that. But nobody told us about the Elite status that came with it. If Government ministers seriously think we are elite or elitist, I openly invite them to take a Priory Lane tour. They will find us friendly, homely, busy, down to earth and passionate about what we are. There won’t be an elite person in sight. In fact, they’ll need to give me notice as I might be up a ladder fixing the dodgy gutter on the Mick Green Stand!”

But the economics of this crisis are no joking matter. “We have bills to pay and, from this week, players to pay. We have running costs for the stadium, the grounds, the clubhouse. Our two major sources of income are the bar takings – drastically down – and our gate receipts – nil.

“It’s stark and simple. Without paying spectators, we cannot survive. We would be faced with resigning from National South (and taking the large fine) and disbanding the first team. Then for season 2021-22, we would re-apply to join another suitable league, possibly the Isthmian League.”

Eastbourne Borough – the National League Community Club of the Year in 2018 – is a shining example. It provides sporting activity for 450 youngsters as well as walking football, disability football and women’s football. It has indoor bowls, social clubs for elderly folk and an Ofsted-acclaimed nursery. It hosts wakes and wedding receptions.

And, far from being a health risk, a Saturday afternoon at the Saffrons or the Oval or the Lane surely enhances the well-being and mental health of the community.

Much of this, presumably, would survive. But the town’s pinnacle football team would be gone, and all because of an inflexible rule.

Is there hope? The Government is handling a barrage of criticism. The National League has met this week to find a way forward, and there are hints of a possible rescue package from the Chancellor and the Culture Secretary.

At Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, two MPs asked direct questions on the issue – the second from a Norfolk MP which specifically named his local non-league club Kings Lynn Town. But Mr Johnson’s response only referred to Norwich City. Small wonder that the non-league game feels neglected.

They may have crowned Harry Redknapp King of the Jungle, but the rest of us, deep in a regulatory jungle, are swaying on the rope bridge just above the crocodiles. And the rope is steadily fraying…..