In the midst of the isolation and devastation brought about by coronavirus, football has remained one of the major talking points. We’re not talking about it in the same way we used to however. Rather than blaming the ref for a dodgy decision or analysing performances over a pint, we’re debating how and when football should start again. This seems trite in the context of the pandemic but it’s an issue that needs sorted nonetheless. Whilst people on Twitter debate whether or not Liverpool should win the league, there are serious financial implications of football’s current absence.
This is particularly true of local clubs in Northern Ireland like Portstewart FC. With no fans passing through the turnstile and no matches on the horizon, it’s an uncertain time for the seaside club. Their manager is former Coleraine under 20s coach Johnny Law and he offered an insight into the club’s current state.
“The club was struggling even before the coronavirus. We were actually on our knees, there was a big possibility that we wouldn’t survive the year due to the financial difficulties that we were in. We decided to bring in a few new boys on the committee and we’ve started a lottery that will hopefully pay some of the bills. A big problem we had is that from November to March we only had 3 home games, that nearly wiped us out completely. The coronavirus has come at a really bad time because we had quite a few home games coming up.”
There’s a tendency sometimes for the financial difficulties of running a football club to be overlooked. It can be taken for granted that every Saturday your local team will be playing but things aren’t that straightforward. Teams like Portstewart have to be wise with their money and be innovative in terms of increasing their income.
“We have overheads of just over £1000 a month now that we have to pay no matter what. I know a lot of teams will probably be telling the same story but I’d say we’re in a small percentage of teams from the Premiership to the Intermediate League that don’t pay one single player. We don’t have the money and it would absolutely kill us. Hopefully we can get through this and move on.”
In November 2019, Portstewart were subject to vandalism on their ground which plunged them further into financial difficulties. They are a voluntary club and making repairs to the ground represents a significant stretch of their finances.
“At that time it was make or break, financially we could not pay for some things to get fixed like guttering. The club was at a crossroads. The guys we’ve brought in on the committee have been phenomenal because the monthly bill was something like £1200 and that was before we turned on a light. There’s water bills, rent, rates, grass to get cut as it’s growing like mad.”
“Some clubs spend more in a week than we would spend in 5 years. There’s never any mention of the teams down the league getting anything. The players in our league don’t get paid and some of them are finding it tough. People don’t realise how hard it is running a team at our level. The financial side of it is crazy, you need to be raising £1000 a month before you turn on a light. We’re now going into our second month finished and that’s £2000 we as a club need to find somewhere to pay the bills.”
“Nothing seems to filter down through the leagues. The bills keep coming and you just have to find the money somewhere.”
On the pitch, this had been a very strong season for the Seahawks. Before play ceased they sat second in the NIFL Premier Intermediate League behind Annagh United. Portstewart were unbeaten up to present in their league and the coronavirus outbreak has stalled their momentum.
“In footballing terms we’re probably in as good a position as Portstewart have been in, in a long long time. We had great momentum and we were going to be playing Annagh and Dollingstown, two fierce rivals and I was looking forward to it. At the end of the day football is not the main concern. The way our league is run and structured it’s quite possible to start the Intermediate League in December and still get it finished by April. “
“We have 20 league games in the season. 2 in August, 1 in September, 1 in October, 1 in November then they hit you with 4 in December. We have weeks when you don’t have games if you get knocked out of the cup. For the third tier to have only 20 games is crazy. We could start our new season in December, it could be easily done. I hope we get through this and play eventually. Football is irrelevant at this time but I’d love it to be back just to be out.”
The mental health of footballer’s is in the spotlight due to the coronavirus pandemic. Like everyone, they are experiencing significant upheaval and disruption to their usual routines. The Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) have introduced new mental health initiatives in light of the virus. Stephen Mills, Development Officer of NIFL has said that these measures will be here to stay even after the pandemic. They had been in the pipeline for a while and the coronavirus represented a perfect opportunity to introduce them. Johnny Law has altered his approach to managing his players from home as the pandemic has progressed.
“At the start of it I was telling the boys to keep fit but I don’t do that now. Some boys are really finding it tough, some have texted me saying that they’ll never complain about having to train or go away for a league game again. I’m not going to be saying to anybody ‘you should be doing this’, it’s entirely up to them. Not one of them’s there for money that’s for sure. They’re just there to play and win, that’s it. They have been brilliant for us.”
There is some light on the horizon for the residents of Portstewart thanks to funding that their football club has received. Across Northern Ireland football clubs have been assisting their local areas whether that be through food banks or delivering goods to residents.
“We got funded £1500 to help the local community. As a club we are going to be handing out food packages to 70 homes in the local area.”
Despite their current difficulties, Portstewart and other clubs like them are committed to helping their communities through this crisis. The fans are the lifeblood of our local teams and it is great to see football clubs giving back during this time of great need.