Lower-league football clubs 'face extinction' without rescue package

Mansfield (United Kingdom) (AFP) –


Football clubs outside the Premier League that are the beating heart of the English game will vanish unless a financial rescue package is agreed imminently.

That is the stark warning from Mansfield Town chief executive David Sharpe, who told AFP a deal was needed within a couple of weeks as clubs struggle to survive in the coronavirus era.

Clubs in League One and League Two this month rejected a £50 million ($65 million) offer from the Premier League, saying the bailout was insufficient and insisting Championship clubs should also be part of any offer.

Sharpe, whose own club is in League Two, the fourth tier of the game, told AFP it was a "brave decision", taken in solidarity with clubs in the second-tier Championship, who were not included.

Away from the TV-fuelled wealth of the Premier League, clubs are on their knees, deprived for months of their main source of income, with spectators barred due to tough Covid-19 rules.

Sharpe, sitting in the stand that proudly proclaims Field Mill as "the oldest professional football ground in the world", said he does not expect to see fans return until next season, adding to the sense of urgency.

His fear is that when the offer comes back it could be the same figure again, on a take-it-or leave it basis, and clubs rooted in their communities for generations will go to the wall.

"There would be a huge price to pay for the image of the English game," he said.

"We're hopeful, though, the Premier League will agree something with the EFL (English Football League, which covers 72 clubs) in the not-too-distant future and I am sure the government will be involved.

"But it has to be soon. It can't be another month of waiting. It has to be within the next week or two.

"It is a big jump, £50 million to £250 million (the figure clubs believe is needed to cover the Championship plus League One and League Two). There is a gap to fill there and I hope the conversations go well."

Sharpe said a failure to agree a viable deal would hit clubs quickly.

"It's worrying," added the 29-year-old former chairman of Wigan.

"We're getting near the end of the month when obviously pay kicks in, a new wage roll that has to be paid for October then November, and it is a real pinch point.

"I do feel when we get to the end of November we (Mansfield) will be OK but other clubs won't be.

"It's coming to the point where if there's no rescue package, clubs are going to start going under, and that's the reality of it."

- 'Sense of purpose' -

Mansfield is a market town in northern England, with coal mining the main industry in the area for most of the 20th century.

The origins of the club itself, whose stadium has a capacity of around 9,000, can be traced back to 1897.

Sharpe, who arrived in the eye of the storm in May when England was in full lockdown, said Mansfield Town are fortunate to have wealthy and generous owners in John and Carolyn Radford.

John Radford, a local man who made his fortune in insurance, has financed, along with club director and property developer Steve Hymas, a state-of-the-art training ground outside the Nottinghamshire town.

However, Sharpe said even for a club as relatively stable as "The Stags", who have never been in the top tier, the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic have been "devastating" -- they face a loss of £1 million across the season.

One problem is that letting in smaller, socially distanced crowds would not be viable for clubs such as Mansfield.

"If say even we had the season-ticket holders, who number 1,600 and socially distanced, the stewarding and policing costs would go through the roof," said Sharpe.

"We would not be allowed to open kiosks to sell beer, no hospitality so costs go higher and higher."

Sharpe said aside from the financial worries, the cost to the ordinary fan of being shut out of their local club has been high.

"It (the football club) is a huge part of people's lives," he said.

"For many fans their lives revolve around football, their moods for the week, like mine, can be determined by the result on a Saturday.

"It gives you a sense of purpose, the experience of watching it online is not the same. People need to get out of the house and live life to a certain degree."