Does football in the Fens really have a future?

How do football clubs survive in a sport that is becoming dominated by the amount of money a team has?

For some, it might be easy, but for many, it seems like a constant uphill struggle. Particularly for voluntarily-ran organisations at a considerably lower level, income may always be tougher to come by than expenditure. Ground maintenance bills needing to be paid while most teams have no entrance fee for those interested enough to watch, perhaps just some of the concerns faced on a regular basis. However, there does seem to be light for a future, amidst the ever-existent issue of financial uncertainty.

Based on Sport England’s annual report for 2015-16, the conditions of 1,830 clubs across England have been improved since 2011, with £4m spent on grants towards club development tool ‘Club Matters’. An intent to develop amateur clubs on a national scale is there, but more specifically, for one of Cambridgeshire’s better-known teams.

Chatteris Town Football Club received a £75,000 grant from Sport England in May to revamp club facilities, which is due to be completed next year. However, the Fenland-based side could still do with more financial help as more improvements look to take shape.

Lisa Salisbury, treasurer at Chatteris Town, said: “At the moment, we are quite stable, but we could always do with more. When the upgrade is finished, there are things that we would like to buy, such as glass washers, new tables and chairs, which we have to raise the money for ourselves. It is hard getting in subs, fines and signing-on money, but we usually get it all in eventually.”

Whiting goal vs Great Shelford
Taste of glory: Taylor’s men have made a solid return since last year’s league and cup success (Credit: Cambridge Evening News)

Success off the pitch has been in tandem with success on it too, with the Lilies now plying their trade in the Kershaw Premier League, Cambridgeshire football’s top tier, after securing promotion last season. And as chairman Julian Young admits, it is not only the grant that has made an impact.

“Obviously the grant of £75,000 has and will make a huge difference”, he said. “It is apparent that the success on the pitch of the first team had a positive effect on numbers of people through the gate. The dedication of the committee and hard work has ensured regular sponsorship, fundraising and improvement to weekly income, such as through club membership and bar takings.”

Upgrading facilities has not been the aim for just one organisation, as £63.7m was invested into this by Sport England with an extra 127 improvement projects being listed, according to their most recent report. But in comparison to their previous financial status with discussions before the grant being announced taking place, Town may well be on the rise.

“Compared to where we were three years ago, we are in a pretty healthy position”, Young said. “Not that we are resting on our morals, nor do we think the job is done. We have already turned losses into small surpluses and at each point, those surpluses are used to improve facilities, grounds, maintenance and pitches. Once the refurbished clubhouse is open, this will encourage endless opportunities for additional fundraising and more regular and improved income.”

Plans for development are not always achievable for local organisations, and the Lilies seem to be defying this trend. As well as help from Sport England, the club have also worked with Living Sport, a charity that aims to improve the health and wellbeing of people in Cambridgeshire through physical activity. Because of this partnership, financial progress seems to be within touching distance, plus high expectations on the field of play.

“It would be nice to think that, in the future, we could develop a junior team and get a ladies team back”, Salisbury said. “Pitch upkeep is paramount. Keeping them in good condition now means that when the weather changes for the worse, we can keep playing on them so money does not have to be found for 3G hire.”

Lester Kent, director of football at Chatteris Town, thinks the chances of moving up the non-league pyramid are possible. “The opportunity to progress would be hard to turn down”, Kent said. “For the first-team, progression to the Thurlow Nunn (Eastern Counties) League or the United Counties League is a possibility, but this would mean more cost. There would have to be an in-depth discussion with everyone at the club involved.”

julian-young
Optimistic: Young (right) believes the Lilies can keep improving off the field with the new grant (Credit: Steve Snell)

And even though the thought that one team may not be financially assured to earn another promotion, there is still a sense of optimism the club can move forward. “I am positively sure that having seen what we (the club) have achieved, we can make new steps at each stage to improve and keep up with the demands”, Young added.

In contrast, not all local teams have a bright future waiting in the near distance. Doddington United, a village football club also from Cambridgeshire, find difficulty in searching for financial stability, which for a small organisation may be a tough act to follow on an annual basis.

Sponsorship is also a major issue, which is one of a few methods of funding. “Sponsorship is very difficult to come by in this area”, manager Dan Smethurst said. “Last season, we contacted several local businesses for sponsors, but we didn’t have any joy. We are lucky that Betts Haulage have continued to support us over the last few years.”

Funding may also be a growing problem for other amateur clubs, perhaps due to the little knowledge that other teams covering a smaller area actually exist. However, since 2011, Sport England’s £22m investment into the protection of 455 playing fields has accounted for 1,119 pitches immune from planning applications, according to their 2015-16 annual report.

Even with this investment supposedly being advantageous in terms of maintaining an existence for village football, not everyone is reaping the reward. “The current financial state is not great”, Smethurst said. “The only way to increase funds into the club is to either increase the players’ subs or to find a local investor, which is very unlikely. It’s very hard to find funding to support local sports clubs and I can’t see how this is going to get any better in the future.”

For most, running a local football club can be challenging; from receiving player subs to trying to field a team of eleven each week. For some, these difficulties have eased slightly. But one thing that remains the same is that the passion to play will still outclass a financial strain that will not stop aching for some time.

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