Non-league future thrown into doubt while Crane Sports make shock announcement to withdraw from the SIL

Happier times: Crane Sports with the SIL senior championship trophy, which they won in 2018-19. The club have announced...

Happier times: Crane Sports with the SIL senior championship trophy, which they won in 2018-19. The club have announced their withdrawal from the SIL. Picture: PAUL VOLLER - Credit: Archant

The short-term future of ‘non-elite’ non-league football, in Suffolk and beyond, has been thrown into doubt by the new Covid-19 restrictions imposed by the three-tiered structure to be put in place by the government.

Isthmian League action between Felixstowe & Walton United (red and white) and AFC Sudbury, from earlier this season.

Isthmian League action between Felixstowe & Walton United (red and white) and AFC Sudbury, from earlier this season. Picture: DAVE FRANCIS - Credit: Archant

In particular, the tougher measures relating to Tier Two - it was confirmed yesterday that Suffolk as a county would be in the Tier Two bracket when the national lockdown2 ends - and specifically the rule that football clubhouses will not be allowed to open unless operating as sit-down restaurants serving ‘substantial meals,’ might make it unviable for some clubs to resume competitive action.

Moreover, the long-term future might also be bleak for many of our local clubs, as sadly exemplified by this week’s initial announcement from Crane Sports FC that the Ipswich-based club had withdrawn all its teams from the Suffolk & Ipswich League, with immediate effect, due to ‘the growing uncertainty of the pandemic’ and all its restrictions and running costs.

Crane Sports, who joined the SIL before the Second World War, have been one of the most successful clubs in the county at Step Seven level, having won the Suffolk Senior Cup four times in their history, and also lifted the SIL Senior Division on four occasions, most recently in 2018-19.

AFC Sudbury boss, Mark Morsley, who has doubts over whether the Isthmian League will resume action after lockdown2 ends on December 2, a decision which would also affect the likes of fellow leading Suffolk non-league clubs Bury Town and Felixstowe & Walton United, was saddened by the news of Crane’s apparent demise.

AFC Sudbury manager Mark Morsley, who hopes the season will be re-started next month, although he has his doubts.

AFC Sudbury manager Mark Morsley, who hopes the season will be re-started next month, although he has his doubts. - Credit: Archant


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And there is no guarantee that other clubs will not follow suit over the weeks and months ahead.

“It is a tragedy what has happened to Cranes,” rued Morsley.

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“It seems like they have been around forever, even though they have never been outside the SIL. It often seemed like every semi-professional footballer would end their career by playing for Cranes,” added Morsley.

Meanwhile, with regards football slightly higher up the pyramid, from Step 3 to Step 6, Morsley has his concerns, but is hopeful that the season will still resume early next month after all ‘non-elite’ football was suspended for a month from November 5.

Morsley said: “We started playing football again (at the start of September) without making any real money from our bar or from our kitchen.

“However, the crowds have been really good. We have attracted big crowds, while Bury Town have played in front of sold-out crowds.

“We can hire out our pitch again, and other sessions can restart, so some of our fixed income at AFC Sudbury will return.

“Suffolk clubs being in Tier Two won’t stop that, so I don’t see it as a reason not to start playing football again at our club.

“I see it as making the best of what you can, rather than just queuing up to be depressed, which is what seems to be happening up and down the country.

“As far as I am concerned, if we can get a crowd in then we have half a chance.

“But unfortunately there are many clubs in our league in the other divisions (Isthmian League Premier and South-East Division) who are in Tier Three, and so can have no fans in their grounds.

“ And let’s face it - if you have been put in Tier Two, as a region, then you are not going to get out of it that quickly.

Bury Town striker Cemal Ramadan celebrates his first-half equaliser during a 2-2 home draw against Romford, in the...

Bury Town striker Cemal Ramadan celebrates his first-half equaliser during a 2-2 home draw against Romford, in the Isthmian League North, Bury's last match before lockdown2 kicked in. Picture: NEIL DADY - Credit: Archant

“I feel that the government is beginning to lose touch with the grassroots in this country. They have messed up pubs, and they have done little to help football,” added Morsley.

The likes of the Isthmian League, Southern League (featuring Leiston, Needham Market and Lowestoft Town) plus the Thurlow Nunn League (Eastern Counties League) all have tricky decisions to make, with regards the viability of their clubs resuming their league campaigns.

Bury Town chairman, Russell Ward, insists that football will be able to continue at Ram Meadow under new Tier Two restrictions, at least in the short term.

“Obviously, like the rest of Suffolk, we are disappointed to have been put in Tier Two. It would have been so much easier if we had still been in Tier One, with regards staging football matches,” explained Ward this morning.

Bury Town chairman, Russell Ward

Bury Town chairman, Russell Ward - Credit: Archant

“I have contacted West Suffolk Council to get their perspective on what we can, and what we can’t do, and I’m waiting to hear back from them.

“The leagues across our level (Steps 3 and 4) are all talking, but as it stands we are still committed to restarting on December 12 (home game against Histon).

“As long as people want to turn up, even if it isn’t possible for us to sell them food or alcohol, then we will keep staging games.

“We are lucky at Bury in that we have a good fan-base, with close to 200 season tickets having been sold, though of course that means we will also be missing out on a lot of secondary income.

Bury Town players stage an unusual goal celebration following Cemal Ramadan's strike against Dereham Town. The Blues hope...

Bury Town players stage an unusual goal celebration following Cemal Ramadan's strike against Dereham Town. The Blues hope to return to action on December 12. Picture: PAUL VOLLER - Credit: Archant

“But our club-shop does well, and we would still be able to sell programmes.

“As regards food and drink, we will see what we can do, though the big issue for us is different households not being able to mix indoors. The logistics of that makes it virtually impossible inside our clubhouse, with people sitting together at tables.

“I can see it viable in the short term to keep going (playing matches), under these new Tier Two restrictions, but it is not viable in the long term with no secondary revenue coming in,” added Ward.

As it stands, FA Vase ties are set to be played on Saturday December 5, as are Thurlow Nunn League fixtures, with FA Trophy ties earmarked for Tuesday, December 8.

But with clubs in Tier Three set to have to play games behind closed doors, and with clubs in Tier Two facing the prospect of generating little extra income beyond gate receipts, the future does appear a little bleak.

UPDATE:

Cranes Sports have since stated, in a tweet tonight (Friday evening), that they might enjoy a reprieve.

The tweet read: “After our club statement last night we have had some developments today that have given us hope. We fully appreciate the league for their understanding in this matter, despite us tendering our resignation. We are so grateful as a club to continue in the league.”

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