Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every Friday for the Evening Post
For a long time I have thought there are many similarities in the way our local non-league football and National League rugby clubs operate.
This was reinforced recently when reading about the cashflow difficulties Bamber Bridge FC experienced after a large number of their home fixtures were postponed due to our very wet winter.
Clubs in both sports at their respective levels are semi-professional, in that they pay players but they are not full time, operate on crowds of a few hundred spectators, are heavily reliant on sponsors and volunteers and are always striving to take that step forward on the pitch, despite the many financial constraints they have to deal with.
In both sports there are clubs that run themselves prudently and there are those that don’t.
There are clubs that have benefactors – and the associated problems they can represent – whilst there are clubs that live hand to mouth, just hoping to get through another season.
What is clear in both worlds is that the constant drip-down effect from the professional game raises player and supporter expectations but doesn’t necessarily mean any increased funding from the respective governing bodies.
I have friends who have played across the non-league football scene and their experiences on and off the pitch sound identical to those I have experienced in rugby union.
There are players who have been promised the earth financially to move clubs, only to realise after signing on the dotted line those promises were empty.
Examples from the non-league football included an agreement to pay higher ‘wages’, only to see the promise pulled from under the players’ feet when the club suffered an unexpectedly early exit from the money-spinning FA Cup.
Alternatively, wages were abruptly stopped at one club once the players had maintained that club’s status for another season.
Alas it was not the first time this had happened at this particular club, nor was it coincidence that it took place just after the transfer window for the season had closed.
The clubs who are honest about what they can afford often lose players who have their heads turned by supposed greater riches on offer around the corner.
But it is to those honest clubs that players quickly return when they realised they have been duped.
At Hoppers we were very clear about what player remuneration was and how it would be paid – via an agreed playing contract via payroll with the relevant deductions for NI and tax.
Many times I had conversations with players along the lines that if that was what we were offering it was because we could sustain it over a season and not just until Christmas.
We were also meeting our statutory obligations at the same time.
I think as the semi-professional rugby scene has settled down in recent years, players have come to realise the importance of stability.
For far too long we had the unsettling spectacle of off-seasons spent waiting to see which club would be the next to shout its mouth off about how much it was prepared to pay to sign players.
Generally these were clubs playing below National League level who had apparently big ambitions to move up the pyramid.
The amount of money that these clubs were offering was sometimes mind-boggling, considering they were playing in front of crowds of one man and his dog – with the dog often asleep.
I used to ask players, ‘Did you ask where these monies were apparently coming from?’ – some of the answers would have been funny if they weren’t so ridiculous.
They ranged from a friendly sponsor or two paying out of his own pocket – and no doubt out of the eyes and ears of the HMRC – to land sales, regular car-boot sales, to share offers, to club members, to taking a piece of land in the club car park.
I was once told a player was having his wages covered by the amount of pies a club expected to sell over the course of the week.
To me, too many good, honest clubs try too hard to compete with those clubs who do more than just stretch the rules.
For too long, too many semi-pro sports clubs have been underhand in their dealings with authorities, such as the HMRC.
Those that avoid making payments through the books just to put an extra £50 in a player’s pocket do more than just break the law.
They distort the landscape for those clubs who do everything by the book.
For too long we’ve been promised that those dishonest clubs would be investigated and that the current economic climate meant the net was tightening.
That might be the case. But for the honest clubs out there in either sport, it can’t happen soon enough.