When Wealdstone host Chesterfield on Saturday in the club’s first match in the top tier of non-league football for 32 years it will be a landmark occasion for the wrong reasons. “We should be so excited and happy, but it’s flat,” says Wealdstone’s chairman, Rory Fitzgerald.
Their fans will be locked out and even a plan to allow a small number of socially distanced supporters to watch on a live stream from the stadium clubhouse with the windows blacked out was cancelled on Friday morning after discussions with the National League, which does not advocate such gatherings.
In common with clubs everywhere, Wealdstone have been fretting over finances, fearing the worst amid the absence of matchday revenue and the all-important secondary spend. The bar alone can bring in about £7,000 on a busy matchday. “It’s the burger, the soft drinks for the children, the hat or scarf, the half-time raffle ticket, all of those kind of things,” Fitzgerald says.
Promotion has proved a double-edged sword and almost akin to a punishment. Travel costs have tripled as a result of going into a national competition from a regional league and Wealdstone, who have one of the division’s smallest budgets, have spent more than £100,000 upgrading their ground to meet the National League’s criteria. Supporters will not experience the improvements any time soon and nor will Wealdstone reap the benefit of some of the league’s big hitters coming to town.
Clubs had been preparing for up to 1,000 fans being allowed in and Fitzgerald describes the financial strain as relentless. Significantly, on Friday the government is expected to confirm the league will receive an emergency grant of about £3m per month, though funds are not expected to reach clubs until the end of October. “The bank is empty,” Fitzgerald says. “We have been left in limbo and it’s absolutely crippled us. If we don’t get some support, numerous clubs will be going to the wall in a matter of weeks. We won’t be unique.”
Once the season begins, so do player contracts – a further financial burden. Throughout pre-season, the squad were paid only travel expenses. “It’s terrifying,” says Fitzgerald. Wealdstone are one of a handful of part-time clubs in the fifth tier and the squad includes labourers, account managers, surveyors and personal trainers. “Some have children and all have overheads. It’s a massive strain on us as well because if I can’t pay these players, how are they going to cope? We don’t award stupid contracts we can’t sustain, we work within a budget and we do things properly, but we are being pulled into a place we’ve never been before and don’t want to be through no fault of our own.”
Many of Wealdstone’s 500 season-ticket holders, some of whom have volunteered or donated to help keep the club afloat (supporters have pledged more than £40,000 towards the playing budget), will watch an online stream from home.
“It will be a strange sensation,” Fitzgerald says. “For 32 years, the supporters have prayed to be back at this level. So many of them were so excited, and now they won’t even get to see it.”