Big freeze leaves lower league clubs counting cost of a Christmas break

The Premier League may have escaped relatively unharmed by the Arctic weather, but that's not the case for clubs further down the football pyramid. Richard Sutcliffe reports.

Ask any chairman of a football club from the lower divisions to make a wish come midnight on New Year's Eve and chances are an end to the Arctic weather that has left the country shivering throughout December will be at the very top of the list.

Such has been the recent devastation caused by the ice and snow that a host of Football League clubs have not had a home game for more than a month. Others such as Lincoln City have not played at all since the final Saturday in November, which at a time of year when crowds are traditionally up has left many in danger of catching a financial chill.

Bradford City, for instance, missed out on a 50,000 payday – or between 10 and 15 per cent of their total matchday income for the season – when their Boxing Day clash at home to Chesterfield was postponed.

In the non-League game, the weather has been equally unforgiving with York City having seen three games postponed this month along with another – at Luton Town – abandoned in the second half.

Further down the pyramid in the Evo-stik League, FC Halifax Town have not played at The Shay for almost six weeks while Bradford Park Avenue will tomorrow set an unwanted new club record for the number of days between home fixtures – eclipsing the existing tally of 61 set in 1963.

It all adds up to an almighty headache for the county's clubs, as Bradford City joint chairman Mark Lawn will testify.

He said: "From our point of view, losing the Boxing Day game was a nightmare. It cost us 50,000 as we would have expected around 2,000 Bradford fans to pay on the day and about 1,000 Chesterfield fans to make the trip.

"At our club, that represents a lot of money and a sum we are unlikely to recoup whenever the fixture is rearranged. To put it into perspective, Zesh Rehman leaving us (to join Thailand-based Muangthong United last week) saved the club around 25,000 in terms of his remaining contract.

"It was a saving that was very welcome but one that has now been swallowed up by the money lost by not playing on Boxing Day."

Rotherham United are another Yorkshire club who have had a frustrating end to 2010 with Ronnie Moore's side having played just once since November 23.

The Millers do expect to make a welcome return to action on New Year's Day at home to Port Vale and chairman Tony Stewart believes a lack of football in League Two – just 18 of 60 scheduled games have gone ahead this month – is causing problems for clubs.

He said: "Financially, we are in a fit state but I would imagine other clubs may be finding it a bit difficult with no income because running a football club is expensive.

"The thing about clubs who are struggling at this moment in time is that their directors have not got the funds to put in.

"At the other clubs such as Rotherham, people like myself are providing the funding. And in times like the last month or so, it has meant needing to dig deeper into the pocket.

"There has been no other option. The Eldorado for this club is our new stadium. Eighteen months from now we will be in our 12,000 capacity stadium and that is when we will be looking to be self sufficient."

Rotherham, whose new stadium will have undersoil heating, were particularly badly hit by the weather last season with Moore's men going five weeks without a game – leading to a damaging fixture backlog.

Stewart said: "We learned lessons from last season when ourselves and Darlington ended up totally out of sync with the rest of League Two due to having had so many postponements over Christmas and New Year. In the end, it cost us as while having games in hand looks good on paper, you are a lot better with points in the bag.

"We sat down last summer to try and work out how to avoid a repeat and decided our best bet was to invest in covers for the pitch. We spent about 15,000 and I am sure they will prove to be a good investment as the winter continues.

"We have had a few games called off lately but that is because the weather has been so bad that very few games have survived. Last year, it seemed to be just us and Darlington suffering. The consolation after having so little football recently is that every team has been in the same boat."

One Yorkshire non-League club delighted to see the recent thaw is FC Halifax Town, who this Saturday hope to attract a new record crowd for what used to be known as the Northern Premier League.

Director Bobby Ham said: "We play FC United at home and the aim is to beat the previous record of just under 3,400. We have hardly had any income recently due to the weather so it is great timing to have a fixture like this.

"We are top of the league, the opposition will bring a lot of fans and it promises to be a great occasion."

The cold snap has led to calls for a winter break to be introduced in the professional game, though Bradford's joint chairman Julian Rhodes is quick to point out one possible pitfall.

He said: "The problem with a winter break is that if there had been one this season in, say, January then it would put even more pressure on clubs' finances.

"Can you imagine what would happen if no-one played next month after hardly playing at all in December? That is why I am always wary when there is talk of possible winter breaks. It could do more harm than good."

Rhodes' fellow joint-chairman at Valley Parade, meanwhile, insists that if the Arctic weather returns in the New Year that the Football League may have to step in.

Lawn said: "To an extent, we are cushioned due to getting a good slice of our income up front by selling a large number of season tickets.

"But if the freezing weather returns then a lot could struggle due to getting no income through the gate. If the worst happens and the minus eights and tens of this month come back then maybe the League will have to look at possible hardship payments for clubs or advancing some of the television money.

"It could be the only way for some clubs in the lower division to get through."