Halifax Town, York City, Guiseley, Farsley Celtic and Bradford Park Avenue seasons expected to start at the weekend with £20m Government rescue package

SIDELINED: Halifax Town's only game since mid-March was their Conference play-off defeat to Boreham WoodSIDELINED: Halifax Town's only game since mid-March was their Conference play-off defeat to Boreham Wood
SIDELINED: Halifax Town's only game since mid-March was their Conference play-off defeat to Boreham Wood
National League clubs are hopeful of starting their season as planned this weekend with the help of a Government rescue package thought to be worth £20m.

The Conference Premier season is due to start on Saturday, when clubs in the North and South divisions are scheduled to play in the FA Cup second qualifying round, followed by their opening league fixtures in midweek.

At a board meeting for the National League – which administers the top three divisions of non-league football – last week, 54 of the 67 clubs were said to have made it clear they could not start the season as planned without spectators or the "critical financial support package" the league has called for, sparking fears of mass withdrawals from the FA Cup.

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Most non-league clubs have not played competitively since March because of coronavirus. Exceptions included the end-of-season play-offs and the semi-finals of the FA Vase and Trophy. Harrogate Town were able to win promotion to the Football League and reach the Trophy final, but Halifax Town and York City lost their promotion play-offs in the Conference and Conference North respectively.

This season's opening fixtures had been delayed until October 3 precisely for this reason, with the Government's initial plan for limited numbers of spectators allowed back into sports stadia in October, but they backtracked on this in late September, three days after seven apparently successful pilots with supporters allowed into Football League grounds, because of rising infection rates.

There has been some debate as to who should provide a financial bailout to non-league football and the Football League, with the Premier League so far resisting Government pressure to come to the rescue. This week an open letter was signed by two former chairmen of the Football Association, ten MPs and others including a vice-president of the National League and the chairman of the Football Supporters Association arguing that as the Premier League clubs had financial problems of their own, and as the issue had been caused by the Government's coronavirus policy, Westminster had a responsibility to act.It has been reported that National League chief executive Michael Tattersall emailed clubs on Tuesday to say the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was "working at pace… to design a package of support that will give the National League the reassurance it needs" to play this weekend, adding: "This will include grants to cover essential revenue lost from fans not returning on 1 October as planned."

Clubs in the seventh tier and below are allowed home fans only into their grounds, meaning Mossley and Warrington Rylands fans will be allowed into their club's matches against Tadcaster Albion and York on Saturday but Guisley, Farsley Celtic and Bradford Park Avenue's matches against Atherton Collieries, Radcliffe and Spennymoor Town respectively will be played behind closed doors.

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Opposition to restarting without fans was strongest in the two regionalised divisions, although as a full-time club in a division of part-timers, York were keen to restart as soon as possible. Their players have been paid throughout pre-season, whereas at the part-time clubs contracts only usually start with the first game of the season.

Their FA Cup tie has been chosen for live coverage on BBC iPlayer, Red Button, and BBC Sport, providing an extra incentive to play. York are due to finally move into a new stadium at Monks Cross this season, although no date has been set because of complications caused around the pandemic.

It has been estimated that those cost of running the National League season without supporters would be around £2m-3m a month, whilst the Football League have asked for a £250m bailout.

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