Title image Credit: Marine AFC

In football, every club is chasing one thing, even before winning trophies; Financial sustainability. Yet, in Non-League football this is an almost impossible task.

We spoke to three clubs in completely different situations to find out what it’s like trying to financially break even in Non-League football.

It was a cold damp night in Merseyside, but then again, when isn’t it a cold night in Liverpool?

The Tottenham Hotspur players had begun their warmups, Dele Alli, and Lucas Moura, wandering across the pitch, gloves on, hoping to protect themselves from the icy air. This was no usual game in Liverpool though.

The lights of Anfield were not on the Spurs players, nor was it the famous Z Cars theme blaring out at Goodison Park.

No, today, they had travelled to Rossett Park to face Marine A.F.C., a team all the way down in the eighth division of English Football. The biggest mismatch in FA Cup history.

“It was surreal!” Said Dave McMillan, who has been Vice Chairman for Marine since 2012, and a fan for over 40 years.

“We had media requests from all over the world, we even had to appoint a media consultant to field the requests. The BBC had 140 staff in attendance.”

This is the dream for all Non-League clubs and the beauty of the FA Cup.

The chance for these fans to watch their clubs play against the biggest teams in the country.

To be there, clamouring on the side lines as they watch England internationals play football in a stadium where a loose ball can end up in someone’s back garden.

Sadly, for the fans of Marine though, this was not quite the case.

“Up to I think a week before the game we were planning on allowing fans in, which was a difficult job as there would have been so many of our regulars missing out.

“The Government brought in new restrictions so we ended up behind closed doors, it was a great shame that our fans could not get to see the game live.” Mr McMillan added.

Fan Banners outside of Rossett Park Credit: Marine AFC

The game was still a financial success for Marine.

Since the game, Marine’s attendance has increased massively and, more importantly, allowed them to improve their facilities, putting in a new pitch and opening to the public all seven days of the week, and have now been given the ability to operate at a much higher level.

Despite this, there are still struggles, “an ongoing challenge is finding people who are prepared to put their time in, programme sellers, turnstile operators, golden goal tickets, to name a few.”

However, other clubs are nowhere near as fortunate. In Non-League Football, Marine bucks the trend, saved by their magical draw against Tottenham. With inflation growing ever higher, and clubs still recovering after Covid-19, Non-League teams are facing uncertain futures.

One of whom, Nuneaton Borough Football Club, filed for liquidation on the 18th of January 2024 following the Football League clubs Bury and Macclesfield who also both have gone into administration.

This means that, since the start of the 21st century, over 50 football clubs in England and Wales have been put into some kind of administration.

With the cost-of-living crisis continuing to hit the whole of the UK and expenses consistently on the rise, there looks to be no help for clubs coming any time soon.

Guernsey football players celebrating Credit: Guernsey Football Club

Being on the Channel Islands, Guernsey Football Club has an expense that not many UK teams, especially ones in the Non-League ever have to think about.

“Flights are by far our biggest cost.” Said Nic Legg, a director at the club for 12 years.

“First and foremost, it’s hellishly expensive.

“We are required to cover travel costs for our opposition, which means flying 28 people across each home game, plus of course, we have to travel to all our away games by plane and coach, sometimes with an overnight stay if it’s an evening fixture, such as midweek.” 

“Our players are unpaid amateurs playing in a semi-professional league, but this is part of how we have to operate, so we embrace it and it’s a challenge we relish.”

Overall, it costs £250,000 to run the club, and, without their own pitch, renting their current ground from the government, the club have no way to drive their own income.

Although this is due to change, keeping the club financially stable has been an issue, and surprisingly the Covid-19 pandemic came as an unlikely help.

“Covid meant we couldn’t compete for two seasons,” Mr Legg said.

“As you couldn’t travel to and from the island without an isolation period. Whilst it left a massive void for everyone involved in the club, it also meant our costs were almost non-existent, as we had no travel costs.”

Due to the large amount of money needed to keep the club running, volunteers play a huge part in trying to keep the team financially sustainable.

“Fans make a massive difference.

“Guernsey FC is run by volunteers, and, without them, the club quite simply wouldn’t exist.

“Our volunteers are invested in our ethos and play a massive part in our success story.

“13 years is a real achievement and a testament to the community and our many supporters and volunteers.”

One club that knows the financial struggles of the lower leagues of English football all too well are the fans of AFC Rushden and Diamonds. The club, which formed in 2011, and is the successor to Rushden and Diamonds. 

AFC Rushden and Diamonds fans watching their Legends vs Legends game Credit: Shaun Frankham, Mal Swinden and Matt Hawkins

The original Rushden and Diamonds were a team that found themselves in the lofty heights of the English Football League in the early 2000s.

However, after board disagreements, the club found itself in administration with reported debts of £750,000 in July 2011. It didn’t take long though for the supporters to create a new club from the ashes, and soon after, AFC Rushden and Diamonds was founded, run by the supporters for the supporters.

“Any fan can become a part owner of the club for a small annual fee which allows them to elect a Board of Directors to run the club, but also to vote on key decisions like kit choices, entry prices, and get discounts in the shop and external business partners.

The mantra of the club has always been; One Fan, One Vote, One Community, One Club, and it surrounds every aspect.” Said Matt Taylor, a Commercial Director at the club who also worked for the original Rushden and Diamonds team.

Being a supporter-run club comes with its own set of problems.

The main challenge to a “Supporter Run Club” is that there is no external investment, so revenues raised are determined by footfall through the gates, sale of merchandise and commercial deals.

When looking at the world we live in, with the cost-of-living crisis and utility increases, the idea of coming to the football and spending £30-40 for some families becomes impossible.

“The club do not get any income from the sale of hot food or from the bar as these are separate businesses to ours that operate within the ground, therefore, if the attendances drop the difference between the bottom line, weekly, monthly, seasonally, can be dramatic.”

To help with the costs after the season ended, the club organised a “Legends” style event during the Summer of 2023, raising £25,000 in a friendly exhibition match between legends of the old Rushden and Diamonds team against legends of the new club to help maintain a positive cash flow. 

Rushden and Diamonds Legends applauding fans after their Legends vs Legends Game Credit: Shaun Frankham, Mal Swinden and Matt Hawkins

However, like all clubs in the lower divisions of Non-League football, it is never too far from crumbling.

The Rushden and Diamonds fans know this all too well. We all love the FA Cup fairy tale, the David and Goliaths of football colliding, watching these Non-League clubs thrive in great cup runs, but there is so much more to these clubs down at the bottom of the footballing pyramid.

Below those glorious moments are teams struggling to make ends meet day to day and more and more clubs facing the very real threat of liquidation.

Yes, you can go to a Premier League game, in a wonderfully built stadium where your money goes deep into the dark endless hole of an overseas businessman.

But, instead, why not go to your local club, buy a pint or a burger, help sell matchday programmes at Marine, pitch in at Guernsey when they struggle to find enough people to go and play in an overnight midweek game, or sign up to become an owner at AFC Rushden and Diamonds.

With these clubs, you may not get the greatest sporting spectacle, but you will find volunteers and supporters busting a gut to keep their club on the footballing map because with these teams, every penny counts.