Banbridge Town manager Stuart King has appealed for the authorities not to let lower league clubs get ‘left behind’ after the hard-hitting impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
The former Linfield winger is one of the Championship and Premier Intermediate League bosses who has yet to guide his side through a league match since the sport shut down back in March.
Town have so far received a total of £4,500 in funding assistance; £2,000 in Sports Hardship Fund via Sport NI (with an additional £1,000 applied for via the second scheme opened earlier this month), £2,000 from the Irish FA and £500 from the NI Football League.
Compared to the estimated £50,000 to £60,000 it takes to run the club on an annual basis, it’s a drop in the ocean.
It’s little wonder, then, that chairman Dominic Downey laughs as he admits the club would need “as much as we can get” of any funding made available to sports clubs from the Northern Ireland Executive.
For boss King, if and when that money arrives, clubs like his must not become an after-thought.
“Our club is getting hit big style," he said. “I know we’re not the biggest club in the country but our wee club does a lot for the local community. We have 160 junior members, 30 coaches and then I have about 30 or 40 senior players with five senior staff as well. You’re talking over 200 participants in the men’s side of the club and then the ladies as well as that.
“We don’t have players’ wages to find but we still have other bills; rent and rates and the bar stock that is going to run out.
“It’s not just the government. Our local council has to try their best to help us out because our club is there for everybody and we try and help everybody.”
King was particularly aggrieved at the lengthy delay to PSNI’s eventually-rejected appeal over their relegation from the Championship that meant neither the second nor third tier of Northern Irish football has yet started the 20/21 campaign.
“If I’m being brutally honest, I don’t think Championship clubs and the likes of ourselves in the Premier Intermediate League are thought about very much,” he admitted.
“All of this ‘we’re all in it together’ – I’m not too sure about that.
“I think we are getting left behind I’m being being totally honest.
“I understand there are big clubs who get a lot more people going to their games than Banbridge Town but our clubs are community clubs. You can’t forget clubs like that. We’re a big part of football in Northern Ireland.
“Our clubhouse is used for lots of things such as drama groups and karate clubs. It’s the life and soul of the community but we really are struggling."
It’s clear that the handling of that prolonged PSNI appeal, the resolution of which was only announced on October 12, has left a sour taste in the mouths of Championship and Premier Intermediate League clubs.
That feeling will not have been helped by the Irish FA’s admission, included in the verdict, that an email sent to an "incorrect" address caused a 13-day delay.
The NI Football League will convene clubs from both tiers early next week to discuss a structure for the 20/21 campaign, with fixtures announced within a few days.
That will, at long last, be music to King’s ears.
“I don’t want to be hammering NIFL or anybody because I know it’s hard and people are working behind the scenes,” he said.
“But it’s been a nightmare. I have so many players who are too good to drop down to the Mid-Ulster Football League but those clubs have been playing league matches already this season and some have been looking to take my players.
“I don’t know how many phone calls I’ve had to fend off because they have been playing matches and we weren't.
“If those players have a young family and have no work on elsewhere, then I understand they’ll want to look after themselves so it’s been very difficult and it didn’t sit right with me.”
Having played for Ballymena United and Glenavon as well as the Blues, King has similarly high hopes for his management career. However, he has turned down three approaches from elsewhere, two from Championship level, to remain at his hometown club for the time being at least.
“Me and my wife and my family love this club,” he said. "They’ve been very good to me and until something that really attracts me comes up, I’m going to learn my trade here. I’m here for another two years unless a bigger club comes in and then I’ll speak to them.
“It’s just frustrating for us all right now.
“We cut our expenses over the last few years and worked our socks off to clear our debt but now Covid has hit and we’re going back into our overdraft, which we didn’t want to do.
“I’ve had my hands tied so that we can improve the club and now we’re going backwards again.”
It’s going to be a long road ahead for clubs at all level of football in Northern Ireland, and all will be crying out for financial assistance if it arrives.