United co-owner John Nixon is now in his sixth season as the League Two representative on the EFL board and, speaking this week, he admitted that the past six months had been the most challenging of periods, with all 72 member clubs faced with issues of the likes never seen before.
“It’s been a massive crisis, massive,” he said. “I was in the Far East three days before lockdown and I was looking to get home from Australia at that point. So, the lockdown literally started almost as soon as I got back and the EFL board then went into meetings literally every week.
“We put together the League Two meetings every two weeks because we knew we were facing a huge crisis, particularly at that time. We were at a critical point in the season because at every football club, March is when you run out of money.
“If you’re in the play-offs you have a chance of getting bigger crowds in to help you along, and there’s increased support for teams who face relegation as well, as their fans come to give them a lift.
“Generally in Leagues One and Two you’re out of the cup competitions so you’re income stream, other than from games, is purely what you get from the EFL. You’ve spent your Premier League money for the season so the middle 12 in any league find that March to May stage of the season to be a really difficult time.”
“As you can imagine, getting hit with the lockdown at that stage just added to the problem,” he continued. “I have to say I thought the EFL acted pretty well at that point, and although we were all closed down we made sure that cash was available by pulling monies forward.
“The Government dropped VAT payments and PAYE payments, there was a rates holiday, and then the furlough scheme kicked in, and that’s been an absolute boon for clubs at our level.”
On how the EFL adapted to what was an ever-changing situation during that first few weeks of the national lockdown, he commented: “The problem was that it was unprecedented, so we didn’t know what best practice was.
“All we knew was that everything had to stop, and the first set of calls I received as the League Two rep were from clubs asking where the money they needed was going to come from. They all had wages to pay at the end of March and there were some clubs, only a few, but some who actually didn’t have enough money to get to the end of that month.
“As a board we knew that was a real problem because we started to see those clubs who had stretched themselves at League One and League Two level. The panic within those clubs was phenomenal at that point because they didn’t know who or where to turn to.
“Effectively the Government had just closed the doors, until they worked out what to do next, so there was a short period of waiting. There wasn’t any training, there were no games, and everybody was basically sent home.
“The first thing that really gave those clubs hope was the furlough scheme. Most clubs in the bottom two divisions went into furlough, but not everybody. There were one or two clubs who didn’t actually furlough, you’ll know who, because they would have been criticised in public had they done so because of the amount of spare cash it’s perceived they had or have.
“The Championship had decided that they wanted to play on because they didn’t want to give up the chance of getting to the Premier League. If they’d stopped their season that would have been taken by the Premier League as no promotion and no relegation.
“There were at least six or seven Championship clubs who were desperate to have a go at it, because they wanted to reach that pot of gold. That meant that they never furloughed, but they tried to get deals put together with the PFA where they deferred wages. Leeds United and Bristol City and one or two others did that, and some in Leagues One and Two did that, but you’re talking about less than a handful.”
But with such an uncertain time ahead, was there a sense of panic, particularly at the lower levels.
“Initially it was a case of not knowing how they were going to see it through,” he told us. “All we knew on day one was that everything had stopped. There was then a thought that it would be over quickly, and we could get back to normal in two or three weeks, so that gave everyone a bit of hope.
“Then discussions followed about playing out the season, so there was hope that fans would be back and that particular source of income would be restored. All of those types of talks were taking place in the first two or three weeks of this crisis.”
“Suddenly it became obvious that we weren’t going to be able to see the season out,” he added. “It was clear that things weren’t going to be opened up again, and with the death rate climbing towards 20,000 we were looking at a prolonged period of lockdown.
“The clubs pretty much came together at that point, which was fantastic to see. I can remember getting a phone call on a Saturday morning in early May which brought up the matter that we really needed to consider calling a halt to the whole thing.
“That was massive, because if we did that now, as we sit here in September, that would be the end for some clubs. But back then the clubs had a real understanding of where they were in terms of season 2019/20.
“I was really proud of the League Two clubs because they were virtually unanimous in saying that we needed to close it down. They were getting furlough money, holiday payments on rates and central payments dragged forward, so there was cash there which meant they could function.
“Like I say, one or two didn’t have any cash, so they just paid the furlough money to their players because they didn’t have enough to top it up. One or two did get some deferrals and a few got some staff to defer and reduce wages, but you’re talking about a very small amount there.
“There was a massive sigh of relief from the clubs when – and League Two led the way – we opted to go for the play-offs and the points-per-game system.”
“League One took two meetings to get to that point, and I was in those meetings so I could listen to the points raised and as an observer,” he explained. “It took longer for them to decide because there’s a massive mix of clubs in League One.
“You have big clubs of the likes of Sunderland, Portsmouth, who have huge support. They are clubs who know that if there’s a chance they can get into the Championship then they have to push for it.”
In the second part of the interview, on the official website later this afternoon, John talks about the deeper financial implications of the ongoing situation.