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Hard-hit non-league clubs should ground-share with EFL sides – Darlington chief

Darlington FC v Farsley Celtic – Vanarama National League – Blackwell Meadows
(Image credit: Damian Spellman)

Darlington chief executive David Johnston has called for non-league clubs to be allowed to ground-share with EFL neighbours to maximise gate receipts in the Covid era.

The National League is scheduled to resume action on October 3, with the current plan allowing clubs to do so with reduced capacities for spectators.

For National League North Darlington, that could mean re-opening their Blackwell Meadows stadium at just 17 per cent capacity – around 550 – when the club has in excess of 650 season ticket holders alone.

The Quakers have asked the league for permission to return temporarily to their former home at the 25,500-seater Northern Echo Arena to allow their fans and travelling supporters to attend in greater numbers, and Johnston believes clubs in the pyramid just below the Football League would benefit from similar arrangements.

Darlington have asked to be able to return temporarily to their former home at the Northern Echo Arena

Darlington have asked to be able to return temporarily to their former home at the Northern Echo Arena (PA).

He told the PA news agency: “I’d rather have everybody that can get in getting in in a very safe, controlled manner than 17 per cent and arguments, headaches, refunds and damaging financial stability.

“I really wonder whether every club at the lower level should look to ground-share with an EFL club – to say, ‘Can we ground-share until the rules on crowd control are back to where they need to be?’ – because any club will suffer at 17 to 33 per cent.

“Why don’t we have clubs pairing up with local Football League sides and saying, ‘Can we ground-share with you?’ And pay the licence fee for the period of ground restriction, and then everybody can get to watch the football, everybody can go to see their team in a safe, controlled manner.

“It’s not about finance – obviously the finances around sustainability have to be questioned – but I’m talking about how do you get the right number of fans who want to congregate into a facility safely and there’s no risk of infection or a spike?

“There are solutions, but the league is going to (have to) be a little bit agile, think innovatively and look a what is best for the future of our game.”

League rivals and neighbours Gateshead, who are tenants at the town’s International Stadium, are fortunate enough to have an 11,500-seater venue at their disposal, meaning they will not be impacted unduly by social distancing restrictions, having recorded an average attendance of just under 1,000 last season.

Indeed, they are hoping to attract bigger crowds as they attempt to offset the loss of revenue from a cancelled pre-season programme, which included visits from Premier League side Newcastle and Sky Bet Championship duo Middlesbrough and Blackburn.

Chairman Neil Pinkerton told the PA news agency: “We lost a really lucrative pre-season – we had Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Blackburn at home and, with fans, that’s pretty good going. That was a big hit, so we’re looking at a substantial projected loss there.

“We’re hoping to stream pre-season friendlies, which in comparison to having fans in the stands is nothing financially, so next season we’re cutting our cloth accordingly across the board while trying to maximise income through various streams.”