RPT-Soccer-England's lower clubs enjoy spotlight after virus fears shut down top leagues

By Simon Evans and Martyn Herman

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By Simon Evans and Martyn Herman

HALIFAX/DARTFORD, England, March 14 (Reuters) - England's Premier League and 72-team Football League closed down on Saturday due to concerns over the coronavirus but clubs in the fifth tier and below defiantly took to the field -- to the delight of football addicts across the country.

But while fans made the most of what may have been the final games for several weeks, club officials were facing up to the financial damage that could be on the horizon if they too are forced to stop playing.

A crowd of 2,154 turned out in West Yorkshire to see Halifax Town lose 1-0 at home to Ebbsfleet United and, while that attendance was not much bigger than expected, there were several supporters of Premier and Football League clubs who had travelled to get their fix.

One Ebbsfleet fan, who had made the four-hour trip from Kent, watched the first half of the game in a gas mask but removed it at the interval to eat a pie.

Several clubs, such as Halifax, offered fans of other clubs a discounted ticket of 10 pounds ($12.27)and Manchester City season-ticket holder David Miller took full advantage of the offer, attending two games in one day.

"I was at Bradford Park Avenue earlier for the 3pm kick-off in the National League North and then came to this one," he said.

"I'm not worried about coming to football matches".

Wigan Athletic supporter Nathan Sinclair, who had planned to see his club play at nearby Huddersfield in the second-tier Championship, said he simply wanted to watch some football while he could.

“I have a feeling this might be the last football match that takes place in the country for a good while," he said.

Sinclair said his wife had decided against coming to the game due to concerns about catching the virus but said he had practiced 'social distancing' at the match.

“I’ve read the government advice so I have tried to put myself with empty seats around me and I moved once," he said.


BEER AND FOOD OUTLETS

At one of the few matches to take place in London, Dulwich Hamlet took on Hemel Hempstead in the sixth-tier National League South.

The only references to the pandemic were the by-now familiar non-handshaking pre-match team greeting and a PA announcement saying there was no guarantee next week’s match at St Albans City would go ahead “in these difficult times” — but that the beer and food outlets would be open all afternoon.

“I’m more worried about us going down than I am about catching this bloody bug,” said 75-year-old Archie Harrison, adding that he had supported Hamlet since 1964.

“The trouble is, I can’t do anything about stopping either.”

A good crowd of around 1,400 turned up at Dartford’s modern and well-equipped Princes Park to watch their side take on Chelmsford City in something of a Kent-Essex derby in the National League South.

Regulars said there might have been a few outside fans in attendance too but the crowd was about average.

“Maybe there are some fans of Premier League and EFL clubs who are kicking their heels and want to see some football but then others might be worried by the spread of the virus and not come out of their houses," said Dartford vice-chairman Dave Skinner.

Dartford ran out 3-0 winners to keep alive their prospects of promotion to the National League, although whether or not that challenge will come to fruition is out of their hands.

A meeting of the National League takes place on Monday, after the British government meets again to discuss banning mass gatherings.

The prospect of a lengthy stop concerns club officials across the non-league pyramid.

"It could be terminal really. We rely on gate receipts. If the games are abandoned for the rest of the season many of the clubs at our level will go to the wall. Most clubs like us are run on a shoestring," said Skinner.

Halifax manager Pete Wild said he was "pleasantly surprised" that the league had held firm amid calls to follow the bigger leagues and close down but was also worried for the future.

“We are going to struggle aren’t we? We need cash flow through the doors to sustain what we do here. The chairman excellently backs the club but even he has a limit and he needs finances coming in to play the wages.

"It will be catastrophic if we have to stop playing". ($1 = 0.8151 pounds) (Writing by Simon Evans, additional reporting by Mike Collett; editing by Clare Fallon)