BROWNE ON THE BALL: The pros - and cons - in the non-league game

Liam Agnew.
Liam Agnew.

Duncan Browne asks whether England’s sixth tier can sustain full-time football...

It was short and sweet. Good while it lasted. But Liam Agnew and Boston United are no more.

Part of the reason Agnew gave for leaving to join Harrogate Town last week was the fact that Simon Weaver’s side will be able to help him fulfil his ambitions of full time football next season... and you can’t blame him one bit for taking that offer up.

Especially when you think that Agnew’s transfer was, bizarrely, 14 weeks in the making.

Town had already put in a seven-day request to sign the non-contract Pilgrims skipper - and the lure of cutting 230 miles off travelling to and from his Sunderland home for home games, the stability of a contract and wages reportedly far exceeding what Boston could offer meant the 21-year-old had agreed to move in principle.

But United - who had a gentleman’s agreement that they wouldn’t stand in the way of the former Black Cats loanee moving on if a club from a higher level showed an interest - weren’t keen on helping out a league rival by cancelling his registration early.

It was agreed that Agnew would play against Halifax, before linking up with Town, only for him to break his foot.

But now the injury has healed and Agnew has announced he is joining Harrogate.

It is a move which makes perfect sense for the young midfielder.

After spending his fledgling career training full time on Wearside, it could be disastrous for his ambitions of a life in the pro game if he was to take a permanent step back (Liam Marrs’ first few performances on becoming a Pilgrims player show just how difficult is can be to adapt to the part-time game).

But while going full time will surely aid Agnew’s personal ambitions, there is no guarantee it will help his club succeed.

AFC Fylde, Kidderminster Harriers and Nuneaton are the National League North’s trio of semi-pro clubs playing at the pro game this season, while Salford City and Harrogate have both announced they will be joining that brave new world in the summer.

There’s no doubt it will be beneficial to teams - a whole week rather than two evenings to coach and rehabilitate players who don’t have to worry about football on top of a full week at work is a massive bonus.

But how much of an advantage will it be if more and more teams follow suit?

Adam Murray has already stated he sees the Pilgrims squad leaning towards a busier schedule together, looking to source players who will be available for more than two midweek training sessions next season.

At least Boston can expect to make a bit of cash from gate receipts, as well as looking towards the add-ons promised to come from a stadium move.

As teams dropping down from above look to bounce back as soon as possible and other clubs - either from this division or coming up with big, bold ideas - feel they need to do the same to maintain a level playing field, I worry we shall see more clubs going pro when they really shouldn’t.

In reality, clubs who make £3,000-£5,000 through the turnstiles every other weekend for nine months of the year aren’t ever going to be in the position to pay 25 people a full time wage, no matter how big a shirt deal they can agree with Big Dave’s Taxis.

To do so they need benefactors. But in a division of 22 teams and two promotion spots there is no guarantee of going up, and how many years will someone be happy to chuck money at a cause and see no return?

Don’t get me wrong. I hope to never see another football club fold, but have to ask questions of sustainability when English clubs are now hosting professional squads in the sixth tier while in football-mad nations such as Germany, Spain and Italy it’s semi-pro after the second level.

Every fan deserves at least one dream season in their lifetime, watching their club exceed all expectations to create a moment which lives in the mind forever.

You’ve seen Boston United do that. But you’ve seen how close they came to paying the ultimate price.