Haverhill Borough have been granted a final hour lifeline to their ground grading difficulties that would not see them automatically relegated from the Thurlow Nunn League Premier Division.
The club, who play at The New Croft’s 3G pitch, will be allowed to ground share with a club who have a Step 5-graded facility for one year — until March 31, 2019 — while they work to upgrade their own ground.
But, as the Echo went to press, the club were still to agree terms with a local team with facilities at Step 5 or above, with a deal needing to be done before Saturday or risk it all being for nothing.
Chairman Dave Hardwick said: “To be relegated for non-football reasons would be a bitter pill to take.”
Borough are in their first season in the Thurlow Nunn League’s top flight, at Step 5 of the National League System, and went into the season knowing their ground was graded a level below that required.
They were given until March 31 to rectify this.
Hardwick said the club had been ‘caught out’ by the uncertainty over extensive league changes this season, which they believed would see seven teams demoted at the end of the current campaign.
He said: “We’ve only been going for seven years, and we’ve climbed high in this time.
“Building a Step 5 facility would have made sense in hindsight but we never expected to climb the league so fast. So Step 6 was all we thought we needed at the time.”
He said they did not expect to finish in a higher than seventh-from-bottom spot in the league this season and so did not worry about fulfilling the FA requirements of Step 5 non-league football.
But the Echo’s revelation in late January that just four would go down changed the landscape significantly, with Borough sitting outside of the relegation zone.
They have stayed so, with nine fixtures remaining of the season.
It prompted a frantic hunt to find a way to meet the standards ahead of this Saturday’s deadline.
But they immediately hit a stumbling block, according to Hardwick, with the FA adamant there would be no ‘dispensation’ and the club still bound by the terms and conditions of their Football Stadia Improvement Fund (FSIF), which had funded the building of the 3G pitch in 2016.
Those conditions stipulate that Borough have to play their home league games on this pitch, to justify their grant of the funds.
It is the FSIF who rode to the rescue this week, granting Haverhill Borough a one-year reprieve of this requirement, freeing them up to discuss sharing options with other clubs.
But, Hardwick warned, the club still needed to agree ground sharing arrangements to cement that extension.
He said: “We need to have all the details ironed out by Saturday, or all this work will have been for nothing.
“So it is great to know we have made it to this step but relief will only come when decisions have been made.
“Our preferred choice is to stay in Haverhill, we are a Haverhill club and that’s where we want to stay.
“It wouldn’t be ideal to have Haverhill Borough not in Haverhill, but it would be better than going down.
“It would be so hard to take, surviving on the pitch but going down on a technicality.”
Speaking shortly after he received the news of the dispensation from the FSIF on Tuesday, he said: “So I will also be reaching out to Newmarket, Long Melford and Saffron Walden — I can’t think of any other possibilities as they’d be too far away.
“But I’m hopeful, I’m really hopeful, we can find an answer before Saturday. It was the news we needed.
“So the focus now has to be about making sure all this work was worth it and that we can keep ourselves out of the bottom four.”
Peter Hutchings, chairman of the Thurlow Nunn League, reiterated his sympathy for the club’s situation as he confirmed the complicated details of Borough’s situation.
He said they would be able to remain in the Premier Division, from the league’s perspective, given they can find and agree suitable ground sharing terms.
He said: “If they can find other facilities then that’s fine. The league has no issues with ground sharing and have several clubs who do.
“It’s a very difficult situation for them, if they finish in the bottom four then all their hard work could still come to nothing.
“We, the league, would not want to see anyone relegated on non-footballing reasons.
“But, that said, the rules are there for everyone.”
• Meanwhile, on the field, the side went down to a 4-0 loss on the road at league leaders Felixstowe & Walton United on Saturday.
The hosts took an early lead as a cross found an unmarked Miles Powell in front of goal and he headed past Niall Conroy.
Joe Francis added a second from the penalty spot after a foul by Rory Bone eight minutes later, before Ally Conway forced Felixstowe ‘keeper Danny Crump into a fine save.
But Borough were to concede their second penalty before the half hour mark, with Francis again converting.
The visitors responded and had a penalty shout dismissed after Ryan Swallow’s header appeared to be blocked by a Felixstowe arm.
A positive second half from Borough saw them create several chances, while keeping Felixstowe mostly contained until they added a fourth in the dying minutes.
Borough host second-from-bottom Fakenham Town on Saturday (3pm).