Back in the day, struggling Fourth Division clubs had to regularly undergo the annual ordeal of re-election, in which the bottom four clubs in the table along with any non-league clubs that would fancied their chances took part in a vote to retain league membership. It is often said that the voting was seldom an objective affair. One story goes that Gateshead FC charged visiting club dignitaries for drinks in the boardroom, and were ejected from the Football League by the other clubs when they finished third from bottom in 1960. The flipside to this was at Hartlepool United, where the hospitality was so lavish that they never needed to worry about losing their membership. We thought that this had been done away with in 1987, when meritocracy seemed to have been brought in with automatic promotion and relegation between the Fourth Division and the Conference. Two decades on, however, the nagging feeling is starting to take hold that this meritocracy is all so much smoke and mirrors and that, in fact, the League’s members are acting as selfishly as ever.
This may seem like a harsh assessment, but the thirty point deduction given to Luton Town earlier in the summer gave the impression of being almost vindictive in its severity. This has been followed up this week with the League’s decision to dock Rotherham United seventeen points for being unable to exit administration in accordance with Football League rules. To say that it has been a tough summer for the Millers would be something of an understatement. The club have also had to leave Millmoor for the Don Valley stadium in Sheffield, a heart-wrenching decision for any club to have to take. The club also have to provide a bond of £750,000 in order to take up residence at Don Valley and provide a firm assurance that they will be back in Rotherham within the next four years. They also have to waive their right to appeal by tomorrow (Friday) lunchtime.
Let’s take a quick look at those final clauses again. Rotherham United, a club that have been entered into administration twice because of ongoing financial difficulties so severe that they have been unable to agree a CVA with their creditors, have to raise £750,000 to play at a new stadium barely four miles from where they played until the end of last season and had to leave because they could no longer afford the rent demands of the ground’s owners. It is a startling leap of logic to think that this benefits anyone at all apart from the Football League itself, to the tune of £750,000. The primary objective of the Football League should be to help its member clubs, in particular clubs that are having a desperate time of it just keeping their heads above water.
Next, they have to make a firm promise that they will move back in Rotherham, even though they have no money to build a new stadium (they are completely reliant on council plans for a new community stadium for this to happen). Knowing the speed at which local authorities move and considering that we are in the middle of a property crisis that we haven’t seen in a generation and that Rotherham’s financial straits are such that, in the current climate, they would never find funding themselves for such a project, they’re going to have make a promise that they surely know that they can’t guarantee. They must be back in four years. This is the same Football League that, ultimately, allowed Wimbledon FC to be uprooted and moved to Milton Keynes, even though they voted against it, isn’t it? It is the same Football League that routinely allows clubs to demolish their town centre stadia and move to out of town sites that are only accessible by car, isn’t it? I can’t think of a single good reason for insisting on this when they have only moved four miles in the first place.
Finally, they have to waive what would be, in any other circumstances, a perfectly legal right to appeal by tomorrow lunchtime, so they haven’t even got the time to seek proper legal consultation over what could be their next course of action. It would be nice for me to be able put something together here that blows the conspiracy theorists out of the water, the Football League has given me an almost impossible job. How is Rotherham United’s behaviour two points worse than that of Leeds United last summer? How is it thirteen points better? There is no logic behind these decisions whatsoever.
If the Football League wishes to be seen as a model of integrity, it needs to urgently review the processes by which these decisions are made. They are giving the impression of doing their absolute utmost to kill Luton Town and Rotherham United, and I’d be unsurprised if they reach a similar conclusion when they announce what they’re going to do to AFC Bournemouth, as well. They’re behaving like a kangaroo court, and these rulings are starting to have the unsavoury smell of being little more than pogroms about them. If they don’t want people to start thinking like this, there’s a pretty simple solution: start investing a little more time in considering how to prevent clubs from getting into such a situation, and spend a little less time kicking them when they’re down.