Anybody that has ever had to travel across London during the rush hour will already be aware that embarking on such a journey can be a pretty thankless task. Swollen by commuters from outside of the city it often feels as if the whole place is about to collapse in upon itself, and it only takes the slightest disruption anywhere for everything to start grinding to a halt. Such a disruption occurred this morning when a lone man climbed onto the roof of a house in Leytonstone and threatened to jump from the roof onto the A12 road below. The road was closed by the police and remained closed until late this evening, when the man gave himself up and was arrested.
The ensuing traffic chaos had a predictable effect on a particularly busy corner of the capital. The roads ground to a halt, and this had an effect on this evening’s League One match between Leyton Orient and Gillingham. Shortly before kick-off, Gillingham only had nine available players but, perhaps surprisingly, referee Andy D’Urso made Gillingham go ahead and start the match. FA rules, after all, state that a team can start a match with seven players, and a refusal to play could be seen as effectively forfeiting the match. Fortunately, Gillingham managed to kick off with eleven players (albeit eleven Gillingham players wearing Orient away kits), but they still lost the game – an almost creditable 3-1 defeat, considering the circumstances.
Was D’Urso right to make the teams kick off on time, though? Well, the answer to that is probably “yes and no”. On the one hand, FA rules state very clearly that not having eleven players is not sufficient grounds to a match to not start. Considering this, and that some of the Gillingham players may well not have been contactable (particularly as has been some of the Gillingham players were travelling on the London Underground). What good would putting the kick-off back by, say, half an hour if the A12, the road that was causing all of the problems, remained closed and there could be no guarantee of when the missing players would turn up?
The flipside to this argument is an obvious one. The referee has the jurisdiction to postpone the kick-off, should he wish to. It may have been the fair thing to do to allow a little extra time before the match kicked off. After all, what harm would it have done? One may pause to wonder why professional players were turning up in dribs and drabs as opposed to altogether, but this is not uncommon in the lower divisions. Gillingham are based in Kent, but their players are likely to live across the south-east of England. It wouldn’t make a great deal of sense for them to all travel down to Kent and then up to east London without a good reason. This, however, wouldn’t be the problem of the referee, who chose to interpret the rules in the way in which he saw fit.
It’s also worth pointing out that Gillingham weren’t only club to suffer as a result of these circumstances. The crowd at Brisbane Road this evening was just 3,168 – Leyton Orient’s lowest home crowd of the season. Many people, apparently, either decided that it was more hassle than they could be bothered with on a cold Tuesday night at the start of December (not an entirely unreasonable reaction), or simply didn’t make it there at all. Considering that the A12 was only reopened after 11.00 this evening, there may still be people that haven’t made it home yet, and some of them might not have even seen a football match this evening. Orient can usually depend on around 5,000 on average for league matches, and the missing crowd’s contribution to the club, including entry, food, and programmes could therefore have cost them over £50,000. Not a life-changing amount of money, but not completely inconsiderable either.
It is possible, therefore, to have sympathy for both clubs. Perhaps, however, we should finish up by taking a moment to consider the Gillingham travelling support, 700-odd of whom made a fairly tortuous midweek trip up to Leyton, only to see their team turn out in an Orient change kit and then, after all of that, lost the match. Gillingham have now drawn one and lost nine of their ten away league matches this season. Sometimes football, like life, can be very unfair indeed.