The non-league football season wouldn’t be the non-league football season without promotion and relegation decisions coming under the spotlight on account of off the field events, and this season has, eventually, been no exception. We’ll be returning to the subject of Eastwood Town and their failure to convince the Football Conference to allow them to play in the Blue Square North play-offs at the end of the season next week, but first of all it’s time to head over to the Zamaretto League, where a points deduction has thrown a previously decided league title wide open with just one match of the normal season left to play.

Arlesey Town believed that they won the Division One Central of the league a couple of weeks ago, but the league title race has been thrown wide open again after they were deducted nine points for fielding an ineligible player earlier on during the season. This decision – which the club had appealed against, only for their appeal to already have been partly rejected, means that their seven point lead at the top of the table has evaporated. They will go into their final match of the season two points behind the new leaders, Hitchin Town, and it just so happens that their final match of the season will be… away to Hitchin Town, tomorrow.

This isn’t the first time that this division of the Zamaretto League has been the source of come controversy this season. In March, Daventry Town had six points deducted for fielding an ineligible player. Should they have had not had those points deducted, they would might also had a chance of winning the title tomorrow but, as things stand, they will have to make do with a place in the play-offs at the end of the season. The judgement passed regarding Arlesey, however, may well cause eyebrows to rise. It is understood that the Arlesey player that was found not to have been registered correctly made five appearances for the club in November, and that the points deduction was originally to be fifteen points, reduced to nine on appeal.

Why, it is surely reasonable to ask, was this decision not announced until more or less the very end of the season? There seems to be very little grounds to suggest a conspiracy, but is certainly not great management of the league to leave the announcement of the decision until this late in the season. If the registration errors came about in November (and it has been rumoured that the league has known about them since January), how did it take almost four months for a decision to be made. Clubs can be deducted all points won with an ineligible player, and it has happened before. In the Cymru Alliance league during the 1991/92 season, Welshpool Town were top of the table, before being deducted sixty-six points for having fielded a player, Billy Morris, who had been banned for seven years by Staffordshire County FA.

A more recent comparison may be that of AFC Wimbledon during the 2006/07 season. They were docked seventeen points for fielding Jermaine Darlington, when the player had not received international clearance to play for the club. Darlington had previously been on the books at Cardiff City and. as such, his registration was still held with the Football Association of Wales. The Ryman League, however, eventually reduced the Wimbledon points deduction to three points on appeal, which certainly seemed to be a better fit for a “crime” that was little more than an administrative error. This case, however, showed up the complexities of player registration. Was the “crime” committed by Arlesey Town, however, so serious as to merit a nine point deduction? Because details of the case through official channels are, at present, so sparse, it is difficult to say. It is difficult to think of another transgression of the rules (apart from an insolvency event) that would merit a similar sanction.

The reasons for player registration being an important matter are obvious. Quite aside from the matter of preventing cheating of any sort, there are issues relating to the insurance of players that perform in a league. What might have happened, had the ineligible player concerned seriously injured another player during one of his appearances? It seems unlikely that the league’s insurance policy would cover an ineligible or unregistered player, and such a situation may have led to legal action being taken against the league itself. This, however, hardly seems to be the issue at hand in this case. The important matter at hand is that of why a disciplinary issue from the end of last year was not or could not be resolved until just before the last weekend of the season.

It has also been stated elsewhere that Arlesey’s original points deduction was to be fifteen points, but that this was reduced to nine points upon appeal. If this is the case, it is perhaps worth asking the question of whether it done with a view to giving Arlesey a second chance with the match at Top Field tomorrow. Regardless of this, Hitchin may benefit financially from a larger than expected crowd at Top Field, and the fact that the two clubs nearest to them in the league have now had points deducted will mean that eyes will fall upon them. This would be an unfair assertion to make and, as such, there doesn’t seem to have been a great deal of triumphalism at Hitchin. Supporters, players and management alike would all wish to win promotion on the pitch.

Similarly, there is nothing at present that suggests any impropriety on the part of Zamaretto League, but their apparent prevarication over making this decision only seems likely to fuel those that seek to see a conspiracy. It is difficult not to feel sympathy for all those at Arlesey that have found their celebrations curtailed by the events of the last few days, as well. It is difficult not to imagine that their team will be highly charged for the match tomorrow, and it is to be hoped that, on the day, the best team wins. Whether the best team over the course of the season will have won the league, however, may turn out to be a different question altogether.

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