The forty-six match regular season in the Ryman League came to an end this weekend but, true to form for a competition in the non-league game, with play-offs at the top of the league’s three divisions due to start in the next few days or so, a question mark remains over who will actually be taking part in them this year. In the league’s Premier Division, Maidstone United were crowned as champions last week, and one of the play-offs will see third-placed Margate play Dulwich Hamlet, whilst the other will be played between runners-up Hendon and… well, the obvious answer to that question would appear, on the surface, to be Enfield Town, who, at the time of writing, ended the season in fifth place in the table.
Non-league football, however, is seldom as clear cut as that, and with this season now completed the Towners now have an anxious wait before a decision is made over whether the club is to have points deducted over fielding an ineligible player earlier on this season. No-one in their right mind would argue that clubs should be allowed to field players that haven’t been correctly registered, that haven’t paid their fines for previous misdemeanours or served suspensions accumulated in the past, of course, but the circumstances surrounding Enfield’s nervousness are unusual to the point of being without direct precedent, and the decision reached at the start of next week by the Ryman League will say a considerable amount about the league’s attitude towards its clubs and itself in a more general sense.
When Aryan Tajbakhsh joined the club in January of this year, it took officials from Enfield Town to point out that his previous clubs had not correctly reported his personal details when informing the Football Association of bookings incurred during his time with them when they established this as part of their own due diligence against the player. The club was advise to leave the player out of the first team for its next two matches and duly followed this advice, a decision that was confirmed to the Ryman League by the Football Association a month later. At the start of last week, however, the club was suddenly and unexpectedly summoned to a hearing over the matter at Wembley Stadium to be held just two days later, and at that hearing it was confirmed that Enfield Town and the player had been charged with and found guilty of playing this particular player whilst ineligible.
To say that all concerned with Enfield Town Football Club were shocked by this decision would be something of an understatement, and this could be seen from the tone of the club’s official statement on the matter. A further official statement also followed from the Ryman League itself which, whilst it hasn’t confirmed what punishment the club might face, ended somewhat ominously in stating that, “the League is working with the club over when the hearing should be in order that play-off matches in the Premier Division are disrupted as little as possible.” The Ryman League’s standard policy in such a position is to deduct three points from the guilty club, but in this case it’s surely difficult to even countenance the notion that Enfield Town have actually done anything wrong in the first place. It was this club that raised the issue to the Football Association in the first place, and the club followed the advice that it was given by the league itself. It’s impossible to see what else it might have done, even with the benefit of hindsight.
This isn’t the only aspect of this case that is extremely troubling. As the statement from the club itself pointedly asks, why did it take until less than a week before the end of the league season for this matter to be considered important enough for the Football Association to act upon? The matter was first raised by the club itself three months ago, and even the notification from the FA to the Ryman League that the club and player should face no further action came about almost two months previously. There has been no explanation for what, in the absence of anything like a proper explanation for what the bloody hell it had been up to in the intervening period, can only look from this distance like a case of either incompetence or negligence on the part of the FA itself.
Enfield Town weren’t the only team that were impacted by this decision. Going into this weekend’s final round of Ryman League matches, there were two play-off places still up for grabs and four teams – Dulwich Hamlet, Enfield Town, Metropolitan Police and Grays Athletic – chasing those two places. By five o’clock on Saturday afternoon, Dulwich and Enfield had clung onto those last two places, but with just five days left until the play-offs are due to begin and Metropolitan Police now in sixth place in the table, no-one knows who will be playing in those matches. When supporters of all clubs talk of the “tinpottery” of non-league football, it is precisely this sort of fiasco that they’re thinking of, although it seems reasonable to suggest that the fault in this case rests with the Football Association rather than the Ryman League.
This isn’t, however, to say that the Ryman League couldn’t or shouldn’t exercise a little discretion in making their final judgement, presuming that the “guilt” of the club has been confirmed in this case and that it is non-negotiable. No-one would suggest for a single second that the rules relating to the registration of players shouldn’t be vigorously enforced. Quite asides from the extent to which unscrupulous clubs would take advantage of just about any loopholes presented to them, there are also issues that are worth considering such as the validity of any insurance policies taken out being invalidated by incorrect registration procedures having been followed which often don’t seem to get the attention that they should so when issues such as this come up.
What can be frustrating when dealing with many areas of both professional and semi-professional football administration, however, can be the absolute lack of nuance in the decisions that they make. Issues relating to the incorrect registration of players has been a thorn in the side of the non-league game for longer than many of us care to remember. The FA’s handling of it thus far will have done little dissuade those who criticise non-league football over its tinpottery that much has changed in recent years. It has been suggested that the player concerned has three separate records on the FA’s governance database, and it feels as if Enfield are being punished for their own honesty in pointing out the issues relating to this particular player’s registration details.
The Ryman League does have complete discretion over how it chooses to deal with this matter. It can deduct the club three points. It could order the match that was adversely affected by this – a 1-0 win for Enfield against Hendon in January – to be replayed (which seems unlikely, considering that this could even change the direction of the league title and the amount of time that has passed since it was first played) or it could confirm that this rule breach was clearly a technical one rather than a case of a club actively seeking to gain an advantage by breaking the league’s rules knowingly. The letter of the law and the spirit of the law are, as anybody with so much as a cursory knowledge of legal procedures should be fully aware, two very different things. The Ryman League and the Football Association should recognise this. Enfield Town should not be punished for the mistakes or incompetence of others.
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