The FA Cup hasn’t even reached the second qualifying round yet but already a second club in the South West has been kicked out of the competition. Mangotsfield United, who play in the Southern League Division One South and West, are already out – thanks to player ruled ineligible due to a a fine from a previous club,  a fine which the club were not made aware of by either the player or the Gloucestershire FA. And now Chippenham Town are out as well (with the added worry of possibly losing league points too).

In August, Chippenham signed a 24-year-old full back called Curtis Jack. What the club (and the Wiltshire FA) didn’t know that he was suspended from playing back in May because he owed £95 to an old club, Somerset County League side St George Easton-in-Gordano. He was also suspended from playing by the Gloucestershire FA back in August for owing £50 to Wick FC, who play in the Bristol Premier Combination League – only the Gloucestershire FA had the player listed as Jack Curtis, not Curtis Jack. Jack has played six games in the Southern League Premier Division so the Bluebirds could be docked points, he also, crucially played against Somerset-based Wells in the First Qualifying Round of the FA Cup and today an FA Cup Sub-Committee decided that because Jack was suspended by two other county FAs there won’t be anymore FA Cup action for the Bluebirds this for season. This follows a very similar incident down the road at Mangotsfield where striker Dean Griffiths played against Hallen AFC in the previous round, despite not paying a £16 fine left over from when his Sunday League side folded.

Obviously the rules are there for a reason and both clubs, however unwittingly, fielded ineligible players. However, these incidents have thrown light on a few issues could potentially be used as ‘excuses’ for breaking the rules of the competition. Firstly, how do the local branches of the Football Association communicate with each other and with the clubs? Is it their responsibility to inform clubs if they are fielding a banned player? And do they need to inform each other if there is a banned player in another patch? With the movement of players between clubs in the lower levels of non-league football being as high as it is, it may even be practically impossible to trace the movements of every single player and keep all the clubs up to date but with such issues as outstanding fines, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that with a cross-border game coming up, especially a ‘prestige tie’ like an FA Cup match, one county FA might read a preview of the game and inform their neighbours than player X is actually on their sine fie list. It is difficult to believe, as conspiracy theorists might, that one FA would, for example, withhold information from another for the benefit of a club within their county association.

Each county FA publishes a list of suspended players on their website. They are relatively easy to find and are updated regularly, so why did the former Chippenham Town secretary Chris Blake (who helped the Bluebirds with their appeal hearing) tell the Wiltshire Gazette and Herald: “The Wiltshire County FA are as angry as we are about what’s happened – they will write letters of support about Chippenham Town and the fact that we’re a good, honest, open club but the stark reality is that no club has won one of these appeals yet. The frustration is that they’re menial things that he was fined for but by not paying them, you get banned and we’re where we are today. We could lose seven points in the league and be fined up to £500 pounds.”

It is harsh but it doesn’t matter how open and honest the club is or how angry the Wiltshire FA is, the player was still banned from playing by two different counties. Yes, at this level of football (Steps 3 and 4 of the non-league pyramid), the role of club secretary is more than likely a volunteer. The question of how hard is it to check the website every month, however, remains a valid one – especially for matches with a potential financial bonus, even if just to be on the safe side. I know of several clubs in the south-west that have been carrying out extra checks in the past week as a result of the Mangotsfield/Chippenham fallout to make sure there are no skeletons in any of their players’ closets, such as bookings picked up in Sunday League games, unpaid fines or secret suspensions. But then, a counter argument occurs if the club doesn’t know in the first place.

Is it realistic to place the onus on players to inform their new clubs of any previous bans, fines, misdemeanors? The recent, slightly disappointing, Channel 4 Dispatches ‘expose’ on drugs in football showed how footballers higher up the pyramid can miss off the odd positive drugs test from a CV, lower down it seems that it is equally easy to ‘forget to mention’ that you may or may not have an outstanding issue with a county FA. Players move clubs, some more unscrupulous ones might do so leaving unpaid fines, or some genuinely might not know they have suspensions elsewhere. How often have you received an important letter for a previous occupant of your flat or house? It can be easy to forget to tell everyone you’ve moved sometimes.

Griffiths, who has unsurprisingly left Mangotsfield, has claimed he was not aware of the outstanding fine owed to the Gloucestershire FA. GFA gave stated that they wrote to him, but the player he claims to have moved and that he didn’t get the letter. Jack has also left Chippenham, with manager Adie Mings telling the Gazette and Herald: “The player’s shown a total disregard for what’s gone on and no matter what level of football you play at, you can’t just expect to move on and have things go away.” Mings, who also claimed there were elements “out to hurt the football club” makes a good point – the players do have to take responsibility. Both Griffiths and Jack said they were not aware of any suspensions but, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s not *that* hard to check the local FA website once in a while, whether it is the player doing it himself or the club secretary checking out the background of any new signing.

So what is the answer? What would stop these incidents happening and stop clubs like Chippenham and Mangotsfield learning expensive lessons? A centralised system would solve the cross-border issues but again, it would be down to the clubs and the players to check it and inform each other of any bans or suspensions. The current system isn’t broken, although there is room for improvement – perhaps a weekly or monthly bulletin sent out to each club – it is creating more work for volunteer secretaries and the already-busy county FAs. Fining the players for playing while banned is a nice idea but seeing as some of these players are already not paying other fines which they may or may not know about it doesn’t really seem like that would work?

Ultimately, the responsibility for all of this has to boil down to the clubs themselves. They are the ones who most need the potential prize pots from a successful run in the FA Cup and it is they that may get docked points or kicked out of competitions long after the ineligible players have left – as hard as it may be, it is down to them to check on new signings. Background checks, CRBs and references are all part of modern job applications, after all. But with each answer to this thorny question comes a flaw – perhaps you have a better idea?

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