How far would you go for your principles? It’s a question that many people spend a lot of time pondering over without ever having to see it through, but after a meeting at Soho Square this afternoon, Mike Woodward, the chairman of Conference club Grays Athletic will have to do some very important thinking indeed on this particular subject. Grays’ problems started in June 2006, when they signed former Sheffield United player and Thierry Henry body-double Ashley Sestanovich. Sestanovich claimed to be being held on remand in prison for motoring offences, but it quickly became apparent that he was actually on remand for his involvement in a robbery in London, which ended in the murder of a man (two other men were convicted of the murder). When Grays found this out, they terminated his contract, and Sestanovich was convicted of the crime and sentenced to eight years in prison. He had played just twenty minutes of one pre-season friendly for them.
So far, you might think, so good. Not quite. It is at this point that the story becomes somewhat more complicated. The matter ended up before the Football Association in June of last year, and the FA ruled that Grays should pay Sestanovich for the five months that he was with them – a total of £14,000 – because, under their interpretation of contract law, they are liable for his wages for the period between the time of his contract termination and the date that he was convicted. Grays refused to pay this amount, and this week they found themselves back in front of the FA over this. In their second ruling on the subject, they have given Grays fourteen days to pay the outstanding amount plus £500 in legal fees, or be suspended from all football by the FA until they do. The Grays chairman is reportedly still refusing to pay this amount, citing a counter-claim that the club currently going through the civil courts against Sestanovich which they are confident of winning. They have offered to pay the amount to the family of Thomas Fahey, the man killed in the robbery, or have offered to pay the amount of money to the FA on condition that they hold it in trust until the court case is resolved. As it stands, Grays Athletic could theoretically fail to complete their fixtures for the rest of the season. Expulsion from the league and closure could follow.
First of all, here are a few things that are probably worth pointing out. Firstly, there is no doubt in my mind that Woodward is doing this as a matter in principle, as opposed to trying worm his way out of paying a few pounds that he doesn’t want to pay. £14,000 is a surmountable amount of money for a club of their size – it probably equates to about one match’s worth of gate receipts. Secondly, Grays don’t appear (from what I can find) to have actually lost a case in court over this yet. I could be wrong on this, but I certainly can’t find any reference to it anywhere, if they have. Finally, it’s probably important to point out that Sestanovich didn’t actually murder anyone. This isn’t to exonerate him in any way, but the case in which he was involved was slightly more complex than him turning up to rob an office and shooting a man dead. His role in it was actually at the, ahem, “planning” stage.
Woodward’s offer to have the money put into trust would appear to have been the ideal solution to this problem, and it strikes me that FA have acted in a very heavy-handed way. They were offered an opportunity to strike a deal and rejected it. Having said that, I can’t help but think that the behaviour of Grays chairman is bordering on reckless. It strikes me that the punishment at this point in the case is as much for defying the FA (and there’s nothing they hate more than being defied) as it is over any concerns about Grays Athletic breaching contract laws. The very future of his club is now at stake, though, and Mike Woodward would do very well to think very carefully gambling on whether, in this particular war of nerves, the FA will blink first. His club’s supporters deserve better than to see their club die because of principles, no matter how well intentioned they may be.