I’m not generally a fan of points deductions, as they are the one punishment guaranteed to punish the club as an entity (as well as the players and fans), without really punishing the people responsible for the transgression in the first place. However, most of the points deductions in recent times have been off the field transgressions. Administration is an off the field issue, Luton Town’s whistle-blowing was an off the field issue, not being able to secure a CVA is an off the field issue. However, on the field transgressions that earn points deductions are rare, and with the exception of the points deductions handed out to Arsenal and Manchester United for a brawl back in October 1990, all on the field punishments that have been met with points deductions have concerned player eligibility.
On February 1st, Torquay United hosted Hereford United, and Jake Robinson made his debut for the home side, having signed on loan from Shrewsbury Town the day before. The same day Hereford United signed Rob Purdie from Oldham Athletic, after he was freed by the Latics, having been on loan at Edgar Street for the previous three months. However, Football League rules state that, in terms of transfer window signings, players who sign after noon on the final day of the window, are not eligible for the next programme of games (in this case, the midweek games of Tuesday February 1st to Thursday 3rd), and both players were signed after noon, yet played at Plainmoor on the 1st.
In cases like these, the clubs ordinarily lose the points they gained in the match, as well as receiving a token fine, and in recent years the Football League and the FA have been consistent. Droylsden (2009) and Bury (2006) have both been kicked out of the FA Cup having fielded a suspended or ineligible player. Last season Hartlepool lost three points for playing the suspended Gary Liddell in their 2-0 win over Brighton. The season before, Crystal Palace lost the point they earned in their 0-0 draw against Sheffield United after loanee Rui Fonte played, despite his loan having expired days before. In 2008, Leeds named too many loan players in their squad against Burnley (clubs were, and still are allowed five, they named six), and because they lost 2-1, they were fined, but not deducted any points. There have been occasions where it has been reported that other clubs have made the same mistake and not faced deductions (including Swansea against Wrexham and Boston in 2004 and Sheffield Wednesday against Stoke in 2008), in all occasions further investigation shows that each club spotted their error (or had it pointed out to them) and withdrew one of the players in the squad before kickoff.
In that respect, Hereford United have little to complain about, as they have lost all three of their points earned that night in a 3-1 win – their punishment is consistent with the past, and ordinarily they would have no complaints. However, in a more baffling decision, Torquay have been deducted a point despite losing – the first ever instance in the Football League of a club “earning” negative points for a game, as a result it become a much harsher punishment for the same crime. Such a decision defies belief, and suggests that Torquay’s crime is worse than any other on-pitch transgression in Football League history, bar that brawl at Old Trafford, when all they have done is lost a match with a player who should not have played, which in other circumstances would merit a fine in the region of the £25,000 that the Gulls and the Bulls have been docked. Both clubs are appealing, with even Hereford chairman David Keyte questioning the Torquay punishment: “I know there is a precedent set by losing the points you have gained for playing an ineligible player, but it has been confused by Torquay having a point deducted.”.
Of course there are two famous examples of ineligible players playing in games where they weren’t eligible, without the club receiving an on the pitch sanction, and they both concerned West Ham. When already cup-tied Manny Omoyinmi played against Aston Villa in the League Cup in 1999, the Hammers were fined, but not thrown out of the Cup (the tie was replayed), and more famously Carlos Tevez played half a season where he had been registered without his third party ownership being declared (the subsequent investigation stating that had the ownership structure been declared honestly, then there would not have been time to register Tevez, therefore ruling him ineligible). In that respect, Torquay United in particular, must wonder why their punishment is so harsh, and the Football League have pained themselves into a corner – they have already created a inconsistency with their initial punishment, and anything they do in terms of rectifying the judgement through the appeal system either has to be inconsistent in terms of the two clubs, or inconsistent with precedents created in the past.
With the league not expected to announce their reasoning to the clubs for another seven days, and the clubs have a further 21 days to appeal – the deadline for the appeal is Tuesday 3rd May, the same day that the Alejandro Faurlin/Queens Park Rangers hearing begins With the League finishing four days later, and both sides involved in promotion and relegation battles, the league could have some very difficult decisions to justify.