An update from the Surrey/London border tonight. It would appear that I called the AFC Wimbledon ineligible player saga incorrectly. Rather than the problem being the loan player (see the previous post on the matter for further details – it’s in the January archive somewhere), it would appear that the issue was Jermaine Darlington, who they had signed from Cardiff City in November. Somewhat remarkably, international clearance has to be obtained when a players transfers from a Welsh Football League club (as opposed to a League of Wales club), and this hadn’t been done. They have, as I previously mentioned on here may occur, been lobbed unceremoniously out of the FA Trophy (Gravesend will play Rushden in the next round) but, more worryingly, they have now been charged by the Ryman League with fielding a player before obtaining international clearance.

The FA Trophy ruling is harsh, but not unexpected. The FA had shown form this very season when they lobbed Bury out of the FA Cup last month. It’ll hurt AFC Wimbledon somewhat in the short term but, hey, the FA Trophy very much plays second fiddle to the bread and butter of the League these days so that is, theoretically at least, no great loss. However, the Ryman League could take a dim view on it as well, and they could lose all of the points that they’ve won since Darlington signed for them in November. That’s nineteen in total. They could be sent straight from the fringes of a promotion battle into a battle to stay up.

There is previous for this. Last year, Conference side Altrincham were docked 18 points for playing a player without international clearance. Now, it just so happens that the Conference were expanding to twenty-four clubs at the time, Canvey Island were resigning because they couldn’t afford to carry on at that level, and there were major financial shenanigans going on at Scarborough that led to them being chucked out during the summer. In short, there was no actual relegation from the Conference. It is, I suppose, possible that the eighteen point deduction was given in the full knowledge that it wouldn’t have any real effect on Altrincham.

Quite asides from this, there is the fact that it was a different league that made the ruling over Altrincham. The Conference, desperate to be taken seriously as the unofficial “fifth” division of English football, come across as far too harsh on this kind of transgression. Their “fit & proper” test, which determines that clubs are in a suitable financial state to play in the league, did for Scarborough. I’m wondering aloud whether the Football League have such strict rulings on the matter – if they did, I would presume that about fifty of their member clubs should be expelled straight away. The Conference was humiliated in the 1990s when Kidderminster, Macclesfield and Stevenage were denied promotion to the League on the basis of the condition of their grounds. It was said for a while that the Conference’s stadium requirements were tougher than the Football League’s. Whether the Ryman League will take such a harsh view of proceedings remains to be seen. There are grounds for cautious optimism for Dons’ fans, though. Alan Turvey, the Chairman of the Ryman League, was on the three man committee that was appointed to look into Wimbledon’s move to Milton Keynes several years ago. The three man committee voted 2-1 in favour, but Turvey is widely believed to have been the man that voted against it.

I should re-iterate that rules are rules, but discretion needs to be applied in making such decisions. It is plainly ridiculous that Cardiff City players have to be registered to the Welsh FA when Cardiff play in English competitions, and that their registrations need to be transferred to the English FA when they transfer to English clubs. The rule, as in the ink on the piece of paper, may have been broken, but the spirit of the game has obviously not been transgressed. It was an administrative error, pure and simple. AFC Wimbledon would surely have actioned this piece of form filling, had they known that they needed to. There is also the point to be made that the Ryman League have to admit some degree of culpability here. They presumably have at least one paid administrator whose job is to check the eligibility of all of the players in their league. How could they allow this to go on for over two months, only for the FA to realise the problem after just three FA Trophy matches? If there was a problem, they should have picked up on it earlier themselves.

So, what should they do? A slap on the wrists should surely suffice. To be thrown out of a cup competition on account of an administrative error falls into the category of “harsh but fair”. To be docked 19 points in the league for the same thing is getting into the realms of the ridiculous. I would like to think that the Ryman League will make a common sense decision over this. I’m not 100% certain that they will, but we can but hope. And to all the people calling them “cheats” and chuckling at their discomfort… how certain would you be about the registration of all of your club’s players?