It’s probably fair to say that we would all like the league tables at the end of the season to have been decided by events that take place on the field of play. This is why the points deductions that were handed out by the Football League during the summer left such a bad taste in the mouth. The damage at Rotherham United, Luton Town and Bournemouth was done long before this summer, and the cost of it is, by and large, being borne by people that were little if not nothing to do with what actually went wrong. So far this season, the Football League has managed to hold up reasonably well financially, but there’s nothing in the general long-term prognosis isn’t good. If the economy continues to shrink, then season ticket sales are likely to fall sharply. Clubs may be about to discover that they are a luxury that many people can’t afford when times get hard.
Considering that most of the worst financial crises have, thus far, been fought off, one might have expected that the majority of league tables were being decided, for once, by what occurred on the pitch, but that’s not completely true, and one league is leading the way when it comes to handing out heavy sanctions for errors – The Blue Square Premier. The BSP has earned itself a reputation for having a zero tolerance attitude towards what look like, on the surface, simple clerical mistakes. It may seem as if they are being heavy handed in their punishments, but the BSP has taken over twenty years to build a reputation for professionalism and a strong rapport with the Football League. They have earned themselves an automatic promotion place and a play-off place, and they are not prepared to jeopardise these for anybody or anything. This seasons victims have all lost points because of what the clubs concerned have called “administrative” blunders.
Mansfield Town were docked four points after they played Aaron O’Connor for two matches at the start of season while he was still registered with BSP rivals Grays Athletic. The club, to their credit, held their hands up to the error and confirmed that they would not be appealing the decision. They apologised to their supporters and, in a public statement, said, “There are 90-plus points available, there is time to win them this season and our resolve to do so has been strengthened”. It has proved to be an expensive mistake four them. They currently sit one place above the BSP relegation places with over half of the season played. Relegation to the Blue Square North remains a distinct possibility. Equally costly was the error made by Crawley Town, who registered striker Isiah Rankin with the FA but not with the BSP and have been docked four points and fined £500 by the BSP. Their public statement was somewhat more terse: “This decision is extremely hard to take given the flawed registration procedures that the Football Conference had in place in the early part of the season”. They have not, as yet, confirmed whether they will be appealing or not, but the deduction has been enough to drop them out of the play-offs.
It is the third points deduction that has raised one or two eyebrows amongst supporters. Oxford United were also found with their fingers in the cookie jar, having failed to re-register midfielder Eddie Hutchinson after he was transfer listed by former manager Darren Patterson. They have also been fined, £500, but this is not the matter that is vexing people. What’s vexing them is the fact that Oxford United have been docked just five points by the BSP when Oxford had won eleven points with Hutchinson playing in the team while he was incorrectly registed. Mansfield, for example, were docked all four of the points that they picked up with Aaron O’Connor, and this tends to be the rule of thumb that is used unless there are special cirumstances. Oxford have good cause to be very relieved. Their deduction leaves them five points above the relegation places. Had they received the full eleven point that many felt, prior to today, they would be in the bottom four this evening.
As ever, this has got the conspiracy theorists whispering. It has already been suggested that a five point deduction more or less guarantees that Oxford will not get ino the BSP play-off but, at the same time, it still doesn’t drag them into the immediate midst of a relegation battle. A club whose away support is amongst one of the biggest (and, therefore, most lucrative) are almost certainly going to be in the same division next season. Of course, it’s not as if Oxford were definitely going to get promoted (they were nine points off promotion before the deduction), but since when has the cold light of reality intruded on a good conspiracy theory? There is a case for saying that clubs simply shouldn’t be punished for administrative mistakes. However, it strikes me that the BSP might actually have got the balance just about right. When the leagues went through a phase of being extraordinarily harsh over administrative errors, we were rightly critical. It seems now that the BSP is trying to use a little common sense in making what could be very expensive decisions.
The BSP has a recent history of being seen to do the right thing in its administrative dealings. The introduction of a salary cap, regular auditing of club finances with transfer embargoes being placed upon clubs that are not keeping houses in order and an innovative television deal (which means that BSP clubs now earn more out of television than they ever have done before) all demonstrate that this may just be the most forward looking football league in the country. Moreover, it has been successful. Many BSP clubs have sailed close to the wind this season, but none have entered into administration yet. On the field of play, the eight non-league clubs in the Third Round of the FA Cup was an unprecedently high number, and two are in the Fourth Round. The key issue here for the BSP is that the league needs to be seen to be a professionally run competition. This is why the BSP had more stringent ground grading rules than League Two, and why it won’t let clubs that don’t run themselves properly off the hook. It fought tooth and nail for the two promotion places, and it doesn’t want to lose them. The harsh reality for clubs at BSP level is this: if you are playing at level football, you have be, and be seen to be, acting like a professional club. Ultimately, if you have full-time players and wish to be regarded as a full-time club, every aspect of your club needs to be professionally run. It shouldn’t just be the fact that you pay your players hundreds of pounds each week.