Supporters of Blue Square Premier club Oxford United could be forgiven for wondering whether there is a conspiracy theory against them. They were relegated from the Football League after years of systematic maladministration, and it now seems that their attempts to get back into the League will be scuppered by more of the same, only this poor bureaucracy has come not only from within the club, but also from the Blue Square Premier itself. The row that has followed has rumbled all season, but recent developments have, if anything, cast doubt over the suitability of Brian Lee, the BSP’s chairman, to the position in which he finds himself.
Three Blue Square Premier clubs, Oxford United, Mansfield Town and Crawley Town, and one Blue Square South club, Bognor Regis Town, were docked points earlier in the season for fielding ineligible players. This much is not disputed by anyone, including the clubs themselves. The clubs, however, complained about the way in which the league handled checking the registration of players, which seemed to involve the random spot-checking of team sheets rather than systematically checking all registrations. With seeming reluctance, the Football Conference held an internal investigation into their procedures and cleared themselves of any wrongdoing over the processing of these applications, but also promised to “monitor and observe any new procedures being developed in the national game that will further enhance the operations of our competition and the communications with our clubs, supporters and partners”.
So far, so unsurprising. Turkeys, it is generally assumed, would be unlikely to vote for Christmas and Oxford, Mansfield, Crawley and Bognor will have to take their slap on the wrists accordingly. The question of where responsibility over player registration begins and ends, however, remains a valid one and it is not as clear cut as the Football Conference would have everyone believe. One would assume that football clubs and football leagues have a clearly defined line over this. It would stand to reason that, once matches have been played, all registration forms are checked by the league and transgressions are dealt with immediately. Certainly, when I sat on the committee of a Sunday Football League six or seven years ago, this was how player registration was dealt with because player registration is critically important. However, the spot-checking system more or less ensures that this will not happen and that it may take time for errors to come to light. This is the crux of the argument against the current Football Conference system.
A significant part of the problem seems to be that frankly outdated systems are used for player registration. Faxes and letters seem to be the preferred modus operandi and, at this point, it’s pretty simple to illustrate how this can go wrong. Consider this. I, like many of you, work in an office. To all of you, I have a simple question – how often in the course of a working day do faxes and letters go missing, either in the post or during transmission, or once they have arrived at their destination? If the Blue Square Premier needs to see how it should be done in this day and age, they could do worse than have a look at the website for the Northern League (which feeds into the Unibond League). At the click of a mouse, secretaries can check the registration and eligibility of any players and, should they have any queries, all the contact details for the registration secretary are there as well.
More troubling even than this, however, are comments that Lee made towards the Supporters Trusts of the clubs that have spent much of this season protesting against the points deductions. “The Football Conference has also received negative communications and in some cases unwarranted abuse via supporters trusts”, he said in a statement regarding the internal review of their processes. This was a completely unwarranted comment. A quick check of the news archives for the trusts concerned shows no “unwarranted abuse” from them. In a remarkable interview with the BBC’s Non League Show this week, Lee was bullish about it all, stating that abusive messages had been placed on forums about him and that abusive calls had been made to the BSP’s headquarters. When pressed on the issue by his interviewer, Caroline Barker, he conceded that the abuse that he was talking about had come from individuals rather than trusts themselves, but refused to apologise for comments that stopped not far short of being libellous.
The response from Oxford United has been understandably furious. In a press statement released yesterday, OxVox (the OUFC Supporters Trust) said, “We are dismayed that the Conference continues to avoid answering the questions posed by both the supporters’ trusts and the football clubs. Being blunt, it is a disrespectful and short-sighted approach. It does not appear useful to engage directly with the Conference further on this issue”, while Oxford’s general manager, Mick Brown, has resigned from the board of the Football Conference, saying, “I was hoping that the review would highlight what changes have been made to the procedures at the Conference office. I am also disappointed that as a board member the findings of the committee were not circulated to everyone on the board, myself included”.
Oxford are one point off the play-off places with a game to play, but with the teams above them having games in hand, it seems likely that they will have to spend at least one more season in the BSP. At the other end of the spectrum, Bognor Regis Town, already crippled by financial difficulties which mean that they are doing as much as they can just to stay afloat, were effectively sentenced to relegation by the decision with all the further financial constraints that relegation brings. These decisions have clear, tangible effects on clubs and, more importantly, people. It is too late for Oxford, Crawley, Mansfield and Bognor, but it is obviously not too late to change for next season.
It seems clear that changes in the way that the Football Conference handles the registration of players needs a complete overhaul. It is simply not good enough to push all of the responsibility back onto the clubs to cover your own back. Whether the Football Conference will reform, though, is a different question. After all, the league is ultimately made up of its sixty-eight constituent clubs and points deductions work in favour of the overwhelming majority. Would, say, the chairmen of Kidderminster Harriers or Torquay United, either of whom would lose their play-off place should Oxford get their points back, have voted in favour of a reform that would have given Oxford those points back? One cannot say for sure that they wouldn’t, but one cannot say that they would, either.
Moreover, the lack of transparency that seems to encircle the Football Conference indicates a league which has gone from being extremely well run to being rudderless and autocratic in a very short period of time, and the comments made by Brian Lee about the supporters trusts were ill-advised to the point of being insulting. If he cannot tell the difference between supporters trusts and individual supporters (which, unless the people making abusive calls said something like, “Hello? Is that the Football Conference? Yes, hello. My name is Jim from OxVox and I’d just like to say that Brian Lee is a monstrous, colossal twat. Thanks. Bye.”, would be pretty difficult to prove), then perhaps he should stand aside in favour of someone that can. Ultimately – and this is coming from a hitherto completely neutral standpoint – the only conclusion that can be arrived is that, if this is how he conducts himself, then Brian Lee is not fit to hold the post of chairman of the Football Conference.