In the latest edition of what has long since become an ongoing saga, the annual Football Conference summer crisis seems likely to loom large on the horizon with the confirmation that ten Blue Square Premier clubs are appealing the decision to expunge the record of Chester City to the Football Association following the club’s expulsion from the league last month. It might seem odd that these ten clubs are appealing what seems to be the only sensible way to deal with the fall-out from the club’s collapse, but the truth of the matter is that any sense of “justice” that may be emanating from these ten clubs has, in all honesty, many of the hallmarks of being about their own interests rather than being fair in any way.
There is, it has to be said, some degree of obfuscation regarding the rules concerning what happens to a league should a club go to the wall in the middle of this season. This, thankfully, is because such circumstances are so very rare. On the overwhelming majority of cases that this has happened before, however, the offending club’s record has been wiped from the record. It’s what happened when Accrington Stanley folded in February 1962, when Newport County folded (whilst in what is now known as the Blue Square Premier) in February 1989 and when Aldershot left the Football League in March 1992. There is pretty clear precedent for the Football Conference’s decision to follow suit in the case of Chester City.
The only decision which contradicts this was the decision taken in 2005, after Spennymoor United were expelled from the Unibond League Premier Division for failing to complete fixtures. The club were expelled from the league on the 24th of April 2005, but five clubs appealed the decision (again all clubs that benefitted from the decision being altered), stating that the meeting didn’t have quorum. The Football Association stepped in and found in favour of the five clubs, awarding three points to all clubs that still had matches to play against Spennymoor. Two clubs that had objected to the decision, Farsley Celtic and Burscough, threatened legal action over it, but the FA’s decision stood. Unsurprisingly, it met with enormous criticism, the biggest being that clubs were awarded points for matches that they hadn’t even played. This is presumably the outcome that these ten clubs are hoping for now.
The Blue Square Premier in 2010 is an idiosyncratic beast. It is dotted by a number of clubs of that believe that they are “too big” for their league and that, more often that not in tandem with their supporters, seem to talk about it with little more than contempt. And in this spirit of contempt, ten clubs have signed a statement appealing the decision to expunge Chester’s record, preferring instead to award three points to everyone that has yet to play them this season and citing Spennymoor as precedent. Let’s have a look at the statement that has been released, then:
The strength of feeling within the clubs that have appealed is that the decision to expunge points so late in the season was not the right way of dealing with this situation. We don’t think that it was fair or reasonable when the Conference as a whole is considered. By the time Chester were expelled, 80 per cent of the playing season had passed and we believe it would have been fairer to all to have awarded teams three points for the unplayed games, a solution the FA has previously implemented. This way all events that happened on the field of play, whether they be points gained or lost, bookings, injuries, bonus payments, goals scored etc all count, which is as it should be. We do not believe it fair that points and the record of goals scored are expunged, yet bookings incurred in those games remain in force and count towards match bans.
The doublespeak at play here is staggering. It seems inconceivable that these nine clubs (and that’s not a misprint – more on that shortly) seriously believe that it is “fair or reasonable when the Conference as a whole is considered” that teams should be awarded points for matches that they didn’t play or that these bonus points shouldn’t make any difference in terms of goal difference. Is it fair to Gateshead, who played both of their matches against Chester before the middle of October, when Chester still had a full squad, whilst fellow strugglers Barrow would, under this proposal, pick up six points without even kicking a ball because they hadn’t played Chester at the time that Chester were expelled?
Actually, Barrow make an interesting example of the doublespeak at play here. Quite asides from the fact that they were, as many of you will be aware, the first club to get their fingers burnt by Stephen Vaughan, who left them in liquidation and tried to sign over the ownership of their Holker Street ground into his own name without even getting the approval of his fellow board members (something that was only resolved when a court ordered that ownership of the ground be returned to the club), they were listed as being amongst the ten clubs that were supporting the proposal, but the truth of the matter is that they had done nothing of the sort. In fact, their chairman Brian Keen – to the enormous credit of both him and his club – put out a public statement on the subject, which may raise eyebrows over whether there are even as many as ten clubs supporting this proposal:
I was contacted confidentially in midweek by an unnamed Chairman, asking us to join nine other clubs in appealing the Conference’s decision to expunge Chester’s results. I replied, “We at Barrow, want what’s fairest for everyone not just a few clubs”, and I asked for the alternative proposal to be put to me in writing so we could decide if there was merit to appeal. I have still not received this and have hence never agreed to [be] part of the appeal.
In addition to this, those appealing also seem to have got their sums somewhat mixed up. They claim in their statement that, “80 per cent of the playing season had passed”, but this is patently untrue. At the time of Chester’s expulsion, the club had played twenty-eight of its scheduled forty-six matches, which is just short of 61% of its matches. It wouldn’t suit the argument of those supporting the appeal to have to point out that eighteen of Chester’s matches – almost 40% – would go unplayed but with points being awarded to teams that hadn’t even kicked a football if the proposal somehow did sneak through. This statement, however, is at best misleading and at worst an outright lie.
There is no “perfect” solution over this matter. The fact of the matter is that Chester City should not have been allowed to start the season. However, the Blue Square Premier season will finish with twenty-three clubs having played forty-four matches against each other. It is not “fair” that twenty-eight unnecessary matches were played in that league this season, but it is now in the past and this cannot be undone. For every club that will benefit under this absurd proposal, another will lose out. It is to be hoped that common sense will prevail but, this being non-league football, there are no guarantees that this will happen. At worst, the promotion and relegation issues surrounding this season’s Blue Square Premier could even drag into the summer.
It has been mentioned in some quarters that clubs are concerned over win bonuses that were paid out to players for matches that will now have their results scrubbed from the records, but the clubs that hosted Chester City this season will not, we assume, be giving the gate receipts for these matches back to those supporters that turned out for them, and seeking to exploit the situation for their own ends only really strips those concerned of any moral high ground when it comes to whatever strange decisions that the Football Conference may make in the future. Looking in from the outside, it can only be concluded that only a “tinpot” club would seek to gain an advantage from such a set of circumstances.