The EFL Roll Their Dungeons & Dragons Dice

by | Dec 19, 2019

There comes a point at which the brain just starts to shut down. For a while, it can be tempting to go down the conspiracy theory route, picking apart the themes and patterns like The Da Vinci Code, trying to look for logic where it doesn’t exist. But ultimately, when the EFL makes a decision, it feels as though they’ve rolled a Dungeons & Dragons dice. Today, they stumbled on another piece of inconsistency in docking Macclesfield Town six points (with a further four suspended) over various matters, including the non-payment of wages on time and failing to fulfil a League Two fixture against Crewe Alexandra on the 7th of December.

Taken into complete isolation, one might shrug one’s shoulders and mutter “fair enough.” The deduction drops Macclesfield to 22nd place in the League Two table, two places above the relegation positions, with only one in place this season because of the expulsion of Bury at the end of August. It is definitely a punishment for the club, but it isn’t so harsh as to unnecessarily impact upon the (blameless) players and supporters over what happened. A further four-point deduction would, were it to happen tomorrow, drop the club to the bottom of the table. It’s not difficult to see why this specific punishment was meted out to this specific club, in this specifice situation.

The problem, however, is that this punishment can’t be taken in isolation. Bolton Wanderers recently also found themselves in front of the EFL over missing two matches, one at the end of last season against Bournemouth, and one at the start of this season, while the club remained in administration, over concerns for the well-being of the young squad that the club was having to put out. Bolton were also fined £20,000 for the Brentford fixture and £50,000 for the Doncaster fixture, with half of both fines being suspended for 18 months. There have been no reports that Macclesfield Town have received any financial penalty.

It’s complicated, of course. Bolton were docked twelve points at the started of this season for entering into administration. They have clawed their way back to within touching distance of the other teams at the bottom of the table, though it is worth pointing out that they would still be in the relegation places, even if a twelve point deduction hadn’t been applied. Haven’t, the club’s supporters might reasonably argue, they suffered enough? And it’s also worth bearing in mind that the owners of the club now were not the owners of the club when this all happened, and they might argue themselves that it would be unfair for them to be heavily sanctioned for issues that occurred before they were anything to do with the running of the club.

On the other hand, it might be argued that Bolton failed to fulfil two fixtures rather than one that Macclesfield did, whilst it seems strange that Macclesfield should have had the fact that they didn’t pay their players on time included as part of their charge when so many other clubs – including Bolton, of course – have done the same over the last couple of seasons. The entire rulings, when held up to the light and compared with each other, look like a garbled mess, with little by way of assistance in comprehension in the accompanying statement:

An independent Disciplinary Commission has ruled that Macclesfield Town will be deducted six points from this season’s League Two table following a number of breaches of EFL Regulations.

At a hearing today the Club pleaded guilty to multiple charges in respect of non-payment of players on applicable due dates and also the non-fulfilment of a fixture in relation to its match with Crewe Alexandra, originally scheduled to take place on 7 December 2019.

The Commission, appointed in accordance with EFL Regulations, heard representations from both the EFL and Macclesfield Town, determining that a sporting sanction of 10 points, with four suspended, was appropriate when considering both the aggravating and mitigating factors in the case.

The six-point deduction will be applied immediately with the decision remaining subject to appeal.

Failing to fulfil a fixure was – and for many still is – considered crossing the event horizon in the spiral of a football club towards the black hole of insolvency. Any club that cannot even put out a team for a fixture is no longer a football club in any meaningful sense, and no matter how bad things have got at innumerable clubs over the years, 99.999999% of the time, fixtures were played on time. It felt akin to one of the last taboos, along with assaulting supporters or match officials. It’s not purely symbolic, either. It disrupts (and may financially impact) supporters of both clubs, and may cost opposing clubs money. A rescheduled fixture on a Tuesday night is unlikely to draw as big a crowd as a Saturday afternoon fixture.

And then, of course, there is the element of deterrent. It is necessary to have a strict line in the sand over this, in order to prevent clubs from gaming the system, as they most assuredly would do if they thought they could gain a competitive advantage from it. And in a game in which very narrow margins can have very large financial implications, one of the things that ensures fairness is that the League itself tells you when your fixtures are. Football is already deeply unequal without clubs believing that they can pull little stunts to bend the rules to breaking point. This is why the EFL have come down on Sheffield Wednesday. The spirit of the law matters in football, but the exact line that divides legitimately seeking to gain a competitive advantage and not doing so isn’t always clear.

Either Macclesfield or Bolton’s punishments might be considered too severe, too lax, or just right, depending on the prism through which we view them. It might be argued that considering all the factors, both aggravating and mitigating, trying to crystallise the points deductions at, say, five points per game, would be just about impossible. It might be argued that they shouldn’t be taken into account at all. But if this can’t be done in this way, then the EFL have to start fully explaining the reasoning behind these points deductions and trying to bring a little more objectivity into the decision-making process. As long as these decisions are made as subjectively as they currently seem to be, arguing and accusation will inevitably continue.