The domestic league season is now all but over, but seasoned watchers of non-league football will already be more than aware that the final whistle at the end of any season seldom means that the league tables of the non-league pyramid are set in stone in any way. This season it is the Premier Division of the Ryman Football League that is the cause of some controversy as preparations begin for the Annual General Meetings that mark the end of this season and the start of the next, with a points deduction having been awarded after the end of the season which, subject to appeal, will relegate one club which had thought that it had done enough to avoid relegation whilst reprieving another which had been expecting to drop down a level.
The battle to avoid relegation from the Ryman League Premier Division at the end of this season already had a somewhat unusual look to it, with the decision to expand the division from twenty-two to twenty-four clubs meaning that there would only be two relegation places at the bottom of the table at the end of the season. Despite this, the battle to avoid the drop was a tight one, with just six points separating the bottom eight clubs in the division and Hastings United, who had made national headlines earlier in the season by reaching the Third Round of the FA Cup, and Carshalton Athletic eventually being the two clubs to be relegated from the division.
All of this, however, was without the reckoning of a signing that had been made earlier in the season. Joel Barnett had signed for Thurrock and played four games for the club and scoring one goal before dropping down a division to play for another local club, Tilbury. Having played eighteen games for that club he was on the move again, but this time the club that he was moving onto – another local club, Harlow Town – spotted something unfortunate in Barnett’s past. It turned out that this player had received a sine die – in other words, indefinite – suspension from the West Riding Football Association in 2009 over unpaid fines that had been run up while he had been playing for a now defunct Wakefield Sunday League side called Wilton.
Harlow Town didn’t sign the player, and reported the matter, which led to the position in which Thurrock and Tilbury now find themselves in. Although Barnett played eighteen games last season for Tilbury, their league position was such that any points deduction wouldn’t have a major effect on their club’s circumstances, apart, arguably, from a little wounded pride, but for Thurrock this was a considerably more troubling issue. The club had only avoided relegation from the division by a single, solitary point and the deduction of three points that the club had won with Barnett in their team at the end of August from a league match against Lewes proved enough to drop them to the bottom of the table and reprieve Carshalton Athletic, who had finished the season in second from bottom place in the table, instead.
There is, at the lower levels of the non-league game, a degree of cross-over between semi-professional clubs and those that play on Sunday mornings in amateur leagues, with many players opting to play on both Saturdays and Sundays, and organisation levels at such clubs are not necessarily always that high. What exactly happened while this player was playing in Yorkshire hasn’t yet been made completely clear. What is known is that Barnett had been suspended because of a non-payment of a fine levelled against now defunct Wakefield Sunday League side Wilton, but it is also understood that the meeting was unable to prove or disprove the validity of this suspension. It seems that this club may have folded without paying fines that were due from its players and that those players registered with the club for the season in question were subject to a ban until they paid the fines themselves.
The FA’s meeting, however, was divided into two and at the second meeting, which was held with the Ryman League, both Thurrock and Tilbury agreed to accept that if it was proved Barnett was legitimately suspended, they are guilty. However, the case of the two clubs is that the onus is on West Riding FA to prove that the sine die suspension is valid, an argument apparently accepted by the FA, and that the first meeting had been unable to conclude conclusively that this suspension was valid. That said, however, the Ryman League has stated that its position is clear: if a suspended player finds his way onto a team-sheet, a club will be deducted all points attained by a club with that player in the team. Thurrock’s reaction to last week’s announcement was certainly bullish on the matter, with the club secretary saying:
The FA came into the meeting with little or no evidence and were, quite frankly under prepared. I think their counsel was embarrassed by the lack of evidence. The onus is on them to prove the ineligibility of Joel Barnett. His connection with Wilton is historic, not recent and the West Riding FA have so far been unable to prove that he was registered for the season when the fines were levied. If he is not registered, and as he was living and working in Essex we do not believe he was.
We agreed to accept the FA ruling on the understanding that on appeal, it was the FA’s case that has to be proved by the FA. The Ryman League have to go by their rules, which we understand, and if the West Riding FA can prove Barnett was registered then we will accept our fate, but we do not believe he was and therefore we remain optimistic that the FA appeal will find in our favour and the Ryman League will rescind their ruling.
The counter-argument from both the Football Association and the Ryman League, however, might well be that if Harlow Town – themselves of the Ryman League Division One North – could find that this player was, whether rightly or wrongly, in this position, why couldn’t the two clubs that he had already played for that season? All county leagues issue a sine die suspension list, and as this one from the Hertfordshire County Football Association demonstrates, they are mostly issued over unpaid debts. If Thurrock’s points deduction was to be commuted, it would be reasonable to suggest that this should really only be done on account of the technicalities of the case itself, and not on the basis of any emotional arguments over whether a club would be relegated or not on the basis of any points deduction applied. It’s a tough lesson to learn, and we will find out next whether Thurrock FC is relegated as a result as what looks from here like an administrative error.
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