After almost one hundred and three years, St Albans City of the Blue Square South made their first trip to Wembley in an official capacity on Friday, but there was no silverware to be won from the disciplinary committee of the Football Association. The club had been charged with financial irregularities during the 2008/09 Blue Square South season and the punishment meted out by the FA was harsh – a £7,500 fine and an immediate ten point deduction that sinks the club to the foot of the Blue Square South table and may prove to be the death knell for their season. The FA’s statement on the subject was terse and to the point:
At a Regulatory Hearing today, St. Albans City FC were deducted ten league points and fined £7,500 after a case of financial irregularities was proven. The Conference South club were found to be in breach of the following FA Rules – C2(b)(ii), C1(b)(viii) and C2(b)(iii). The three breaches are in relation to financial irregularities in respect to payments and expenses to players. In summing up, the Chairman of the Regulatory Commission had serious concerns over the financial irregularities within the Club during the 2008-09 season. Such irregularities enabled the Club to have an unfair sporting advantage over others within the League which is simply unacceptable. St Albans City FC were warned as to their future conduct and the ten league points deduction is immediate.
The rules that the club was found to be in breach of – C2(b)(ii) and C2(b)(iii) – relate to payments being made to uncontracted players and this is what they say:
(ii) All salaried payments must be subject to PAYE and National Insurance.
(iii) Any Player’s paid expenses must be reimbursed via an expense claim form. The Club must retain all expense records in a format acceptable to the HM Revenue and Customs.
So, in other words, the club was paying players “under the counter” and not paying the tax that is payable upon them. As the FA’s statement makes clear, this most definitely gives the club “an unfair sporting advantage over others within the League”, although the irony, as many of the club’s supporters may have noted over the last forty-eight hours or so, is that even with this advantage they could only manage twelfth place in the final Blue Square South table at the end of the 2008/09 season. That it should have been deducted ten points when many had expected the sanction to be between five and seven points hints at the extent to which this is in itself a damning indictment of those running the club.
To the disappointment of many of the club’s supporters, John Gibson, the chairman, has not himself been barred by the FA and remains in his position there. For the supporters, this is the icing on the cake in the worst of all possible double whammies. Gibson’s chairmanship has seen the club perpetually beset by financial difficulties in recent years and, with the team having stagnated on the pitch, crowds have fallen away and an air of apathy and mild disrepair now hangs over Clarence Park. There are many whispers as to what his continuing interest in this loss-making club which plays at a council-owned ground might be, but the clamour for him to leave the club to somebody else to try and pick up pieces of the mess that the club has become is likely to reach new levels over the remainder of this season.
On the pitch, the effect of the points deduction has been no less than ruinous. City were only narrowly above the relegation places in the Blue Square South before the deduction and now sit firmly at the bottom of the table, on just eleven points with just eighteen matches left to play of the season. It was in 1986 that St Albans City won an extraordinary match against Lewes at The Dripping Pan by seven goals to one in order to win promotion to Step Two of the non-league pyramid. They’ve been there ever since and had one (reasonably disastrous) season in the Blue Square Premier as well, but relegation back into the Isthmian or Southern Leagues would see them dropping into a highly competitive league from which automatic promotion back would certainly not be a foregone conclusion. The possibility of the sort of decline that befell so many of the clubs that they may have considered rivals over the years – the likes of Aylesbury United, Slough Town, Enfield and others – remains the worst case scenario, and comes a step closer with such a relegation.
The silence from the club itself over this matter has been deafening, which has come as no great surprise to supporters, although the club’s website did state – correctly – that, ‘The outcome is obviously an horrendous and shameful blemish on the good name of St Albans City Football Club’. The club’s manager Steve Castle (who was, it should probably be pointed out, also the manager during that 2008/09 season) said afterwards that he was ‘was gutted but defiant’, a response that may cause some to wonder whether those in charge of the running of the club are only concerned because with the fact that they were caught, rather than with the fact that they cheated in the first place.
Some of the club’s supporters may have accepted this points deduction and probable relegation had it meant the removal of Gibson for their club. There is still plenty of time for him to do so, and it is surely now impossible to argue that his position at the club long ago became untenable. Whether the Supporters Trust would be ready or able to run the club at this stage or secure the funding required to keep it solvent is open to question, but what we can say for certain is that St Albans, a city of 120,000 people in an affluent part of the country, should be able to sustain football at this level at the very least. Rumours that the players wage cheques have been bouncing this season contrasts starkly with the wealth in the area, though.
That just two or three hundred people can now be relied upon to turn out at this club while hundreds of others leave the city on Saturday lunchtimes to watch football elsewhere is a reflection upon how low the perception of the club is within its local community at present. If this decline is to be arrested before it becomes terminal, John Gibson needs to leave St Albans City with immediate effect. It is time for a change of guard at the club, a new broom to sweep it, to build some bridges to be built with the community that aren’t based around potential property deals. The alternative is for this club to join all of the others that have taken their places on the scrapheap of football’s history.
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