I suppose it was a bit too much to expect, for the Ryman League’s executive committee (the members of whom, I can only presume, look rather like the gentleman to my left here) to make anything like a common sense decision. If you didn’t already know, AFC Wimbledon have been fined £400 and docked a jaw-dropping eighteen points for failing to obtain international clearance for former Cardiff player Jermaine Darlington earlier this season.
Firstly, a quick summary of what happened. Darlington was released by Cardiff City during the summer. He was signed by AFC Wimbledon whilst injured, and brought into their first team upon his recovery. After their FA Trophy defeat at Gravesend last month, during which Darlington was booked, it became apparent that AFC Wimbledon had not gained international clearance from the Football Association of Wales to sign him. Now, you might think that they didn’t need to – after all, Cardiff play in the Championship, the FA Cup and the League Cup – but you’d be wrong. All Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham players are registered with the FAW, so effectively any signing from these three clubs (and the senior non-league clubs from Wales that play in English leagues, such as Newport County) are classed as international signings. The FA threw AFCW out of the FA Trophy, and the Ryman League today announced that they would be docked eighteen points (the number of points that they have won this season with Darlington in the team) and fined.
Let’s just get one thing out of the way. I know that “rules are rules”. But the British legal system draws a line between, say, death by dangerous driving, manslaughter and murder. The point is this: football league committees are laws unto themselves, and they have the option to show leniency in situations as these. For one thing, AFCW have neither benefited nor sought to benefit from breaking these rules. Darlington’s registration with them is correct. It is simply a piece of red tape (a piece of red tape with a point to it, but a piece of red tape nevertheless). It was a pure administrative error (pointedly, they’ve never denied the mistake), and the punishment should be meted out accordingly.
The fact of the matter is that the Ryman League has been negligent. The matter only came to light because Darlington was cautioned in the FA Trophy match against Gravesend. The Ryman League should, if this a sufficiently grave offence to warrant a season-ruining fine, be checking this sort of thing – if not before a player’s home debut, then immediately afterwards. If it’s not sufficiently important for them to be carrying out these checks, then they shouldn’t be fining them that amount. A slap on the wrists should surely suffice. Any more than that simply reeks of a strange sort of petty vindictiveness.
Of course, the Ryman League have a reason for being angry and vindictive. A couple of years ago, the league dropped a level from Step 6 to Step 7 with the creation of the Conference North and the Conference South. They lost a lot of influence and respect. Maybe they were looking for a reason to extend their authority. Whatever. I don’t know. The fact of the matter is that their decision is everything to do with petty-minded bureaucracy and nothing do with sport, in any sense of the word. It’s not relevant to argue that they had to do it because the Conference did it to Altrincham last year. Firstly, there was a major outcry against the Conference’s decision. The FA should have tidied up what is, at this level at least, a nonsensical rule. This doesn’t mean that the Ryman League couldn’t exercise a little restraint. Three points? Harsh. Six points? Maybe. But eighteen? It’s ridiculous.
Clubs regularly administrate themselves appallingly, by putting themselves massively into debt. They tap up other clubs players. Their players get involved in fights on the pitch. Their managers regularly undermine the authority of match officials and make statements about them that border on slanderous. Even when they run themselves so badly that they go into administration, they’re only docked ten points. In the Conference, Crawley Town have been in administration since last August – but they’re currently running around hoovering up players like it’s going out of fashion. This is how badly clubs are allowed to run themselves. None receive this sort of censure.
I will support AFC Wimbledon in whatever form of appeal or protest they make against this ridiculous decision, but I fear that they won’t get very far. They have been offered free counsel, should they choose to take it up. I will wish them all the best with their appeal, though I’m not especially optimistic that they will be successful. The authorities in football are always more likely to pull together in such situations. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try, though. There’s got to be somebody, somewhere within those that run the modern game, with an ounce of common sense.