Bolton Wanderers: This Is Not What Good Governance Looks like

by | Nov 22, 2019

The dust is still settling on the events of earlier this season in League One, when Bury were expelled from the EFL and Bolton Wanderers came extremely close to the same fate. In amongst the clouds of dust that were being kicked up on this subject in August, though, one story seemed to sit half-forgotten. Why hadn’t Bolton Wanderers been sanctioned for a failure to fulfil fixtures at the end of last season? So much happened at both The University of Bolton Stadium and Gigg Lane over the course of the summer that it became easy to forget that, on the 27th of April, the club’s players refused to play the fixture over unpaid wages, while the club also  postponed their game against Doncaster Rovers on the 20th of August over welfare concerns for youth players.

There was a time when the failure to fulfil a fixture was just about the clearest sign of a football club’s imminent demise, and this is completely understandable. Regardless of the reasons behind something like this happening, if a professional football club cannot raise a team for a match, it is failing the the one most basic function of its existence, somewhat akin to a shop opening when its shelves are empty.

The unwritten rationale behind this was fairly straightforward. All football matches are played between two clubs, and even preparing for matches costs them money. Supporters – these days even for home matches – have to purchase tickets in advance and may have to make travel plans. Even if a football club is in the direst of straits, any football match involves two clubs and there will be at least one blameless party affected by such a level of incontinence that a match has to be cancelled or postponed.

Over the last week or so, a decision has finally been made over what to do about Bolton’s two cancelled matches.  On the 14th of November, an independent disciplinary commission awarded Bolton  a five point deduction, suspended for 18 months, alongside a financial penalty of £20,000 for the Brentford game and £50,000 for the Doncaster game, with half of both these fines also being suspended for eighteen months. There are, of course, two sides to the argument of whether this sanction was appropriate. On the one hand, it might be argued that the two unfulfilled Bolton fixtures came about under a different club ownership, and that there may be something unfair about holding the new owners responsible for the shortcomings of the previous owners.

On the other, though, it might also be argued that if football’s governing bodies wish to keep the idea that cancelling matches – especially at short notice – is sacrosanct, then such a relatively small financial fine and a suspended points deduction will be hopelessly ineffectual. What, it might be argued, is the point in even issuing a suspended points deduction over this? Everybody knows that the reason for the cancellation of the Brentford match and the postponement of the Doncaster Rovers match was related to something very specific.

It’s not that a repeat of these cancellations is unlikely. It’s that a repeat of these cancellations is more or less inconceivable in the next eighteen months, unless the club is finds itself yet again in a position in which it is unable to raise a team, in which case it would likely have substantially bigger fish to fry than worrying about a five point deduction for missing a game.

However, this morning the EFL, reprising their role as Sideshow Bob in the middle of a yard covered in rakes, issued a statement confirming that they themselves take issue with the ‘leniency’ of the sanctions awarded by the independent commission:

The EFL is disappointed by the conclusions reached by the independent Disciplinary Commission in respect of Bolton Wanderers and it is the firm view of the League that the sanction imposed is too lenient when consideration is given to all the circumstances of the case.

Given the potential for postponements to have a significant impact on competition integrity and, following receipt of advice overnight on the reasons provided, the League will appeal the outcome in the strongest possible sense.

Naturally, the other clubs situated bear the bottom of League One are going to be unhappy at the fact that Bolton Wanderers haven’t fined handed a considerably bigger points deduction over this. One relegation place from the foot of the table disappeared with the expulsion of Bury, and with Bolton having picked up enough points with a new manager and a refreshed playing squad they may well be unhappy that the second relegation place that it was widely considered would be taken up by Bolton may now be a little more open instead.

But the argument that the other clubs near the bottom of League One are detrimented by there being three open relegation places this season rather than two (in a division of twenty-four clubs) feels like a bit of a stretch. It may well be galling to them that Bolton’s new owners have put money into the team and that this team has already won enough matches to make the team’s pulling clear of the relegation zone now seem more likely than not, but this doesn’t alter the fact that a completely new ownership (and an almost completely new team new team) would be punished for the failures of others.

And of course, the decision to palm the judgement off to an independent commission means that the EFL now finds itself in the position of looking rather daft. The layman, paying attention to headlines only, could well be forgiven for wondering why the EFL is appealing a decision that the EFL should have been making in the first place. After all, when clubs fall foul of league rules, it’s the league that decides the punishment… isn’t it? Well, under EFL rules it isn’t and it is hardly a secret that this would be the case. When the Brentford match was called off, the EFL’s statement read, “As stated yesterday, as a result of Bolton Wanderers not meeting its fixture obligations as per EFL Regulations, the Club will now be charged with misconduct and be referred to an Independent Disciplinary Commission.”

The problem here is that the Brentford match was due to be played more than six months ago. It is understandable that, with an independent commission reviewing the case, the EFL will have wanted to bundle up the entire matter of this and the Doncaster Rovers match as one case. Had it been acted upon during the summer, however, they wouldn’t have found themselves in this invidious position in the first place. Instead, the League now finds itself in this position, with a club set to receive a punishment that is really nothing of the sort because it’s so unlikely to be repeated.

In some respects, there was always going to be a row when this sanction was announced, not least because so many people had a vested interest in its outcome. Broadly speaking, though, entire sagas of both Bolton Wanderers and Bury were a failure of football governance, so perhaps it’s appropriate – if also deeply undesirable – that this sanction should be considered a failure of governance as well. Ultimately, the case for an independent regulator for the game in this country grows stronger each time a body like the EFL steps down hard on one of those garden rakes.