Ossett United & A Cold Wind Blowing Through Non-League Football

by | Nov 19, 2019

In all areas of sport, insurance is important. Accident & emergency units can become inundated with unfortunate sportsmen at weekends, from amateurs, who can scarcely afford a broken leg if it’s going to stop them from working for six weeks, to elite professionals, whose multi-million pound contracts are dependent upon them being in peak physical condition all the time. These people are, of course, industries in themselves, these days.

Ossett United sit roughly halfway between these two extremes, in football’s overall food chain. They play their football in Division One North West of the Northern Premier League. Their players are paid, but not a fortune. The club was only formed in 2018, as a merger between Ossett Town and Ossett Albion, who’d been playing in the same town since 1936 and 1944 respectively. Over this last week, however, Ossett United have found themselves in the news after losing a court case, which has left them with a very hefty bill indeed. And it’s a bill that will have sent a shudder through the entire non-league game.

This all relates back to a match between Ossett Town and Radcliffe Borough in the Northern Premier League which had to be abandoned in April 2015 after Radcliffe’s Reece Welsh suffered a badly broken ankle following a tackle from Ossett’s Sam Akeroyd. Welsh sued for negligence, and as the actions took place while Akeroyd was at work, the club became a party to the proceedings. Ossett’s legal argument was that the tackle that caused Welsh’s injury was a 50/50 challenge, and showed photographs which they claimed proved this. These, however, were dismissed as “inconclusive” by the judge, who found in favour of Welsh and awarded him £19,297.38 in loss of earnings. Rather than taking into account anything else, the judge relied entirely upon the referee’s report of the match, stating this to be in his consideration the only “independent” description of what happened that day.

Whether the judge was right or wrong on this is, of course, a matter of opinion, but it doesn’t take every much to realise the potential implications for smaller clubs. Were these sort of court cases to become commonplace, the cost to non-league football could be ruinous. And even if it wasn’t in terms of court costs, even receiving a court claim would be a heavy burden on small organisations such as these, which are often primarily administered by volunteers. But it doesn’t stop there. You might expect that Ossett Town would have had insurance against this sort of claim, and you’d be right. The problem is that whilst the club’s insurance will pay their defence costs, the claimant’s legal fees amounted to £135,000, for which the club itself is liable, and which its insurance didn’t cover. The club has already stated that it is possible that it will have to sell its ground in order to pay these costs. To appeal would obviously risk losing again and further legal costs being incurred.

The club has started a GoFundMe to cover these legal costs, but the immediacy of their issues is only part of the story, here. Ossett United seem to have fallen between the cracks. This gap in their insurance seem to have been an issue that nobody at the club knew about, and it might be wondered why nobody saw fit to confirm this sort of liability as the legal fees began to mount. But that’s by the by, really, and how many of us know the all of the exclusions on our insurance policies? It also bears repeating that this a small club, not a full-time professional business. Realistically, it’s doubtful that too many other clubs at this level would have been aware of such exclusions, either.

What really matters is payment of those legal costs. The club owns its ground, so this debt could end up secured against it, but these costs are going to have to be paid, in the fullness of time. At some point, however, cooler heads will have to be heard, and reason will have to be listened to. But the broader point of what happens across the non-league game remains. The cost of insuring against legal costs will be higher than the insurance clubs, many of which already exist on shoestring budgets, already have, and greatly so – especially when we consider the outcome of last week’s case. What happens, should there be further claims? What happens, should a trickle of claims become a flood?

There may be potential solutions, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see, for example, the videoing of all matches become compulsory, as far down the pyramid as is practicable. A growing number of clubs already do this in order to put highlights up on YouTube, but if clubs can show video evidence in their favour in court, it might be more persuasive in court than photographs which can be held open to interpretation. It is, however, possible to argue that by this stage it’s too late for small clubs. The aim should be to prevent this from getting that far in the first place, and a future in which leagues and county associations are pushed into a position of offering a pre-litigation mediation service between seriously injured players and clubs might not be far away. 

Obviously, we should be clear in pointing out that we don’t know the full extent of the problem at the moment. For all we know, Ossett Town had uniquely inadequate insurance. This, however, seems unlikely, considering that the league had offered the type of insurance to cover this, but that clubs had considered it unaffordable. In a Q&A published by Ossett on Facebook yesterday, the NPL was quoted as having said:

The ramifications of this decision for all competitive sport, and non-league football in particular, are most serious in that the ruling may open the way to multiple historical claims from players who have suffered injuries during matches. Currently we do not have enough information on the specifics of the judgement to be able to provide the detailed advice all NPL member clubs will need. We are currently awaiting the judge’s full reasons and upon receipt will share them with the FA’s legal department, who are also monitoring the case.

It is unlikely that a club of the size of Ossett United will run up costs of this size again, but if the threat of historical lawsuits to clubs does turn out to be real, then it is likely that at we haven’t heard the last of this particular story. At least some clubs will likely face claims. But in our search for a solution which works for the non-league game, we shouldn’t forget that the Reece Welsh injury was severe. He was out of the game for thirteen months, and it’s important that we remember that none of this was his fault, even though it is generally understood that playing any form of competitive sport, whether for money or not, carries with it an attendant degree of risk. We’ll have to wait and see, what the potential ramifications might be for football clubs across the pyramid from this particular court case. For Ossett United, however, it’s a little too late.