Registration Rules: The “Magic” Of The FA Cup

by | Sep 29, 2019

My team, Isthmian League Premier Kingstonian, beat Eastern Counties League Division One March Town United three-nil in the FA Cup second qualifying round, last Wednesday, thereby confirming what in recent years was but a rumour at Kingstonian, that the Cup is “still going” in October.

I’d never heard of March Town United. And this was partly because Ks had originally been paired with Isthmian Division One North Grays Athletic. Thus, whatever thought I had given to the up-coming tie was whether to make my first trip to Aveley, Grays’ current home, for the replay (FA Cup confidence is hard to find down Ks way). Then came the news, on 21st September, the day before second qualifying round weekend, that Grays had been flung out of the competition for fielding an ineligible player.

In my 37 years watching Ks, we’ve won promotion and lost Surrey Senior Cup final and semi-final places because of ineligibles. So, one win and one…other win. And the old Rangers fielded ineligible players for years, unsanctioned. However, in 2007, AFC Wimbledon were slung out of the FA Trophy and Surrey Senior Cup, ordered to repay £12,500 prize money and deducted the 18 league points won while Jermaine Darlington played for them without international clearance. Their points deduction was reduced to three (after then Prime Minister Tony Blair told parliament it “sounds like a daft rule and someone should change it”) when an FA Appeals Board deemed eighteen “excessive.”

And Liverpool have just discovered a little international clearance difficulty of their own, which Grays will be watching with especial interest, having fallen foul of the Cup’s international clearance rule 15.i.(3) which states: “An International Transfer Certificate for Players coming from overseas associations…must be received at least 75 minutes before the scheduled commencement of the match in order for the player’s registration to be valid.” Grays’ ineligible player, midfielder Frankie Hession-Harris (whose name alone isn’t the easiest to register correctly), was a second-half sub in their 5-2 preliminary round win over Heybridge Swifts on 24th August.

Grays and their chairman Steve Skinner issued immediate responses. Grays said Hession-Harris was not “internationally cleared to play football back in England after representing a college team in the USA.” However, he had played for Isthmian Division One North Witham Town and then National League South East Thurrock United last season, having “never been internationally cleared…”

Hession-Harris joined Isthmian Premier Merstham (already out of the Cup by conventional means) on 14th September. But because the registration issue emerged after his 23 minutes-plus-stoppage-time in a Grays shirt, they took the full competitive and financial hit for it – expelled from the Cup and, Skinner noted, “losing anticipated prize money.”

Skinner called the expulsion “a bitter pill to swallow” and expressing pointed disappointment that Grays were “punished when the player involved has made incorrect declarations on three registration forms, whether intentionally or not, then represented three football clubs whilst ineligible.” He called the sanction “disproportionate based on the fundamentals of the case” but hoped Grays could “overturn the verdict at a subsequent appeal.” And Grays promised that “whatever the final outcome” they would “release a full account of the facts in this case.”

Circumstances were against them (e.g. unlike AFC Wimbledon’s case, Prime Minister Boris Johnson couldn’t tell parliament anything because he’d prorogued the bloody thing). Skinner announced on 23rd September that Grays had “decided not to appeal” despite still feeling “very harshly treated.” They hadn’t found “any record of cases like, or similar to ours, where, on appeal, an FA Judicial panel has overturned a ruling by the FA Competition Sub-Committee.” And they had inadequate time to organise appropriate legal representation.

As Skinner explained: “Having only received the expulsion on Friday afternoon, it is very difficult to speak to a barrister to establish whether to appeal by a Monday morning deadline. The club contacted law firms on Friday, including our preferred lawyer (but) barristers are not willing to take on and build a case at such short notice. The club has suffered a severe monetary penalty and incurring substantial legal costs on top of this does not make common sense financially.” Oh…and: “We have no new evidence.”

He continued: “Flaws in FA registration systems make life very difficult for part-time club secretaries at non-league level.” Grays “could request an appeal or seek an interim injunction to cause maximum disruption to the FA and the remaining clubs in the competition” but were “classier than that.” He added, a little passive-aggressively: “We will accept our unceremonious exit from the competition.” And he announced that Grays wanted to meet “the new Chief Executive of the FA” to “discuss the treatment that our club has received” and “how the upper echelons of the game can assist clubs at grassroots level.”

Late on 21st September, Grays manager Jim Cooper issued a 600-word statement to “clarify the position,” (while echoing many of Skinner’s sentiments) and “also and more importantly” to “exonerate” Hession-Harris. This was “more important” because, 24 hours earlier, Hession-Harris had tweeted a 300-word statement, after receiving dismally inevitable twitter abuse from ill-informed Grays fans. As “Grays Athletic Unofficial” tweeted: “Some tweets from our own fans, “directed at Hession-Harris, were “a disgrace. And some RTs from our own official account are very misguided.”

Cooper said neither Hession-Harris nor the clubs involved should be blamed “for this injustice,” as the “system of clearing players” was “not fit-for-purpose.” He explained:  “A club outside the college system (but) within the USA federation requested clearance for Frankie to play for them thus making a record at the FA denoting clearance out of the country which (meant) he would need clearance on his return.

“Frankie never played for them so he believed (now clarified by the FA as wrong) he would not need international clearance. Frankie signed for (Witham and East Thurrock) last season so when he signed for us at the start of this season, we and Frankie thought that he had international clearance due to not requiring it for the reasons stated above.”

Grays had told the FA that “he only played about twenty minutes of the FA Cup game and came on when we were 5-1 up so did not affect the outcome” (they won 5-2, so he was no help). Cooper added: “To then be expelled…when we could have been fined is wholly disproportionate to how the events unfolded and how long he played in that match.” He doubted the decision would be overturned,” adding that “it is a very costly business and the club cannot pay out huge sums of money,” while castigating the FA: “They do not care or understand how grassroots football is run” or “the consequences of taking almost £10,500 from our club in prize money.”

Whether Grays’ punishment could have been limited to a fine is uncertain. Competition rules 16 (b) and (c) in combination state that fielding an ineligible player removes “the club from the competition,” unless it “(or any of its officers) did not know and could not reasonably have known, even had it made every reasonable enquiry, that the player was ineligible.” In that case, they “shall not be removed…but may still be subject to any other penalty (e.g. fine or ordered to replay the match).”

Unfortunately, Grays knew of Hession-Harris’s “time playing football in the USA” with twin brother, Tonbridge Angels’ Tommie. The FA knew they knew as it was in his Grays’ website player profile. They could argue that “every reasonable enquiry” should have unearthed a potential ineligibility, especially as Hession-Harris tweeted that he “raised this point to EVERY club I signed for.” And the brevity of his Grays’ career was irrelevant. Legia Warsaw were hooked from 2014’s Champions League for fielding an ineligible substitute 85 minutes into the second leg of a tie they were winning 6-1. But you couldn’t otherwise fault Cooper’s logic, or not feel huge sympathy for him.

Hession-Harris’s tweet asked about ten more questions than it answered. But he wasn’t about to take “full responsibility for this massive mess caused by numerous factors” having been “under the impression from when I first returned from the US that I didn’t need clearance due to only playing at college level!”

He continued, angrily: “To make this ABSOLUTELY clear, I never filled my own information in on the registration form at Grays. Someone at the club, and they know who they are, did that.” That someone wrongly “assumed, as we all did, that I was clear to play. International clearance cannot be done by an individual player, only by a club.” And he defiantly refused “to accept the abuse I’ve received by clueless people. I will not apologise for doing what I was told from the very start. A lot of people are to blame, not just me, not just the club not just the FA.”

Even from this distance, “they know who they are” was a jarring note. Skinner and Cooper both cited club secretaries in their statements. But the key protagonist here was whoever gave Hession-Harris the “impression” that he “didn’t need clearance.” Indeed, a proper FA investigation would have sought out this advisor and the other “lot of people” Hession-Harris referenced.

Grays’ punishment does seem “disproportionate.” Every protagonist under the FA’s jurisdiction seems to have acted in utmost good faith. I would have expected any good legal representative to have brought a coach-and-horses to any appeal, in order to drive through the FA’s case. And, perhaps, a thesaurus with full explanations of phrases such as “mitigating circumstances,” “flexible approach” and “common bloody sense.”

Punishments for other competition rule-breaches are inexact analogies. But they can be instructive. Barcelona were fined €300 (!) for “tapping up” Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Greizmann before his summer move to the Nou Camp. And Spain’s football federation noted, correctly, that “beyond its merely symbolic character” this would neither “damage (Barcelona)” nor “persuade other clubs in the same situation in the future to adjust their conduct to the regulations. But, hey, f**k it.” I may have paraphrased that last bit but I didn’t “adjust” its effective meaning.

Grays’ main offence was bad timing. Two clubs fielded Hession-Harris last season,  unsanctioned. Old Rangers avoided sanction because Scottish football is corrupt their registration ‘errors’ (inverted commas apply) were discovered retrospectively, rendering players ‘imperfectly registered’ (inverted commas apply) yet eligible. Grays’ sins were also discovered retrospectively, after they’d played another FA Cup tie, in fact. Well, presumably, or Heybridge Swifts’ thoughts on why March Town were re-instated and they weren’t might be ‘interesting.’

No-one is above the law, as a floppy-haired Old Etonian with floppy morals now knows. But the Johnson instigated an unprecedented act which had unlawful effect. In Grays’ case someone else instigated an act, performed by others before them, which had no effect whatsoever.

Sometimes, the FA Cup isn’t very magical at all.