Relegation Rumbles On & On, Part One: Macclesfield Town

by | Jul 16, 2020

I recently wrote that much of English and Scottish league football’s 2019/20 finished ages ago. but that certain clubs seemed reluctant to let it go. Now, it seems that certain clubs (hello, Heart of Midlothian and Partick Thistle) STILL won’t let it go. Meanwhile, intriguingly, nor will the English Football League (EFL) itself.

On 9th June, Macclesfield’s players revealed their feeling that “the EFL are trying their best to throw Macclesfield out of the league.” But on 19th June, an EFL Independent Disciplinary Commission (IDC) issued a convoluted ruling, finding Macc in multiple breach of EFL rules, mostly involving late salary payments, applying a two-point deduction suspended by a previous commission and suspending a further four-point deduction until 2020/21. This application/suspension of deductions combo saved Macclesfield from relegation.

Macc were also ordered to “deliver to the EFL,” by 31st July, “a professionally prepared business plan seeking to demonstrate sustainable financial resources and management to be put in place for next season and beyond,” a stretch for many UK clubs, let alone one with such problems meeting end-of-month financial obligations. They were also fined £20,000, “subject to the EFL considering whether to waive, defer or repay the same” if the business plan was delivered to its satisfaction.

I also recently wrote that this ruling “could not have been specifically designed better if the league actively wanted Macclesfield to avoid relegation.”. However, on 3rd July, the EFL announced that they would appeal the IDC’s decision, confirming the “I” in IDC but not explaining their grounds of appeal. The naturally “shocked and profoundly disappointed” club promised to “vigorously refute the perceived notion that the commission’s previous judgment was in any way invalid.” And the players may have felt vindicated.

The IDC fully accepted one key claim, which was among those made by the players. “Perhaps (MTFC’s) most powerful point, somewhat ironically, arises from the previous points deductions…(and) the effect of the pandemic,” they noted. “More specifically the fact that the League Two table will be decided according to average points-per-game (when MTFC has played only 37 of the 46 games), means that the 13 points deducted will take effect as if they had been over 16 points.”

“This tips the balance,” they added, “between MTFC and any other team, such as Stevenage FC, which has played fewer games.” And singling out bottom club Stevenage was significant, as the IDC admitted tailoring their sanction because, “especially in the light of what has happened since,” relegating Macclesfield would be “disproportionate, unduly harsh and un-necessary.”

Thus, Macc’s many misdeeds became “one aggravated offence (however many rules were breached),” which incorporated Macc’s “failures” to “comply” with the EFL’s “legitimate directions” in using “loan advances” to settle “wage arrears” and “to act with utmost good faith…in respect of” this “transaction with the EFL.”

The IDC also noted, correctly, that “in normal circumstances, any points deduction should be effected in the season of the offence” as “that is the season affected.” But in “very far from normal” circumstances, they used their “power and discretion to impose a points deduction for next season.” The EFL may be appealing this IDC lenience and discretion/

The IDC’s two latest Macclesfield rulings, in May and June, are a fascinating and, at 22 and 18 pages of large typeface, succinct-enough read, with June’s ruling in the “Godfather 2” realm of superior sequels. Reading them together, relegation doesn’t necessarily seem “disproportionate, unduly harsh and un-necessary.” And the IDC’s lenience surprises.

They defined Macc’s “misconduct” as “egregious” yet didn’t “necessitate…relegation from League Two.” Whether they considered relegation into the pages of the Non-League Paper (every Sunday, £1.50) greater than between EFL ‘leagues’ is unclear and, non-league fans would argue, wrong. And they didn’t reference, so presumably didn’t consider, the uncertainties surrounding next season’s National League.

Elsewhere, the IDC cited “…hollow explanations advanced by the club…” and “MTFC’s recidivist history of late payments of player remuneration.” It labelled Macc “egregiously negligent” in the ground safety issue which caused (“at the 11th hour”) Plymouth Argyle’s visit to Moss Rose last December to be postponed. “It scarcely matters,’” they noted of one set of excuses. And like their reference to Macc making salary payments late “yet again,” and when they said “it seems that MTFC did not even apply in time” for the Government furloughing scheme, their infuriation pierced the mists of legalese.

Impatience with Macclesfield’s excuses came to the boil over costs. “Had it not been for the club’s admitted wrongdoing, not to mention,” they…erm…mentioned, “its initial resistance on the non-fulfilment charge, its application to postpone the hearing and its failed grounds of mitigation, it is likely that these and other costs would not have been incurred.” Yeah…but apart from that…

Macclesfield even contended “…that an immediate points deduction should only be imposed where there has been a series of increasingly late payments of players’ remuneration over three months.” The ruling notes that, before rejecting it, the IDC “listened carefully” to this contention, which could be a euphemism for open-mouthed disbelief. And when it came to excuses, only “the dog left my homework on the bus” failed to get an airing…though it may be worth checking the next ruling for it.

There are plenty of cited examples of Macclesfield’s on-going reliance on EFL and even EPL funding. They were late with February payments because they “budgeted on” receiving “instalments of the EFL’s basic payments (and the Premier League’s solidarity payments) but these payments had been withheld.” Because of another pay issue, natch (with ex-manager Sol Campbell).

And when asked by the IDC, at the end of the June hearing, to give them a detailed statement regarding how it intends to resolve the financial difficulties that have beset the club this season, Macclesfield legal rep Richard Stubbs “also told us that the Premier League solidarity payment of £225,000 was expected to be received by the club by August 2020 or sooner.” So maybe the EFL have appealed because they’ve been Macclesfield’s “bank of Mum and Dad” so often. But I’ve been wrong-footed by too many football panels/tribunals/commissions to second-guess the EFL’s basis for appeal.

Despite their ultimate leniency, the IDC’s criticisms of majority shareholder, Amar Alkadhi, suggested an appetite for severe sanction. The May ruling’s paragraph 55 was brutal: “…(he) may present himself as underwriting its needs (but) has arguably exposed the club to (repeated) sanction in failing to do so. It was said on behalf of the club that he is not obliged to and MTFC should stand on its own feet. That is a laudable hope, and he has in the past provided sterling support. But he cannot claim credit for this and so lend comfort as to MTFC’s sustainability, whilst dragging his feet so as to put MTFC in breach of the Regulations again and again.”

At which point the June ruling’s paragraph 47 said “Hold my beer”: “(He) had little understanding of what compliance meant and required, despite the obvious context in which MTFC was already well overdue in paying salaries for the sixth month this season. If he and MTFC did not appreciate that the obligation to use (the EFL loan) to pay players and other staff ‘in the first instance’ expressly prevented him from delaying payment and/or using the loan for other payments, they were completely wrong.”

Yet it never labels him dishonest, despite “a good deal” of his hearing evidence being “not completely accurate when assessed against the documents,” despite the IDC’s inability “to entirely rely on his evidence except when corroborated” and “despite” the IDC’s “concerns” about “the way in which he has managed the finances of the Club this season.”

One “concern” was Alkadhi’s “habit of ‘sweeping’ MTFC’s bank accounts, removing its funds (whether provided by him or not) if not being immediately used, to avoid any freezing by its banks.” And whilst “his long-term loyalty to MTFC cannot be doubted, its dependence on him and his manner of running MTFC, given his apparent lack of grasp of the essentials for ensuring that a League club strictly complies with EFL regulations, has risked and still risks disaster.”

But dishonest? No siree…despite his misuse of the above-referenced EFL loan facility, offered on 10th April (the new Christian holiday of “Easter Friday”). This facility’s key term was that Macc would “in the first instance use (it) to settle all outstanding employees’ (March) salaries” and a smaller, earlier debt to an anonymised creditor.

£84,861.38, was advanced on 14th April. But only £63,793.24 reached “players and staff” that day, 80% of the overdue money. The balance owed to players was paid on 17th April, but only after prompting from EFL finance director Tad Detko and an agreement between club and the PFA players’ union. “Other non-playing staff” were not paid their £4,886.41 until 6th May.

On 21st April, Macc were in front of an IDC for late payment of February salaries. This IDC was told that “yet again, for the sixth time this season,” MTFC had not paid players’ salaries “by the due date.” They were paid “by the hearing date” but the IDC weren’t told the full, damning loan story. Once they were, they boldly opined that “Mr Alkadhi is right to wish to step back from day-to-day management of the club.” Yet they prefixed this by labelling him “a notable supporter in many ways.” Many Macc fans might interpret “notable” less positively.

The IDC’s insistence on a “professionally prepared business plan” reads like a pre-emption of criticism for not relegating Macclesfield. But Macclesfield know the plan will stretch resources. And they had their excuses ready. They immediately requested a submission deadline extension to 31st August, because Mark Blower, the ex-Macc chairman “invited to assist in the attempt to improve the management at the club” by Alkadhi, “had to familiarise himself with the club’s current position and because “possible variables for next season were still developing.”

The latter ‘excuse’ was verified by the EFL’s appeal. But the IDC dismissed both. “We disagree,” they stated firmly. “Mr Blower should be prioritising the basics of proper financial management and funding in any event, and the plan is needed before next season, notwithstanding that some aspects will continue to evolve.” And maybe they were rightly so dismissive, especially as Blower has since “familiarised himself” with leaving Macclesfield.

Meanwhile, the club are, finally, addressing the facts that “the role of Chief Executive has been vacant for some time now and in many ways, that has been visible for all to see.” Thus, way too late, they have spotted “the need for a strong, dynamic figure who is experienced within the game” and, perhaps more importantly, “has the authority to make all the necessary decisions” (the IDC ruling made pointed reference to Alkadhi’s “ad hoc and seemingly often wayward methods and decisions”).

The club said its management “should be at local level,” by “people who appreciate the concerns of our loyal supporters, sponsors and stakeholders and can connect with them in a manner which is both mutually beneficial and eliciting trust.” Alkadhi’s polar opposite, then. “We have identified an individual who has all the credentials,” they added. And “the interest is mutual.” But “the current uncertainty over our EFL status” precluded formally making them an offer, as does the everlasting “uncertainty” over paying the staff they already have.

The IDC’s portrayal of Alkadhi as uncomprehending in the ways of EFL regulation compliance doesn’t ring true. Alkadhi’s 16 years at Moss Rose should alone have knocked any misconceptions out of his system. And the IDC’s faith in Alkadhi’s declared Macclesfield intentions seems, let’s say, ‘touching.’ They were deliciously dismissive of Alkadhi’s excuses for inaction “industrial problems in Iraq, exchange control implications and the like” (my emphasis).

But though knowing that “the suspended sanctions previously imposed have not deterred further similar misconduct,” they still insisted that because “circumstances have now changed” it could “still be hoped that MTFC have learnt some lessons, having now been placed in what might be termed the ‘last chance saloon’.” Some hope. Yet still the IDC suspended sanctions in June.

Same people, too, as they accepted the EFL’s request that they “reserve any further matters of (MTFC) misconduct…to itself, to avoid the need for another commission to acquaint itself with what is now a substantial history.” Hence Macclesfield’s hope when the IDC clarified in May that it didn’t “consider MTFC’s tardiness” in paying March salaries “necessarily requires a further charge” and “would require strong persuasion” to deduct “yet” more points. They were strongly persuaded. Yet still they suspended the difference-making sporting sanction, to benefit the sanctioned.

Mind you, this was second-guessable. May’s IDC ruled that an unsuspended sanction would leave Macclesfield “ripe for relegation from the Football League altogether. In this regard, it is impossible, and would be wrong, to disregard the state of the League Two table and the suspension and possible cancellation of the season…”. So they didn’t.

Macc’s future remains fraught. For all Macclesfield and Alkadhi’s considerable faults, there is no case for Macc’s long-suffering fans to suffer even longer. Still, after a Macclesfield season with more EFL rule breaches than EFL wins, the EFL decision to appeal its IDC’s latest ruling is perhaps more understandable than their average football finance or governance decision.