The Strange Case of the Bedford Town Walkout

by | Dec 1, 2017

At all levels of the game, postponing a scheduled football match can have broad ramifications. It can be bad enough at the top end of the professional game, where  broadcasters may find themselves without a match at short notice and thousands of spectators will almost certainly be inconvenienced and may need to be refunded the cost of admission. At the other end of the scale, in the non-league game, the effects can be even more pronounced. Match day revenues are critical to the very survival of most clubs, and even the likely lowered attendance brought about by postponing a match due to be played on a Saturday afternoon and replaying it at a later date on a Tuesday night can be damaging, when a club has to pay its players regardless of whether a match goes ahead or not and finances are tight regardless.

Last weekend, however, saw one of the stranger postponements of recent times in Division One East of the Southern League at The New Eyrie, when a league match between Bedford Town and Fleet Town was cancelled shortly before kick-off after the Bedford players refused to take the pitch and walked out en masse. To describe this as an inconvenience for their visitors would be something of an understatement. Fleet is in Hampshire, more than eighty miles from Bedford, and for players, officials and supporters alike this was a long journey north that all could most likely have done without if there wasn’t a football match to be played at the end of it. Their frustration was perfectly evident from their, ahem, match report:

…as Fleet Town were preparing to take to the field they were greeted by the sight of the Bedford Town players coming out of their dressing room in their civvies, kit bags in hand, and troop out of the door and the club, with no opposition to play, the match officials announced a postponed fixture. It transpired that about 2.30 the players told their club officials they were going on strike, despite some discussions the players walked out. It will remain to be seen if any of the players want to return to Bedford Town, the right thing would be that no other club will take the ringleaders of this mutiny on and they never play football again, anywhere.

The biggest head-scratcher of all regarding this postponement, however, has come from the fact that nobody seems to know exactly what it is that prompted the Bedford players to walk out in the first place. On Tuesday afternoon, the Bedford chairman David Howell issued a statement which seemed to indicate that he had no more idea of what had gone on that anybody else:

Saturday’s postponement will be subject to a League disciplinary investigation, due to our failure to fulfil the fixture, and I am not, therefore, at liberty to comment at this stage.

However, Sunday’s Non-League Paper reported that “an internal club matter had forced the Bedford players to issue the club with an ultimatum ahead of the weekend with promises unfulfilled, and that we had all week to get our house in order”.

This is a total fabrication.

I knew nothing about the players intention to refuse to play until 2.15pm on Saturday afternoon.

The reasons behind their action are still unclear.

It seems unlikely that the Southern League will take the viewpoint that incorrect reporting by the Non-League Paper the following day was really the matter that needed addressing in a club statement this week. Most, we might reasonably suspect, will be concerned at how this might have come to pass. The reason for players walking out shortly before a match – something so rare that it will make headlines no matter what level of the game at which it occurs – are always likely to provoke speculation amongst supporters and, in the non-league game, within the community in a broader sense.

Comments on the club’s Facebook page give no indication that anybody understands the reasons for this very strange postponement, with some taking their anger out on Howell over the lack of clarity in the statement that he issued earlier this week. All the stranger, Bedford’s players returned to action on Tuesday night for a league match away to AFC Dunstable, which they lost by a goal to nil. So, whatever the problem was on Saturday afternoon seems to have been at least partially rectified by then, but still some Bedford supporters commented that they would not be making the long journey down to Portsmouth for the club’s league match against Moneyfields tomorrow. Why make that sort of journey on a cold December day if there’s any possibility whatsoever of the match not going ahead?

This will be cold comfort to those connected with Fleet Town, who had one wasted Saturday making the journey to The New Eyrie only to see the match postponed for reasons that are snot still fully clear and will have to make the same journey again for the last weekend in April, for when the match has been rearranged. Under such circumstances, we might consider that the appropriate response from the Southern League would be to award the points to Fleet Town and carry out a thorough investigation into what on earth happened there last weekend. At the time of writing, however, there has been no public statement made by the league over all of this. It is to be expected that Bedford Town will be censured over all of this for failing to fulfil the fixture, but what form any punishment might take remains unknown at present.

But there are questions that Bedford Town have to answer as well. It is not really good enough for the club to issue a statement that says nothing more than “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know” after something like this happens. Supporters of both sides were refunded the cost of their admission last weekend, but this doesn’t mask the inconvenience that this caused to their visitors that day and, since The New Eyrie is several miles from the centre of the town, supporters of both clubs. They deserve an explanation as to what could possibly have happened which meant that an entire team refused to play a match on a Saturday afternoon, especially if those players return three days later to play against somebody else. Bedford’s players clearly had a point of some description to prove last weekend. At the moment, however, nobody seems able to publicly admit what, exactly, that point was.