Monday 26 January ~
The most drawn-out punishment in football history is entering its closing stages. With more than half the season over, Luton and Bournemouth are still anchored firmly to the bottom of League Two. When they had respectively 30 and 17 points deducted before the start of 2008-09, it looked as though Luton would require promotion form to stay up while Bournemouth needed what would ordinarily be enough points for a play-off place. Rotherham, who also had 17 points deducted, have fared much better than the other two. They are 13 points ahead of second-bottom Bournemouth and would be eighth had this been a normal season. The two stragglers still have some glimmer of hope thanks to the generally atrocious form of Grimsby – who won for just the fourth time on Saturday – and Barnet who have won only once at home in 12 attempts. But the odds are that Luton and Bournemouth are heading for Conference derbies next season with Stevenage and Salisbury. Assuming that the latter two stay up, which they may not do even if they finish above the bottom four. Nothing is certain in Conference football these days.
By common consent the national fifth division is in quite a mess, with clubs struck by administrative and financial problems on almost a weekly basis. Already this season three clubs, Mansfield, Oxford and Crawley, have had points deducted for fielding ineligible players. If Crawley don’t appeal against their four point deduction it will be brought into effect on January 26, taking them out of the play-off places. Assuming that their punishment is upheld, this will be the third season in a row in which Crawley have had points deducted. Their manager Steve Evans feels that it is “against the interests of justice and equality” for them to be punished. Similar language was used by Dagenham and Redbridge officials seven years ago when Boston, managed by Steve Evans, had a points deduction for financial irregularities deferred until the following season, 2002-03, by which time they had gone up to the Football League at Dagenham’s expense. Beset by controversy during their brief stay in the League, Boston have since hurtled back through the divisions and are now in the Northern Premier League, two levels below the Conference.
Due to a combination of points dockings and voluntary resignations, 2003-04 was the most recent Conference season in which the teams who finished in the relegation places all went down. While the circumstances have differed, the common thread linking all the demoted clubs is that they have failed to live within their means while trying to gain, or regain, League status. Most Conference clubs maintain full-time squads while generating much smaller revenues than their League counterparts, a gap that has not been bridged by Setanta’s extensive live coverage of the division since the start of last season.
With nine clubs from the Conference and its two regional subsidiaries said to be on the brink of insolvency, a drastic measure has now been put forward. At the Conference’s bi-annual meeting on January 22, it was announced that from next season any club going into administration would face automatic demotion for the following season rather than having points deducted. Conference chairman Brian Lee explained: “The deduction of ten points offers an escape route. If a club is relegated it sends out a stronger message.” The FA will need to ratify the proposal before it is officially approved at the Conference’s AGM in June. This could lead to all the relegation issues being decided several months before the end of the season. But that’s still preferable to relegation being decided only after all the fixtures have been completed. After the tribulations of 2008-09, Luton and Bournemouth will surely manage their finances wisely should they drop to the fifth division.