THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Leeds' battle against losing 15 points has failed to attract sympathy, but the history of deductions is a murky one, writes Neil Rose

Nothing illustrates the arbitrary nature of points deduction more clearly than the fact that you are better off going into administration in the Premier League (nine points docked) than in the Football League (ten). But it is Leeds’ case that puts deductions in the news and there are more mysteries here, with speculation that 15 points would be reduced to five. Why 15? Why five?

It would appear from a scan of the various rules and regulations that little guidance is given on when and how many points should be deducted outside of administration, except for players intimidating the referee or taking part in mass confrontations, which the FA say can lead to the deduction of two points in serious cases.

It is obviously one of the worst sanctions that can be imposed, often threatened but not all that often seen, as proven by last year’s West Ham furore. It has been around since the game’s early days, ­however, with Sunderland deducted two points in 1890 for fielding an ineligible player, a recurring favourite that caused AFC Wimbledon problems last year (an 18-point deduction was reduced to three points on appeal).

Other notable deductions include Peterborough, hit with 19 points for irregular bonuses in 1968, the Arsenal v Manchester United brawl in 1990 that led to two- and one-point deductions respectively, and the three points Middlesbrough lost for ­failing to fulfil a fixture at Blackburn that ultimately cost them top-flight status in 1997.

But the outcome of Leeds’ appeal is likely to set a benchmark for others in administration, such as Luton, Bournemouth and Rotherham. The harsh way the Football League’s rules combine mean many will have no choice but to invoke the same “exceptional circumstances” rule to transfer their “golden share” of League membership to new owners, then suffer the same fate as Leeds. They may come to regret voting to uphold the 15 points.

This is because the League require clubs in administration to put in place a company voluntary arrangement (CVA) – an agreement between the club and their creditors to repay all or some historic debts from future profits over a period of time (which is better than allowing the club to go into liquidation, in which case a creditor will recover next to nothing). If the new owners can pay all of them, then great, but some cannot, and that is where the ­convoluted problem lies.

League rules mean clubs have to honour so-called football debts in full, even if they cannot pay off other debts. In 2004 what is now Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs challenged this in court and lost, but has taken its ball home anyway and now votes against such CVAs as a matter of policy. If, as is often the case, the Revenue is a major creditor, this torpedoes the CVA – as happened to both Luton and Bournemouth. The “exceptional circumstances” policy is there because the League recognise that it may not always be possible to agree a CVA, but a sanction is not automatic for using it.

The ten-point administration penalty has been widely accepted since first levied on Conference side Northwich Victoria in September 2004, with Wrexham becoming the first League recipients shortly afterwards. The driver for its introduction in 2003 was the dissatisfaction many felt with Leicester’s promotion to the Premier League at a time when they were writing off debts. In some ways it is hard to argue with the rationale that clubs should be encouraged to manage their finances responsibly and those that do not should suffer, but the penalty (like the other restrictions imposed on those in administration) makes little allowance for the individual circumstances and ultimately punishes most those who are totally blameless – the fans. This is compounded if a further points deduction becomes almost automatic.

With another potential points penalty hanging over the club for rule breaches in a former regime’s dealings with agents, Luton fans have begun a half-hearted campaign to persuade the League to be lenient over the exceptional circumstances clause – half-hearted, because nobody has much belief the authorities will listen. It could be that previous mismanagement will hand the Hatters a record negative points figure with which to begin next season.

The League deserve praise for being one of the few footballing authorities to try to tackle the game’s financial problems, but there is a debate to be had over the way they are doing this. The shame is that it was Leeds who brought this issue to the boil – people are too busy taking pleasure from their fall from grace to give it a moment’s thought.

From WSC 256 June 2008

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