With the Conference giving varying punishments to different clubs, fans are understandably unsure as to the reasoning behind their decisions. Matthew Gooding reports
Another season is reaching its climax, and the fate of football clubs up and down the country is slowly becoming clearer. But in the Conference, such trivial matters as final league position are often irrelevant when it comes to determining issues of demotion and promotion. For this is a division that has seen at least one club relegated for non-footballing reasons in each of the past three seasons, with Canvey Island and Boston suffering demotions, and Halifax and Scarborough going out of business all together and re-forming further down the pyramid.
This term, despite Weymouth fielding a team of teenagers in one match, Northwich Victoria getting locked out of their ground, Lewes hovering on the brink of administration all season, and various other clubs crying “credit crunch” and making massive cutbacks, it looks as though all the members of non-League’s premier competition will limp through to the end of the season relatively unscathed. However, another administrative issue has caused a huge amount of contention: that of player registrations.
Four Conference clubs have been deducted points this season for fielding ineligible players. Mansfield were the first club to be hit, losing four points in October for playing improperly registered striker Aaron O’Connor. Subsequent spot checks on other teams by Conference officials discovered further unregistered players – Oxford’s Eddie Hutchinson, Crawley’s Isaiah Rankin, and Sam Pearce, a defender at Conference South side Bognor Regis. These clubs also incurred points penalties – seven for Bognor, five for Oxford, and four, reduced to one on appeal, for Crawley – and while they have all accepted a degree of responsibility for their actions, several aspects of the saga have irked supporters.
The main problem, say the clubs, is that the registration system, which involves player information forms being faxed to Conference HQ, is several years out of date. With so many types of instantaneous electronic communication available now, it seems amazing that a professional league would rely on something as antiquated and unreliable as a fax machine for receiving this important information. It’s no wonder that the odd form has gone astray.
Fans have also been left wondering why registration details are not routinely monitored. A spot-checking system means errors can take days, weeks or months to come to light, and in this case it has led to some clubs being deducted more points than others. While Crawley and Mansfield had their misdemeanours spotted fairly quickly, Oxford continued innocently to play Hutchinson, and lost five points as a result. So, despite a terrific post-Christmas run of form, they failed to make the end of season play-offs and are destined to spend at least another season in non-League.
Following sustained pressure from the supporters trusts of the clubs involved, the Conference board promised to conduct a full internal review of procedure. After weeks of silence, it released a statement in mid-April that revealed no details of the review, but one that, surprise surprise, found them not guilty of any wrongdoing.
In absolving his organisation of any blame, Conference chairman Brian Lee was critical of “negative communications, and in some cases unwarranted abuse” that the Conference staff had received “via supporters trusts”. He added: “Communication of this sort does nothing for the game we all love or the clubs they support.” Although Lee appeared to retract the “unwarranted abuse” remarks in a recent radio interview, the findings of the review have, unsurprisingly, not been warmly received by those affected.
In a joint statement, OxVox, the Oxford supporters trust, Stags Fans United, their counterparts at Mansfield, and the Bognor Regis Supporters Club condemned the process as “flawed to the point where it lacks all credibility”. They said: “We are dismayed that the Conference continues to avoid answering the questions posed by both the supporters trusts and the football clubs. Being blunt, it is a disrespectful and short-sighted approach.”
The fans are calling for an independent FA inquiry. Whether they get one or not remains to be seen.
Earlier this season the Conference was trumpeting new financial controls it had put in place, to try to ensure that member clubs regularly submitted their accounts and that they were open and honest about their expenditure. It seems a shame that, when it comes to its own affairs, the league is seemingly unwilling to employ such transparency.
From WSC 268 June 2009