The Football League's verdict on charges of financial irregularities against Chesterfield has thrown the Third Division into confusion. Hartlepool fan Ed Parkinson is among those left unimpressed
In a confusingly dishonest world full of spin, deceit and greed it is usually possible to gain some respite by indulging an obsession with lower division football, a reasonably plain-speaking sporting backwater still dominated by traditionalists and mercifully free of prawn sandwiches. The recent events involving Chesterfield would suggest that this rare pool of comparative sanity is in danger.
In March the Football League found Chesterfield guilty of two serious charges of financial irregularities, at least one of which has had a direct impact on results this season. Having considered a huge volume of evidence the hearing decided that the club had submitted false gate receipts, hence avoiding payment of the three per cent levy charged by the League – this aspect of the case may be what triggered a surge of interest from the Inland Revenue.
Although this charge may prove hugely damaging to Chesterfield as a business, many might dismiss it as a harmless fiddle, a crime with no victim. This would be wrong. By disconnecting some turnstiles the club had no means of accurately counting entrants to some sections of their ageing Saltergate ground. It is worth remembering that the tragic events at Hillsborough happened because two sections of the Leppings Lane End were overfilled, while the number of people in the ground as a whole remained within a notionally safe capacity. It seems incredible, given the safety implications, that switching off turnstiles seems to be widely regarded as Chesterfield’s lesser offence. From a Third Division fan’s point of view, however, this is less immediately disturbing than the dishonesty surrounding the recruitment of Luke Beckett.
Beckett is one of the division’s better front players and was a sought-after signing when his club Chester City lost their League status last year. Beckett chose to join Chesterfield and his goals and general play have been a key feature of their dominance of the Third Division this season. But he was signed dishonestly. He acquiesced in the production of a false contract in order to aid his new employers in reducing the fee payable to his previous, struggling club. The bogus contract halved his real wages and more than halved his signing-on fee: these false figures were part of the equation which a tribunal used to decide on a transfer value of £150,000. This seems low for a proven goalscorer of Beckett’s age (24).
To make matters worse, the degree of proof required to find the club guilty on other charges seems bizarrely extreme. Jim Brown, Chesterfield’s commercial manager, told the enquiry he believed players had been given cash in envelopes, the money being prepared by Sharon Wood, the club lottery manager. She told the inquiry: “I knew that the cash used for that bonus came out of the gate receipts for a home match against Exeter.” Apparently this confession by two of the accused organisation’s own officials did not constitute sufficient evidence and the charge of making illegal payments was unproven.
Now it might seem reasonable to expect a harsh punishment based on the proven irregularities alone. The League’s decision to deduct nine points and fine the club £20,000 would in most circumstances have been a severe penalty. However, Chesterfield, despite their dilapidated ground and chaotic finances, have assembled a team which had built a big lead at the top of the division until overhauled by Brighton in the last weeks of the season. The deduction still left them five points clear of fourth-placed Hartlepool on the day it was announced. In other words, the proven cheats were still odds-on favourites for automatic promotion. The apparently harsh punishment was a paper tiger.
So have Chesterfield talked up their considerable blessings and apologised for their wrong doings? No. Luke “Two Contracts” Beckett said: “We can’t believe the hearing has recommended a nine-point penalty.” Some reports on their 1-0 defeat of Kidderminster suggested that “by rights” they should already have been promoted, as if the points deduction was an unjustified imposition. To add insult to injury for fans of other Third Division clubs, John Green, the club’s chief executive, told reporters they would appeal. This was partly because they felt they had a case, but Green also joked that “someone in the car park said our barrister was that good we might win the appeal, get 12 points back and start next season with three points”.
Nicky Law, the manager who signed Beckett, claimed it would be “a catastrophe for the management, players and supporters had we been denied promotion”. Not as big a catastrophe as it will be for Barnet or Torquay as they head for the Conference knowing that a few “irregularities” which might have worked in their favour would have gone unpunished even if they had been caught.
It is tempting to look for conspiracies to explain this decision but the simplest reason is often the most appropriate. I suspect the sentence was carefully calculated to avoid further wranglings with a good barrister offering a robust defence. If this is the case then the abject cowardice of the football authorities, who had clear precedent in the case of Swindon to work from, is to be condemned.
The real sickener was the gloating, barefaced denial of the successful cheats and it is nice to imagine that this provoked the next twist in the tale, with the Football League asking its disciplinary panel to reconvene. In the opinion of the League board, the punishment “did not sufficiently reflect the damage done to the integrity of the competition”. Astonishingly, Sports Minister Kate Hoey went further and actually reflected the feelings of many fans: “The penalty, which would have still allowed the club to benefit from breaking the rules at the expense of other clubs, who have abided by the rules, is just not right.”
Chesterfield’s point of view was cleverly summed up by their assistant manager Ian Banks when he made a transparent bid to solicit sympathy, stating: “It’s another kick in the goolies.” The offending gonads were miraculously transformed into guts and teeth to spare the hyper-senstitive readers of the Daily Mail and Ceefax from alarm, but the basic message remained the same. The crooked Spireites were still playing the innocent victims.
This act should not impress anyone. Due to Chesterfield’s actions, compounded by a disciplinary panel which appeared to lack the resolve to actually discipline, the rest of the Third Division is left with a chaotic closing programme. No one, least of all the completely blameless followers of Chesterfield, can be quite sure what results will mean in the end. It seems likely at the time of writing that the hearings and any consequent appeals will go on past the season’s end and could also affect the play-offs. The final stages of the competiton have been distorted by the spin, deceit and greed that many of us naively hope to leave behind us when we enter a football stadium.
From WSC 172 June 2001. What was happening this month