Common people

A minor indiscretion is set to cost AFC Wimbledon their chance of promotion. Robert Jeffery explains how the good disciplinary record of an ineligible player made matters worse, while Scarborough have had their troubles, too

There’s nothing AFC Wimbledon fans love more than a bit of drama. The years of fighting proposed moves to Dublin, Gatwick, Milton Keynes and God knows where else; the glare of publicity as the club took their first tentative steps in the Combined Counties League; the early flurry of trophies and promotions.

This season had been a bit dull. Stuck in the Ryman Premier for a second consecutive year, struggling for any sort of consistency (the Dons had not registered more than two consecutive league victories despite occupying a play-off position) and playing largely unattractive football, crowds were beginning to dwindle. Fortunately, officialdom came to the rescue and reignited the fury that was always lurking just below the ­surface in most Wimbledon fans.

On January 18, following an oblique news item on a local radio station, the club confirmed that they had been asked to clarify the “status” of a player who appeared in the excellent 1-0 FA Trophy second-round win at Gravesend & Northfleet. The next day, our old adversaries the Football Association charged the club with fielding an ineligible player, and at a hearing on January 25 expelled the Dons from the competition, reinstating Gravesend and ordering the club to pay back £12,000 in prize money. No right of appeal was given.

It’s worth taking a moment at this point to explore the ineligible player in hand. ­Jermaine Darlington was a so-so wing-back who signed for Wimbledon before the decampment to MK, then had an injury-hit spell at Cardiff City. He had retired from the professional game in the summer of 2006 and joined AFCW in early November, slowly regaining his fitness and putting in a series of classy, composed displays on the left wing. He apologised for following the franchise up north, using the old “I was young and naive” excuse, even though he was 28 at the time.

The issue at stake is international clearance. Cardiff might play in the English leagues, but a player joining an English club from a Welsh one (even a player from Hackney) requires a form from the “foreign” association confirming that he has no outstanding bans. Professional clubs are well versed in such procedures, but it seems the rule book isn’t quite so well thumbed ­further down the pyramid.

Bucket collections made an immediate and sizeable dent in that £12,000 fine and the players repaid most of their win bonuses, but the worst was to come. The Ryman League confirmed a fortnight later that it was taking 18 points from the Dons – every point gained with Darlington in the team, the exact same punishment meted out to Altrincham last season for the same offence (they stayed in the Conference because Canvey Island stepped down). A team sitting fourth in the league were now 12th and unlikely to make the play-offs even if they won every remaining match (at the time of writing, a purely academic appeal is being considered by the FA, delaying the execution of the deduction).

What’s not in dispute is Wimbledon’s guilt. The rules were breached and a punishment was to be expected. Yet the most even-handed of commentators would struggle to equate failing to fill in a form correctly with ­deducting every point gained from 11 matches. The FA did not claim Darlington shouldn’t have been on the pitch in the first place, so how can every game he played in be invalid?

The answer, it seems, is “because we say so” – and that’s where the Dons, thank goodness, are fighting back. Manager Dave Anderson equated it, in his brusque manner, to “driving through a red light and getting 25 years” and, in a muddled sort of way, he’s right. How, you might ask, did Darlington’s ineligibility come to light? Because he was booked for the first time during his 17th match for the club, bringing him to official attention: in other words, a dirtier player would have cost the club less.

It is an accepted principle of law that, whether dealing with mass murder or shoplifting, there are degrees of severity in each offence. Courts may take into account the motives of the accused and the circumstances of the offence. A farmer wielding a shotgun against a burglar can therefore be dealt with more leniently than a crazed spree killer. The football authorities have no time for such trivialities. They are more interested in how much influence the transgressor holds and how much adverse publicity the punishment will generate. Natural justice does not come into the equation – and it’s time someone said so.

Portsmouth and West Ham have been “investigated” this season for fielding players who might have been ineligible, but you won’t get odds on them being charged: Premiership clubs have instead reportedly been given an amnesty to come clean on any little administrative discrepancies that might have cropped up. There’s an unspoken assumption that the greatest league in the world cannot be skewed by having points deducted for such trivialities, but in the semi-professional game or the lower leagues, who cares? “It’s about time the FA became answerable over things such as how they let MK Dons exist, cheating in the game and their expenses when watching England games abroad,” opined Anderson. Fat chance.

Jim Sturman, reportedly Britain’s best-paid lawyer, is donating his services for free. The club is ready for the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne and has said it will go to the High Court if necessary. Ryman advertising boards have been covered over and goodwill messages have flooded in from every level of the game. It might be ultimately fruitless, but if it causes the authorities (and the Ryman League and the FA for these purposes represent two sides of the same coin) inconvenience, annoyance and just a flicker of self-doubt it will be worth every minute. In the meantime, the first post-judgment home game saw the biggest crowd of the season and the players taking a lap of honour after at last winning their third league game in a row. Who needs promotion anyway?

From WSC 242 April 2007. What was happening this month