Imagine the outcry if a leading English club was deducted three points just as it was about to clinch the Premier League title – for no other reason than being a victim of its own integrity and honesty.
Imagine the furore if a Champions League-chasing team was suddenly forced to pay the price for someone else’s inefficiency.
Good governance – or lack of it – is a hot topic at the moment whether it concerns FIFA, its individual confederations or its national associations.
But you rarely hear of rank unfairness at lower-league, part-time level where headlines are rarely made but where, in one sense, injustice is felt far more acutely.
So spare a thought for Enfield Town down in the eighth tier of English football’s pyramid.
Last Saturday, in front of a season high of 763 fans, should have been the biggest day in the recent history of the country’s first supporter-owned club.
All the north London minnows had to do was win their final game of the season to make sure they reached the divisional playoffs and a chance to gain an unlikely promotion to the giddy heights, for them at least, of the Conference South.
That victory was duly achieved but the afternoon was a bitter-sweet occasion after the club discovered it had been found guilty of an administrative error that took place several months earlier and was only brought to attention of those who run the game by Enfield’s own staff.
The case has already been covered by Sky and other media outlets as Enfield made the news beyond the confines of its locality for all the wrong reasons.
The background is as follows.
Enfield suddenly found themselves, several months on, charged with having fielded an ineligible player, Aryan Tajbakhsh, when he joined the club back in January. Yet shortly after he joined, the club themselves contacted the Football Association and suggested the player be suspended after going through its own paperwork and discovering he had actually accumulated too many bookings at previous clubs who had not notified the relevant authorities correctly.
Since the player was not sidelined by Enfield at the time of joining them, it was agreed that in order to clear the suspension he should sit out two subsequent games – which is exactly what happened. Enfield were duly informed in writing that “no further action” would be taken against them, correspondence seen by Insideworldfootball.
Yet despite their due diligence, the club were called to a disciplinary meeting last week at which they were found guilty after the authorities for some unexplained reason changed their minds about punishing them.
And yesterday, in a devastating blow to the club, Enfield were docked three points and fined, dropping out of the playoffs altogether, their season wrecked as Big Brother in the shape of the Rymans League (Enfield are in the Rymans Premier) who strictly followed FA guidelines, rendered all the club’s hard work over the last nine months redundant.
“We feel that there has been an injustice and that an organisation which promotes fair play has shown no fair play at all in this instance,” said furious Enfield vice-chairman Paul Millington, highlighting the FA’s own “inadequate record system”.
“We checked the FA’s list of suspended players and he wasn’t on there. There were two other records for the player but his previous clubs had spelled his name wrong!
“We believe the stance of the FA on this matter has far reaching consequences for football and may encourage others not to report discrepancies in the future. The only reason this came to the FA’s attention is because we highlighted the case – and they have admitted as much.
“We asked them what their procedure is for going through their records and checking for these things and they said there isn’t one. We are determined to take this as far as we can. It sends a terrible message to other clubs that are we are being punished for doing the right thing.”
With limited financial resources at their disposal to pay for legal fees, the club are considering their options and whether to appeal.
“We still feel we have a strong case to take this matter further,” said Millington. “If this was a Premier League team, imagine the consequences. I think you’d find the authorities would be looking very nervously at their insurance policy.”
Enfield may be way down the footballing pyramid compared to the Chelseas, Manchester Uniteds and Real Madrids of this world but what the case shows is that small clubs are just as vulnerable, if not more so, and that the pain is just as hard to take….
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org