Another club has fallen victim to the labyrinthine rule book, designed to trap the dishonest but which in reality often catches the unwitting.
Carshalton Athletic have been denied promotion to the first rung of the FAW Premier League ladder, beaten not so much by their opponents – fine though they are – as by the complexity of amateur football’s laws, clauses and sub-clauses.
With their last-day 7-0 victory over London Corinthians, Carshalton accumulated the necessary points to overtake long-time leaders Old Actonians and move to the top of the London and South East Regional Women’s Football League.
But they were denied the title – and promotion – because one of their players served a ban for a sending-off in the wrong match.
Far from trying to cheat their way to success (indeed, the player actually served her ban against Actonians, their title rivals, instead of mid-table Maidstone United), Carshalton found themselves at the mercy firstly of a referee who apparently did not inform the authorities of the dismissal within the standard time limit, and then of their own error in failing to realise it was their responsibility to check that their county FA had been informed.
Carshalton’s manager, Paul Williams, who doubles up as the club’s beleaguered secretary, had overlooked the 14-day rule, which has no doubt claimed many a victim in the past.
A player should serve her suspension in the first game after 14 days have elapsed since the offence, regardless of when the ref gets around to reporting it.
It’s absolutely essential that secretaries, managers and players make sure they know their responsibilities, on and off the field
In Carshalton’s case, it was only when the player involved, Ella Bale, bumped into the official at another match, on the day the suspension should have been served, and told him that she had not heard anything about her ban that the oversight came to light.
The offence was reported retrospectively and Williams excluded Bale from the club’s next match – against Old Actonians, the side who will now take the place that Carshalton thought was theirs in South East Division 1 of the FAW Premier League.
But she should have served it a week earlier, on the 14th day after receiving her two yellow cards, against Maidstone – a game the Surrey side won 2-0, and in which Bale scored.
Williams says Surrey FA initially indicated that because of the late report and ensuing administrative error, it would accept retrospectively the ban being served in the later game.
But the L&SERWFL challenged it and the FA overruled Surrey, meaning Carshalton were in breach of the rules by fielding a player who was ineligible for a game she played in – even though she had served her ban in a game in which she was actually eligible to play.
It’s the latest example of clubs falling foul of not only the plethora of dos and don’ts by which they have to abide, but also the complexity of those rules, which would make heavy demands of a full-time paid club administrator, let alone a volunteer clubman, who doubles up as manager and secretary to provide a sporting opportunity for dozens of women.
And he has paid a heavy price. While Carshalton had initially targeted mid-table comfort after being promoted the previous season, they found themselves in title contention throughout the campaign, only to have it snatched from their grasp just when they thought they had secured it.
Williams told Sent Her Forward: “It was a complete shock when I found out. I couldn’t believe it. It has cost a season’s work for everyone.”
Williams acknowledges that ignorance of a rule is not a defence and says he takes full responsibility for the error that has cost Carshalton promotion.
Nor has he expressed any criticism of the league, which he accepts enforced the rules.
But he feels the significance of the 14-day rule – and the onus on clubs to ensure their county FAs have been informed of their players’ red cards, regardless of whether the referee does his or her job correctly – should be uppermost in every club’s list of priorities.
“I’ve asked so many people and they’re not aware of it,” he said. “It’s in such small print, but it should be in red, and bold.
“The girls were devastated, but we drew a line in the sand and move on.”
Top of the London & SERWF League
* Three points deducted for fielding an ineligible player
Williams also wonders how many more such incidents might happen through a lack of communication between managers and their club secretaries – clearly not something that happened in this case, though, given that they were the same person.
He said: “It’s so hard to move up the women’s pyramid. It could take another four or five seasons to get promoted again. You don’t always get a second chance.”
He added: “What I really want is for it not to happen again to somebody else – such big consequences of a slight administrative error.”
Williams pointed out that everybody involved in amateur football made sacrifices – of time and money. “We take time off work. The girls pay to play, travel.
“The only people who get paid are the people enforcing the rules – the counties and FA – and the referees, although I know they don’t get paid much.”
Williams feels the demands on club volunteers in an increasingly busy world make such mistakes inevitable. He added: “We have an inch-thick rule book. But people are not doing nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday, any more. Their dinners aren’t on the table when they get home. We need to get real, get in the 21st century.”
Paying the price for breaking the rules
Carshalton’s is the latest in a distressingly long line of administrative errors, of varying degrees of seriousness, that have cost clubs dearly even since I have been covering women’s football.
- Coventry City lost ground in the Premier League Northern Division title race after having six points deducted for twice exceeding limits on players with Super League experience
- Swindon were docked three league points and thrown out of two cups – one, ironically, against Carshalton – after fielding an ineligible player
- Queens Park Rangers had three points deducted after an administrative oversight meant they were forced to postpone a Premier League game
- West Ham United were ejected from the Essex County Cup after a fixture clash forced them to call off a tie
- The second strings of Crawley Wasps and Worthing Town were each docked points for breaching rules on the number of players with recent first-team experience
- Last season Chichester City lost six points after overlooking signing a player’s registration form
No doubt the same is happening in men’s football at similar levels.
I’m not arguing with the need for a comprehensive set of rules, most of which descend from the FA’s own code.
Nor do I have the knowledge or experience to question them.
And certainly I have no intention of excusing any club or individual who breaches the laws and rules of the game.
But I do know that clubs – from grass roots to the Premier League – are being caught out far too frequently for a game that is demanding to be taken seriously by the sporting world.
And in none of the cases I have encountered do I believe any of the administrative offences have been committed intentionally.
It’s absolutely essential that secretaries, managers and players make sure they know their responsibilities, on and off the field.
For the buck – and sometimes it’s a big one – stops with them.
But I also wish, fervently, that FAs, leagues and committee men and women can learn from the frequent errors that are getting clubs into trouble, and go out of their way to flag up to those hard-pushed volunteers the most crucial of the rules that are breached unintentionally so frequently.
That way, costly mistakes can be avoided and league and cup places can be decided on the pitch rather than in the committee room.