THE EFL and FA need to take a long hard look at the credibility of the National League – and it is high time for the government to start regulating football.
Spare a thought for Dover Athletic, who have been docked TWELVE points and fined £40,000 by the bright sparks who run football’s top two tiers outside the EFL.
What could their crime be? Running up huge debts they can ill afford and trade while insolvent, which is illegal under Company Law?
No. This small well-run club on the Kent coast had the sheer audacity not to do that. To not rip up their model of prudency. Not join other clubs in taking out a huge loan that they could be paying off for a decade.
Faced with the real prospect of doing just what football was supposed to be frowning upon after seeing what happened to clubs like Bury, Blackpool, Bolton and countless others, they joined thousands of other businesses in the real world by furloughing their staff during these unprecedented times.
Gillingham and Watford legend Andy Hessenthaler and his players were put on furlough in February – almost two months after grant support to National League clubs from the government ended – and they indicated to the powers-that-be that they could only resume playing once they had funds to afford it.
The incredible thing that makes the sanction stink was that clubs were given assurances by the National League that if fans were not allowed in beyond December the grant support would continue.
Goalposts were changed and suddenly it was no longer grants but loans.
In Dover’s case, they would’ve needed to take out £450,000 and for a small club that is a big deal.
I happened to know Dover Athletic well as a proud Man of Kent. I used to climb over the fence with a couple of school friends as a kid behind the River End stand at their Crabble ground when our pocket money didn’t cover the turnstile fee. Maybe I shouldn't have revealed that as
Aged 19, when I got my first job in newspapers as a fresh-faced sports reporter for the East Kent Mercury, I covered their matches home and away.
It’s a great little club that relies on its community and volunteers like so many in the lower leagues.
Chairman Jim Parmenter, who I’ve known for the best part of 25 years, is a local businessman who has a decent amount of money to support the club but cannot just bankroll it without any funds coming through the gates. He isn’t that wealthy. And his own business – a fruit and veg importer – has been heavily affected by the pandemic and adapting to Brexit.
When he took over the then debt-ridden club 16 years ago, they were hours from being liquidated. He promised that the club would never be put into that position again while he was running the show.
And with a sensible approach without paying out what they cannot afford, they have climbed three divisions, he has built a new clubhouse, a new stand (environmentally sustainable by the way) and opened an academy. It also won its status as an FA Chartered club.
Parmenter – and his wife Sally – have invested millions of their own funds but they don’t have an open cheque book.
The National League’s disciplinary panel that heard this case was supposed to be independent.
But former FA head of football administration Graham Noakes and FA judicial panel members Peter Barnes and Alan Hardy do not sound very independent to me.
Shouldn’t it have comprised of business experts and lawyers?
Now here is the next crazy part – their justification of the sanction.
Dover submitted compelling evidence – backed up by lawyers and insolvency practitioners (you know, people who actually know what they are talking about) that carrying on their season was not viable.
But the panel, although saying they had regard to the financial information provided and respecting the responsibility of the club’s directors under Company Law, could not have one of its clubs doing things correctly.
No, because 22 other clubs decided to run up debts, Dover should have done too!
So, guess what Dover Athletic – we are going to compel you to a £40,000 debt too. And, furthermore, you are going to be in a relegation battle next season.
The other finding was the club had received a basic award payment of £70,000 for the season and “were significantly benefiting from not completing the season compared to the other clubs that continued”.
Again, the club are simply being punished for not joining the rest.
The National League also say Dover’s actions went against the “integrity” of the competition. What tosh. Some clubs have furloughed some of their star players – so you end up with a situation where some team in the promotion race will have met a full-strength King’s Lynn team earlier in the season but rivals are now facing a weakened Linnets squad.
This whole mess, as I wrote in recent weeks, could have been avoided by postponing the season until spring and finishing it when fans are likely to be back.
And – as for the government – why could they simply not have allowed grants for struggling clubs like Dover to continue until the summer? They are having to pay out anyway through the furlough scheme.
This whole sorry episode is another example of gross incompetence in football. Even during a global pandemic, not an ounce of common-sense has been shown.
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