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, docked TWELVE points for next season 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 trading while insolvent, which is illegal under Company Law? No.
This small, well-run club on the Kent coast had the sheer audacity to not do that. To not rip up their model of prudence.
To 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 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.
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 resume playing only once they had funds to afford it.
What made 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 moved and suddenly it was no longer grants but loans.
In Dover’s case, they would have needed to take out £450,000 – and, for a small club, that is a big deal.
I happen to know Dover Athletic well as a proud Man of Kent.
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As a kid, I used to climb over the fence behind the River End stand at their Crabble ground with a couple of school friends when our pocket money didn’t cover the turnstile fee.
Aged 19, 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.
When he took over a debt-ridden club 16 years ago, they were hours from being liquidated.
He promised that they would never be put into that position again while he was running the show.
And without paying out what they cannot afford, they have climbed three divisions, built a new clubhouse, a new, environmentally sustainable stand and opened an academy.
Dover also won their status as an FA Chartered club.
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 have all been closely involved with football.
And, while there is no suggestion they have done anything wrong, they do not sound very independent to me. Shouldn’t it have been composed of business experts and lawyers?
Their justification of the sanction is also crazy. Dover submitted compelling evidence, backed by lawyers and insolvency practitioners (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.
The other finding was that 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 says Dover’s actions went against the “integrity” of the competition.
What tosh. 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.
As for the Government, why could they simply not have allowed grants for struggling clubs like Dover to continue until the summer?
This whole sorry episode – along with those of the other 15 clubs in the sixth tier charged with non-fulfilment of fixtures – 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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