The strange case of Ashley Stestanovich

Ashley Stestanovich may have acted as a body double for Thierry Henry but the similarity between the two ends there. Henry has legendary status at Arsenal, would be high on the list of all-time greatest foreigners to grace the Premier League, and currently plies his trade at Barcelona. Stestanovich is currently serving eight years for his part in an armed robbery and is central to a cash dispute that could drive non-league club Grays Athletic out of business.

The dispute centres around Stestanovich’s brief spell with the Essex side back in 2006, when he played 23 minutes in a pre-season friendly before the club found out he was on remand for the bungled robbery in Streatham, in which new dad-of-one Thomas Fahey was shot dead; not motoring offences, as club claimed he’d told them. Grays swiftly served up a P45 while the footballer was awaiting trial.

But while the club acted out of moral principle, the FA and the law saw differently. Contract law states Stestanovich was unlawfully sacked — at the time he’d not yet been convicted of the crime — and was due the £14,000 in wages he was owed during the five months leading up to his conviction. Grays refused and this week the FA came back and told them to pay up the wages, plus a £500 fine and legal costs within 14 days or be kicked out of all competitions.

Grays are so far refusing to budge on principle over the issue, but it’s fair to say they probably never foresaw a player with decent non-league pedigree causing them so much grief when the Essex club signed him from Farnborough.

Stestanovich spent the early part of his career with Manchester City and Millwall, but it didn’t quite work out for him and, after another unsuccessful spell trying his luck in France and Belgium, he returned to England to sign for Hampton and Richmond Borough.

At that point, the Clapham-born player got the break he’d been searching for when he was signed by Sheffield United in 2003. United viewed Stestanovich as a raw talent who needed a bit of polishing and loaned him out to the now-defunct Scarborough and played a key-part in their FA Cup run, that saw them beaten 1-0 by Chelsea. Stestanovich won the play-of-the-round award.

The next season saw another loan spell, this time with Grimsby Town, but this was ended early due to a series of disciplinary problems, including two red cards. After being released by the Blades, he found himself back in non-league territory with Farnborough Town, where a series of impressive displays prompted Grays to sign him.

What they didn’t know was that while at Farnborough, he told a few dodgy acquaintances when pay-day was at a Streatham roofing firm and they duly turned up, complete with guns. But rather than finding the money and the firm’s boss, Laurence Fahey, they instead found his brother, Thomas, proudly showing off photographs of his recently-born baby daughter.

Thomas Fahey chased the robbers out into the yard, where one of them turned around and shot him in the stomach. He died, seven months later, and in 2006 Stestanovich was arrested for his part in planning the robbery, just before he signed for Grays.

Grays chairman and current manager, Mick Woodward, has no intention of paying Stestanovich the wages the law says he’s owed: “My principles will not allow me to pay this money either from my own pocket, or that of the club’s, and the other directors are of the same opinion.”

The club currently have a counter-claim against the player going through the county courts and are confident of victory, which would mean Stestanovich would no longer be owed the money. While that case is still ongoing, Woodward has offered to pay the money to the FA on the condition that they hold it in a trust until the matter is resolved. He’s also offered to pay the money to the family of Thomas Fahey.

The FA have, according to Woodward, refused both offers and insisted Grays pay up within the 14 days or be suspended from all competitions. This would see them kicked out of the Blue Square Premier and could potentially cause the club to fold.

If the Blues were taken out of the league, it’s likely their results would be scrubbed from the record, which would somewhat alter positions at the top of the table. Torquay United have only taken one point from two games against Grays, compared to Aldershot and Cambridge’s three points.

Meanwhile, in the race for the playoffs, Exeter would be hit hardest, as they’re the only team to have beaten Grays both home and away. Forest Green have also beaten Grays, as have Histon, while Salisbury have chalked up one loss and Burton have yet to play the Essex team either home or away.

If Grays were expelled, Exeter would slip to sixth, behind Burton, and only one point ahead of Salisbury, while Forest Green and Histon would slip behind Ebbsfleet, with Torquay retaking second from Cambridge and closing the gap on Aldershot to nine points.

Mick Woodward seems determined to stand by his principles and take this to the brink, although this is a dangerous game. The FA are not renowned for being lenient on those who defy them. He could also drive Grays, the club he’s invested a small fortune in, out of business over a point of pride. As Ian at 200 per cent writes: “His club’s supporters deserve better than to see their club die because of principles, no matter how well intentioned they may be.”

The next two weeks will tell if either side will back down or find a compromise. Grays are caught in an unfortunate battle that may well be morally right but sees them in the wrong in the eyes of the law. It would be a shame if pride on Mick Woodward’s part and stubbornness from the FA put a football club out of business and changed the nature of the non-league promotion race.

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