Oxford United fans will be praying this season ends quickly. A season that started out with hopes of a playoff place has disintegrated as the club have suffered major financial problems, a sacked manager and now a five point deduction for fielding an ineligible player.
But the U’s aren’t the only one to be hit by a deduction. On the same day, Conference playoff hopefuls Crawley had a four point penalty imposed on them for a similar offence, while Blue Square South strugglers Bognor Regis Town were docked seven points, again for a player registration offence.
With Mansfield Town also taking a four point penalty for player registration problems at the start of the season, the Conference is starting to look less like a football league, and more like a badly-designed filing system.
Crimes afoot in Oxford
The small crumb of consolation for Oxford is the Conference decided to deduct them just the five points as opposed to the 11 they were facing for playing unregistered midfielder Eddie Hutchinson. This in itself is bizarrely inconsistent.
The player was transfer listed last January by then-manager Darren Patterson and was not invited to train with the squad at the start of this season or registered with the club. But with injuries taking their toll on the U’s squad, Hutchinson was drafted back into the team, playing 13 games and scoring two goals along the way. In total Oxford picked up 11 points from the games he played in.
But Conference rules state that every player has to be re-registered before the start of the season and despite Hutchinson and the club maintaining that, once he was needed, the club sent off the relevant paperwork, the Conference claims these never arrived.
It has echos of the points deduction for Mansfield at the start of the season over striker Aaron O’Connor, who they signed from Grays. Again, it appears the relevant forms never arrived with the Conference and it took three games for anybody to realise O’Connor was still technically a Grays player.
Crawley get a familiar feeling
Fellow Blue Square Premier club Crawley Town were also up before the Conference committee on Monday on a similar charge relating to their striker Isaiah Rankin and docked four points.
Rankin was signed by the Red Devils last July but has struggled with injuries, restricting his appearances. But although the FA received his contract after he signed, the Conference say they failed to receive his registration and hit Crawley with the charge.
It’s the club’s fourth points deduction in as many seasons although, for once, it has nothing to do with finances. In 2007, Crawley were docked ten points for going into administration, in 2005/06, they lost three points for going over the agreed playing budget, while last season saw them deducted six points for financial irregularities.
Club officials are, understandably, angry, although did admit the charges against them. After the hearing, Crawley’s chairman, Vic Marley said: “”This decision is extremely hard to take given the flawed registration procedures that the Football Conference Premier had in place in the early part of the season.
“I also have sympathy for Oxford United who like ourselves are a victim of this flawed process but there is no doubt we have been dealt far more severely.”
It’s not hard to see Marley’s point. According to the letter of the law, and in line with both the Crawley and Mansfield cases, Oxford should have been deducted the full 11 points that were gained in the games Hutchinson played in.
Such a punishment would have been harsh – and would have left the U’s in the relegation zone – but to dock them five points is both confusing and inconsistent.
Meanwhile, down the road from Crawley, Bognor Regis Town are facing almost certain relegation from the Blue Square South after breaching rules regarding player registration and earning themselves a seven point penalty in the process.
This puts the cash-strapped Rocks – already bottom of the league – on just six points, a full thirteen from safety. The British Gas Business League beckons.
It’s still not exactly clear exactly which player the punishment refers to, or what the exact nature of Bognor Regis’ offence was but, as with Crawley and Oxford, the Rocks have noted their punishment while complaining of “serious issues with the league’s administrative procedures”.
The paperwork league
In some respects it would be easy to simply say that the clubs hit by the deductions need to get their offices in better working order and double-check their paperwork, and that may well be the case.
But each of these teams have the right to feel hard-done by, especially when Mansfield, Crawley and Oxford appear to have sent off the relevant forms and, in Crawley’s case, had another professional body receive these without any problems.
One points deduction for player registration would suggest carelessness on the part of the club concerned, but when you have four separate cases in one season, teams are entitled to ask questions of the registration process, especially when it seems like all cases are genuine errors rather than anything designed to give the respective teams an advantage.
These cases also highlight the need for better communication at the lower levels of football. In a day of modern communication, where forms can be sent via email in a matter of seconds (aside from the fact the Conference seems to prefer to use faxes to do its business), these sort of mistakes shouldn’t be happening at all.
It shouldn’t be too hard for authorities to let clubs know as soon as possible if they’re fielding an ineligible player due to missing paperwork or otherwise.
In Oxford’s case, while there’s an argument for saying they should have checked Hutchinson’s registration, you’d have also thought somebody would have let the club know before he clocked up 13 games.
The ultimate loser in this is the league itself that could see matters decided over working fax machines and lost papers as opposed to matters on the pitch. Mansfield sit just one point above the relegation zone thanks to their points deduction, while Oxford drop to 14th and move much closer to the relegation battle. Crawley, meanwhile, drop out of the playoff spots.
Should one or more of these teams get relegated or miss out on promotion due to these deductions it’s entirely conceivable that yet again the Conference places could be decided in the courtroom as opposed to on the football pitch – a state of affairs that does the non-league image no favours whatsoever.
With Luton and Bournemouth still struggling to overcome their respective penalties in League Two, this could be the first season that promotion and relegation from the league all involves teams with points deductions, which is a first you suspect football would rather not have in its record books.
Meanwhile, in the Premiership, the row still rumbles on at West Ham over the Carlos Tevez saga. This arguably had much higher stakes and consequences for all involved and concerned a much more serious breach of the rules than a simple admin cock-up. Although the respective leagues are governed by different bodies, the lack of points deductions for the Hammers highlights just how inconsistently penalties are applied across football.
In total, the Conference has made £1,500 in one day from the fines handed out to Bognor Regis, Oxford and Crawley in addition to the points deductions. Fans will be hoping this goes towards the purchase of a new fax machine and a better filing system to prevent this debacle from happening next season.