Friday, 20 March 2009

Who Would Be A Secretary?

For the first time in 14 years, Chertsey Town reached a Cup Final, only to be thrown out of the competition a matter of days later. Last Saturday, the Surrey club won 1-0 at Worcester Park in the EL Records Premier Challenge Cup Semi-Final, the knockout competition for Combined Counties League clubs. But it was later discovered that they had fielded an ineligible player.

I had spoken to a number of Chertsey Town fans prior to the Semi-Final, and they were excited about a potential Friday night April Final at Woking FC. It promised to be a big occasion, with well supported clubs Camberley Town and Molesey contesting the other Semi. I was genuinely saddened by the news for two reasons. Firstly, I had every intention of going to the Final to cheer on my local club and a trip to Woking with family and friends would have made for a good evening out. Secondly, I know the club secretary down at Chertsey Town and I'm sure he will be distraught at the news and it his him I feel most sorry for.

It is a thankless task being a club secretary, and the many I have met in the last few seasons all demonstrate the same personable traits. They are passionate about their club. They are extremely hard working. They are selfless with their own time that they volunteer. And they are sticklers for detail. They have to be. One job in a secretary's million-and-one jobs is to ensure that players are eligible to play when they walk out onto the pitch. Believe me, this is not as easy as it sounds. Rules are numerous and complex, changes are common, season in season out, and there are a whole raft of subtly different rules depending which competition you are in. You'd need a brain the size of Saturn to know and understand the subtleties of all the rules, let alone keep up with them as they change.

I spoke to an official at the Combined Counties League this week, and I've been told that Chertsey Town has appealed against the punishment. The ineligible player in question also played in Chertsey's Quarter-Final win at Bookham. The problem was that he had not played 3 League games for Chertsey Town before appearing in the Cup. In my opinion, it is unlikely that any appeal will be successful.

The fielding of ineligible players is not uncommon. Look at any of this season's non League tables and they are littered with teams that display an asterisk against their name. Clubs deducted League points this season include Bognor Regis Town, Colwyn Bay, Goole AFC, Maldon Town, Potters Bar Town, Dulwich Hamlet and Caernarfon Town. Lower down the pyramid at Steps 5, 6 and 7, I counted at least another 38 clubs that have been penalised for using an ineligible player this season alone, and that was before I gave up counting (I struggle with double figures). The Conference teams are not immune either: Crawley Town, Oxford United and Mansfield Town have all contravened the rules. Even the secretaries at semi-professional clubs struggle to get it right all the time.

I started this season's FA Vase trail with Chertsey Town, and this competition is has had its own fair share of ineligible player headlines. One of the most famous cases has to be that of Beckenham Town; at the start of the 2004-05 season, the Kent club fielded an ineligible player in their FA Vase game against Lordswood. The FA banned them for 5 years from the FA Vase and 6 years from the FA Cup. This was a particularly severe punishment, and Beckenham Town have spent the last 5 years wondering 'what if?' in the knowledge they were missing out on potential prize money that these competitions offer. Only last week, the FA agreed that Beckenham Town can be reinstated in the FA Vase next season, something they are most relieved about. In the words of Peter Palmer, the secretary at Beckenham:

"As the secretary, I take responsibility for what happened and it has made me far more vigilant when it comes to signing new players. It is a case of leaving no stone unturned. Even if a player insists he has not signed for anyone else this season, we make sure we go through all the channels and check everything out".

Chertsey Town has not had much sympathy this week following their dismissal from the League Cup; in fact, there has been a deal of animosity directed at the Alwyns Lane outfit. I know that when this kind of thing happens at clubs, when teams are deducted points or ejected from competitions, it is usually the secretary that gets it in the neck. But spare a thought for the hard working club secretaries up and down the land; these are the ladies and gentleman that work tirelessly behind the scenes to keep the clubs going. They are like you and me, only human, and make the odd mistake. But without them, where would we be?

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