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Isthmian League chairman Nick Robinson: We couldn’t please everyone

Nick Robinson

SYMPATHY: South Shields were denied promotion

Isthmian League chairman Nick Robinson

As administrators, we are quite used to people at this time of year saying “have a good summer…” but those in the know realise this is our busiest time of year.

I made the mistake some time ago of saying I didn’t think that anything new could come up which could trouble me as chairman. How wrong could I be!

In the last couple of years I’ve had one club go into liquidation [Thamesmead Town], a club trying to sign a player who was the subject of a Banning Order and a warning from The FA that there were “suspicious betting patterns” about a match. No-one, however, could have possibly foreseen Covid-19.

We know what happened, all football was suspended and Steps 3-7 saw their seasons terminated and records expunged. This was ratified by The FA Council but then challenged by a number of clubs, resulting in an arbitration under FA Rule K. The award of the tribunal was issued this week.

The leagues have not been able to comment until now because of the threat of arbitration but we now know that the challenge by one club, initially supported by others, has failed in its entirety. It is worth stating what the leagues had to do at that time.

Let us remember that, in the middle of March, events were happening so quickly we did not know which way to turn.

One weekend, the Isthmian League had a full fixture list but clubs were advised not to have the “Respect” handshake. Our last matches were played on March 11 with all matches for the weekend of March 14 later cancelled. Matters changed not just every day but literally by the hour.

Football was suspended from March 21 and no matches have been played since.

It was about that time we all learned about Zoom. The only Zoom I had known previously was a Lyons iced lolly back in the day! Now suddenly we were having video conferences once or twice a day.

The FA Council members for leagues at Steps 1-4 were asked to consult their boards about ending the season. We had a sub-committee of the Alliance, a meeting with the Leagues Committee, a full meeting of the Alliance and a meeting of FA Council to make decisions.

Whether we made the right decision or not is for others to decide but what is clear is that very eminent lawyers have decided that the process we adopted was the right one and we did not act outside of our power or, in Latin, ultra vires, which would have been very serious had it been proved against us.

The Isthmian League office was inundated with calls enquiring what was going to happen. Very simply, we did not know and, quite rightly, that was not good enough for our clubs. They needed guidance, direction and clarity.

My board of directors met by video conference on a Saturday morning and we discussed matters long and hard. I had eight club representatives present as well as the chief executive and the president. Around the table were literally hundreds of years of experience at this level.

We looked at the options and, whilst not unanimous, decided by a hefty majority that the records of all clubs should be expunged and the phrase “null and void” came into common parlance.

There is a league rule which provides that a club which “for any reason ceases to operate at any time during the playing season” may have its playing record expunged. This seems to have been forgotten in all the furore but we followed our rule.

This decision was also made by the Southern and the Northern Premier Leagues, by the Step 5 and 6 leagues, the FA Committees and, ultimately, the FA Council.

A very small minority of clubs, most of whom were adversely affected by the decision, took issue. Solicitors wrote accusatory letters to me and the other chairmen and quoted from a letter which I had sent out in good faith to the Isthmian clubs to keep them informed.

The fact that all three grounds of opposition have been fairly and squarely rejected is paramount to those running football. The tribunal rejected the various ways in which South Shields had sought to impugn the lawfulness of the FA Council decision and the various amendments of regulations and rules which had been proposed in order to give effect to it.

It is stated that the FA reasonably decided that there was no single solution for all of them – you never please all the people all the time – and that it is impossible not to feel sympathy for South Shields and the like.

I also feel sympathy for Jersey Bulls and for Vauxhall Motors who had gone one further than South Shields and had won their divisions.

The question of costs has still to be considered. The amount spent by both sides would have funded a number of clubs in National League South for many weeks! What a shame the money had to be spent on lawyers rather than being spent to ensure success next season or even helping less fortunate teams survive the current problems.

Moving forward, we have to decide what is going to happen. We do not yet know the fate of Bury FC but it seems likely that there will be at least one vacancy. How do we fill that?  Is it too difficult and do we have to leave a vacancy somewhere?  I hope not.

I hope that if there is an opportunity for a club to ascend by one level that we are as strong as we were in March and not be afraid of criticism. Yes, whatever we decide will upset someone but let us remember that our clubs want guidance, direction and clarity.

Whether or not we have a full complement of clubs, we need season 2020-2021 to start as soon as possible.

Of course, we can not say for certain. Our clubs want six to eight weeks to prepare and it is abundantly clear that, in our world, there is no place for league matches to be played behind closed doors.

Streaming is not an adequate replacement for the volunteers, the supporters and the groundhoppers and all of us who go to make up this wonderful National League System we have.

Above everything we have to gain the confidence of every person involved that they will be safe going to football otherwise they may not take the risk.

Let me go back to where I started, I sincerely hope that there is nothing else new that could happen to cause the league such a headache! I hope everyone has a good summer.

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