Heading for Arbitration- The Amateur League football dispute explained
By Jamie Bryson
There has been much discussion around the ongoing dispute between the Northern Amateur Football League (NAFL) and Donaghadee Football Club in relation to the conclusion of season 2019/20.
A significant amount of this discussion is uninformed, and fundamentally misunderstands the issues in dispute. Therefore, this article seeks to provide a simple overview of the ongoing case, and provide a rationale for same.
Unlike the NAFL, the appellants in the case- my club Donaghadee FC- has at every stage of the process published our full submissions and arguments in the public domain. I appreciate often these are highly technical and legalistic, but nevertheless I would encourage anyone interested to read these submissions and come to your own conclusions as to the merits of the case, or otherwise. You can read the full Arbitration referral Article 3 Referral
The genesis of this case goes back to the very start of ‘lockdown’. The NAFL League Management Committee (LMC), without any consultation with clubs whatsoever, notified the IFA of their preference to void the season. This was never communicated to clubs, and indeed to this very day many clubs will be unaware this recommendation was made- and formally sent- to the IFA on 30 March 2020.
This set a pre-determined course; every step taken by the LMC after 30 March 2020 and their recommendation, was geared towards finding a means of ensuring the season was brought to a close by any means possible.
In my view this was an effective Stalinist approach; the entire process was rigged from the outset, with lip-service played to clubs and no effort made to preserve the sporting integrity of the league season and Cup competitions.
The NAFL process then decided they would not conclude the season, but would leave it “unfinished”. The basis for this was that it would expire by default on 31 May 2020. This transpired to be incorrect as the IFA extended the playing calendar to 31 July 2020.
This requires some explanation as the NAFL has succeeded in confusing a lot of clubs. Football Regulation 36 (a) is the clause within the IFA Football Regulations which permits football to be played under the jurisdiction of the IFA. Here is the relevant part:
36 (a) No match (other than matches under the aegis of the NIWFA) shall be played between 31st May and 1st August of each year.
Simply explained, this regulation decrees when football can be played. It does not specify which competitions must be played during that period. If the NAFL wished to complete the 2019/20 league or Cup competitions, then they could do so at any time during any football calendar. In any event given the extension by the IFA to 31 July 2020, there isn’t even a break in the football calender given the specified starting point is 1 August.
Moreover, the NAFL LMC know they could complete Cups, and even league fixtures, beyond 31 July 2020. How do they know this? Because they sent an open letter to the IFA board- which you can read below- asking if Cup competitions could be completed subsequent to 31 July 2020, and seeking help in concluding the season!
In response, the IFA Board made clear whether they played competitions beyond 31 July 2020 was a matter solely for the NAFL. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous and a deliberate effort to conceal the truth. Read the IFA response for yourself below.
Was this advertised to clubs? Were clubs informed of this? No, they were not. Why is that? Indeed, some clubs may be surprised to find out about this correspondence for the first time when reading this article.
You can see clearly- with your own eyes- that at question 6 (c) the NAFL specifically asked if Cup competitions could be played beyond 31 July. You can then see the IFA answer- in black and white- “this is a matter for the NAFL“.
It is a scandal that clubs are being told by the NAFL that Cup competitions can not be finished because the IFA has said they must be concluded by 31 July 2020. The ‘secret’ letter- which for some reason was never shared with clubs- makes clear this is simply untrue.
Many will also be aware that the SFA in Scotland managed to schedule the Scottish Cup in October/November- if a professional league can do this, why could an amateur league not do the same?
The disputed matter then proceeded to the IFA Appeals Committee, with papers lodged on 9 May 2020. In a process which under Article 14 of the IFA Articles of Association is meant to be concluded in fourteen days, the Appeals Committee dragged this out for NINE weeks.
In that period they stalled the Appeal for the NAFL to send the aforementioned ‘open letter’ to the IFA Board, asking them to effectively judge whether they had got things right or wrong- indeed they further specifically asked for help in concluding the season (and then decided they weren’t interested in concluding it after all).
The outrageous element of this is that members of the NAFL LMC are also members of the IFA Board. How could there ever be a fair and balanced assessment of the LMC’s actions, when they are asking the IFA Board, on which a number of their key members sit, to determine the propriety of their actions. It is the very definition of a conflict of interest; marking your own homework.
The Appeals Committee basically evaded all the relevant arguments put forward, and stated- wrapped up in 11 pages of waffle- that “in these circumstances” the NAFL could basically use Rule 19 (to deal with matters not provided for in the rules) to do whatever they wanted.
It also lamented the appellant’s efforts to interpret the rule literally. What is the point of having rules, if the LMC can just stretch them, twist them and turn them into any shape they want in order to arrive at their desire outcome?
The rules are the rules, whether in a pandemic or not.
In any event, the “in these circumstances” finding is a bizarre, and legally illiterate, interpretation of the Rule. The fact that the ruling made clear it was only relevant “in these circumstances”, outlines their own misunderstanding. Rule 19 isn’t a rule for ‘exceptional circumstances’, it is a Rule to deal with matters not provided for in the Rules. It actually states this within the Rule.
How to deal with promotion and relegation, in unusual and exceptional circumstances, is provided for in the Rules at Rule 8.1. Therefore, this should never have been by-passed. And it wasn’t only the Rule by-passed, but the member clubs.
The IFA Appeals Committee further erred in finding that a decision to promote one team, from one division, was a decision to end the season. The NAFL didn’t even have the audacity to argue this; rather they had expressly stated that they had not concluded the season, but rather left it unfinished. Indeed, as previously outlined, they sent an open letter to the IFA asking how to conclude the season. There is simply nothing which can reconcile this logical lacuna.
The NAFL themselves argued Cups would ‘expire unfinished’, even they did not assert they were concluded. Yet they now try to claim this interpretation by reliance upon an erroneous decision which seeks to assert that a decision to promote one team- in one division- is a decision to end all league and Cup competitions. I am most surprised that the author of the ruling staked his professional credibility on such an incredible assertion.
The NAFL decided to on one hand say the season was “unfinished”, yet they would promote one team who had mathematically secured promotion, but not other teams who were also mathematically promoted, or relegated. Where is the consistency in the ‘sporting merit’ test there?
They also decreed that at the end of season 2020/21 that three teams would be relegated. The NAFL LMC are elected annually to serve for that term. They had no right to exercise any powers as to season 2020/21. The fact that they believed they could simply override the requirement to be elected into post, and pre-emptively exercise the powers of a new LMC, is- in my personal opinion- a display of arrogance and distain towards the member clubs.
Crucially however one key point transpired. The supposedly independent IFA Appeals Committee are bound by a Code of Conduct. On the first page, under ‘selflessness’, it requires members of all IFA Committees to “take decisions solely on the interests of the IFA”.
Therefore, no club, no player and no member can ever receive a fair hearing before the Appeals Committee when a finding in their favour would be against the interests of the IFA. The requirement is not even to act in the interests of football; but to act in the interests of the Governing body- a Ltd Company.
This is incredible; not even FIFA have such a requirement. It is a type of Stalinist rule whereby members and clubs are told that you can have an ‘independent’ Appeals Committee- but they can only rule in your favour as long as to do so isn’t against the interests of the IFA. Are people- across all clubs and leagues- really ok with that?
Donaghadee FC are passionate about ensuring fair treatment for all; but most importantly- in my personal view- are passionate about constraining the unchallenged- and seemingly unchallengeable- power of a small group of individuals who cosily co-exist within the local football establishment, each sitting on different committees and quite frankly there is so many conflicts of interest, its hard to keep.
The decision to go to Arbitration was not an easy one; it is a huge financial burden on the club, and yes- it has the potential to prevent football being played until it is resolved. But who is to blame for that?
Is it the fault of a small local club with miniscule resources who dared have the audacity to challenge the football ‘establishment’, and the collusive behaviour across different supposedly independent committees?
Or is it the fault of the NAFL LMC, the body who erred in their interpretations of their own rules, made a ‘void the season’ recommendation on 30 March 2020 without even the courtesy of telling clubs, and who have continued- in my personal view- to mislead clubs with the assertion that football competitions must be completed by 31 July 2020, despite even the IFA Board saying otherwise?
Donaghadee is open to pre-Arbitration mediation, there is a willingness to seek a fair and balanced resolution that can put this matter behind all sides, and to move on for the betterment of the local game. The NAFL have not, as yet, indicated whether they are prepared to seek a resolution, or not.
You would imagine that if their desire is to get football started again, then they would be more than keen to find a mechanism to find a fair means to clear the blockage to that happening. If they choose not to engage in reasonable discussions, then all of those affected should be aware where the impediment to getting football kick-started again lies. It will be with those who unilaterally recommended voiding the season- without consulting any clubs- on 30 March 2020.
In my personal view, there has been some subtle efforts- in parallel to the SPFL’s treatment of Hearts and Partick Thistle- to ‘threaten’ the club not to proceed down this route, or else they could face the wrath of the league.
I am quite sure that such an approach would never be authorised, nor supported, by the NAFL LMC, as for what are in my view all their faults, it does not strike me that this would be their style- nor would they wish to bring the local game into disrepute.
However, it should be made clear that Donaghadee Football Club will not be threatened, bullied or coerced out of using the legitimate and proper accountability mechanisms within the rules to challenge what is felt to be an injustice.
If we are to get to the stage of ‘punishing’ clubs for daring to use the rules to challenge decisions which the club feels are wrong, then what is the point of having rules at all? Why not simply have a dictatorship, with no accountability? Where would that leave us?
It is my hope, and I know it is the hope of Donaghadee FC, that the current dispute can be resolved quickly and in a reasonable- but fair- manner. That requires goodwill on all sides, and the application of a fair sporting merit test across all league and Cup competitions.
If, however, the NAFL is not prepared to demonstrate goodwill and a reasonable desire to resolve the issue, then we are heading for a long and robust process of Arbitration, come what may.
Note: This article is published in a personal journalistic capacity.