Friday, 19 February 2016

ESL Rules and The Lack of Consistency

Some time ago I mentioned a blog post I had in mind concerning the rules of the Essex Senior League and how they have been implemented and applied their rules.  Shortly afterwards, an article appeared in the Non League Paper, penned by our own Colin Yates, which complained about the overbearing attitude of the league, not least in their levying fines upon clubs  for 'allowing' the supporters to let off pyro and drink beer within sight of the game.

Fortunately the Essex Senior League publish their rules in full on their website in section Who We Are and I have managed to have a good look through these in recent weeks.

The relevant section that relates to these offences and fines are listed under the heading 'Procedural Arrangements to be followed For Essex Senior League Matches' (page 73) and, under paragraph 6(a)

My recollection is that this change in rule is founded by events that happened a couple of years ago when the League Chairman, Mr Errington, wrote to Vince McBean with regard to the Ultras, who were then significantly smaller in numbers, letting off pyro at Clapton matches.  Vince reproduced an extract from the letter on his website which quoted the Safety at Sports Grounds Act and emphasised the fact that a criminal conviction under this Act can carry a term of imprisonment.

To me this approach seemed, at the very least, a bit heavy handed and it was later revealed that the legislation referred to by the League Chairman does not apply to Clapton FC or any other club in the League.  A partial retraction was published by Vince, undoubtedly under instructions, that said 'No one is accusing anyone of anything'.  At best, it was embarrassing.  

In what appears to be a bid to deal with the Clapton Ultras issue, the League have, this season, amended the Procedural Arrangements so as to include references to pyro and bringing alcohol into the ground.

It also amended, from the previous season, a requirement that a spectator is forbidden to consume alcohol (even if he were to have bought it in the clubhouse) anywhere from where he/she is able to view the match.

The fine for any breach of these procedural arrangements is £250, the highest financial penalty on that tariff.

Putting pyro aside for the moment, one wonders how these procedural arrangements adopted by the club's when, as is abundantly clear at the majority of away games I have been to this season, spectators are enjoying a beer whilst watching the game.

It certainly appears that the club's did vote or acquiesce to their implementation as I have seen tweets from ESL Registration Secretary and Secretary of AFC Hornchurch, Peter Butcher confirming this.

If the club's did consciously vote for this, to then subject themselves to a £250 fine for every pint of beer consumed pitch side (and I have seen plenty of folk enjoying a beer whilst watching the match this season at a number of ESL grounds) is craziness.  To me it smacks of a renewed attempt by the League to implement the Safety at Sports Ground Act following the threats and embarrassing failure mentioned above.  Had Parliament intended to implement the Safety at Sports Grounds Act at grounds such as Clapton FC, then they would have legislated to do so and not left it to Mr Errington and Co.

I am unaware of any similar  procedural arrangement at any other league at our level and, dare I say it, one of the attractions of non league football at this level is the fact that you can watch the game whilst sipping a Tyskie or two.  But rather than following Clapton's lead in encouraging people to watch Essex Senior League matches, the League seem intent to drive them away.

Interestingly, the rules of Carshalton Athletic FC state that whilst alcohol is not allowed to be brought into the ground, alcohol bought in the bar can be consumed outside in plastic glasses.  It goes on to say that no alcohol can be consumed outside for cup matches. This would indicate that there is no such 'blanket ban' on alcohol being consumed whilst viewing the game in the Ryman League, where attendances and facilities are expected to be generally superior to those in the ESL.  Mr Butcher, as secretary of Hornchurch FC, would undoubtedly be aware of this as his club is not constrained by the same 'procedural arrangement' implemented by their League. The question is why would he want to be part of the implementation and enforcement of such a draconian and unnecessary measure?

Another aspect of this, is the vigor in which the League appear to clamp down on Clapton and Vince McBean on the pyro issue.  "Spectator safety" is the obvious retort, but recent events have shown that the League are very 'flaky' in implementing or retaining that.

The collapse of the pitch barrier in front of the scaffold last Saturday fortunately did not result in any injuries. There is no question of fault by any party, the only rider being, that the barrier has been there for decades and therefore, at some stage or another, it will have had to have given up the ghost.

It is a League Rule (not a 'procedural arrangement'), that all grounds must have a permanent pitch barrier of a certain type.  (ESL Handbook page 96) One would assume the requirement of a perimeter barrier of this type within the ground gradings is for player/spectator safety, which is apparently the League's primary concern as to the occasional pyro, be that undertaken by fans of Burnham Ramblers, Waltham Forest or Clapton.  Thus, the remedial work (traffic cones and tape) which replaced the fallen barrier for London Bari's home match with Barking last Wednesday was not clearly compliant with the League rule, and clearly not conducive to the safety of players and spectators.  A Referee, who's additional duties would appear to now include the reporting of pyro at Clapton games, would certainly have seen this before the game started and, under League rules, (assuming "rules is rules") should have called it off.

Whilst I have an extremely qualified sympathy for Vince McBean, I can understand his frustration in having to pay fines to a League whose committee seem to interpret their rules as and how they see fit.

A further RULE, seemingly ignored by the ESL, is their failure to ensure that the legal identity of each club is made public (ESL Handbook p47 - para 2.13).  In absence of Vince actually giving anyone a straight answer as to whether he considers himself the club's owner or otherwise, this would provide information, as is intended by the inclusion of the rule, to which all supporters should be privy.

The perennial financial struggle for income effects all clubs at our level and it is understandable for them to aim to maximising their income on match days and this would include the sale of alcohol. Thus, it would interesting to know the reason why the clubs who did vote through the 'Procedural Arrangements', particularly when the many of them continue to allow alcohol to be consumed in the ground in contravention of it.  Or perhaps its the case that the procedural arrangement went through at the AGM without discussion, debate or disclosure and it is only now that some clubs are reaping the wrath of letting it go through unchallenged.

The crux of the matter is that the officers and committee of the Essex Senior League appear to be running the league in such an arbitrary fashion that it is hard to see what they do actually benefits the clubs.  OK, so they run a competition but there has been no sponsorship of the league for many a season, the official league website is basically defunct and their internet presence owes much to the 'unofficial' website, fortunately run and administered by an enthusiastic and competent fan.  (here's an idea - hand the running of the official site to Pete Dudley)  It is not difficult to argue that the ESL are one of the weaker leagues at step 5. One would have therefore thought that the Clapton revival would have been embraced and encouraged by the League rather than their imposition of rules/'procedural arrangements', by stealth or otherwise, that appear designed to stifle the upturn in attendances and interest.  Clapton, or more correctly, the Clapton Ultras, have helped bring more people through the gates of Essex Senior League clubs, they have generated more positive publicity for the League than one can remember and are a shot in the arm for football at this level.  Its time the League appreciated this and applied their rules, provided that they are genuinely approved by and for the benefit of member clubs, consistently and fairly.

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