DUFFERS’ DIARIES: Ilkeston saga leaves a bitter taste - and reflects badly on the NPL

Things will hopefully now return to normality at the New Manor Ground.
Things will hopefully now return to normality at the New Manor Ground.

The events surrounding Ilkeston FC over the last few weeks have left a pretty bitter taste in the mouths of many.

At first, when the decision was made by the Northern Premier League to suspend them from all footballing activity, there was quite a bit of anger towards the club for that situation having been allowed to arise, even without the knowledge of what had actually caused it.

As time went on, that anger turned slowly towards the Northern Premier League as it transpired that whilst it was true that Ilkeston had breached certain rules and quite rightly deserved a slap on the wrist for doing so, the nature of the breach and the subsequent punishments handed out were shown up to be ridiculously disproportionate.

Taking it back to the beginning, Ilkeston were first penalised for having some footballing creditors. My understanding of the situation is that those creditors were hardly banging down the door for the cash owed to them, but had asked the question following the Che Adams transfer deal and the subsequent income Ilkeston would receive from it.

In doing so, that highlighted to the NPL that Ilkeston had footballing debts and all of a sudden someone at the top table went a bit dizzy and decided to ban them from playing altogether. Hardly a rational solution given the nature of the breach.

Surely, in that circumstance, a transfer and/or registration embargo was the obvious answer. If Ilkeston owed clubs money then quite rightly they shouldn’t have been able to sign anyone else until it was paid. Just let them register the players already at their disposal and ensure they can start the season.

Did the league take this stance because the Robins’ previous financial problems last season, which led on that occasion to a transfer and registration embargo, had pushed the NPL to the end of their tether? We’ll probably never know, particularly as the NPL never alluded to anything like that in what statements they produced, but I’d have to assume it had something to do with it, for the NPL’s sake.

However, what then followed was nothing short of a farce.

Having suspended Ilkeston from playing, a punishment nobody I’ve spoken to since had ever heard of in relation to owing any amount of money to other clubs, the league then decided they would charge the Robins for failing to fulfill the very fixtures they’d been banned from playing.

No suitable explanation was given by the NPL for this, and conveniently failing to include the words ‘without just cause’ in their quoting of the rulebook on such matters spoke volumes to me and many others about the way they were handling it.

It may well have been that they hadn’t received enough evidence from Ilkeston that the outstanding issues were being sorted, but it would surely have been made clear to them that, in the very near future, Sheffield United would be contractually obliged to wire a decent amount of cash into Ilkeston’s bank account and that any debts would very quickly be settled as a result.

United not being particularly quick to send the money didn’t help, but they seemingly had their own reasons for that and it really shouldn’t have mattered as long as it was done in a reasonable amount of time.

Instead, the NPL continued to want to wait until four games had been postponed, Ilkeston (and other clubs) had suffered on a number of levels due to matches not taking place, and many fans were left venting their anger not only towards the club but eventually the NPL as well.

The timing of the suspension being lifted raised a few eyebrows but really it should have happened when it did anyway given Ilkeston had provided evidence of payment to their creditors, although it didn’t stop the league belatedly taking the option they should have done in the first place and slapping a registration restriction of 16 players on the Robins to hamper them in the games they were eventually allowed to play.

That restriction is still in place as I write, despite the fact that the hearing in which Ilkeston faced four charges of ‘failing to fulfill’ happened last Wednesday.

Not that you’d know that, because the NPL have failed to put out any kind of statement alluding to what happened and it’s been left to people like me to find it all out. That might be part of my job, but it shouldn’t have been as difficult to get the information as it was. I wasn’t the only media representative to be frustrated by the NPL’s silence on the whole matter.

I was told that the NPL might have been waiting for any appeal from Ilkeston to materialise before saying anything, but even a statement saying that would have helped, if it were true.

In any case, it strikes me that any appeal would be pointless. The NPL hardly seem likely to go back on the punishment dished out - they’ve already made themselves look pretty daft as it is.

The fine given out to Ilkeston, believed to be about £3,500, was certainly heavy-handed in the circumstances, and I’d doubt they’d have dared to it if Ilkeston had been in any kind of major financial trouble. What help would that have been to what should be regarded as one of their most valuable members?

Instead, they got their own little share of the Adams cash that finally made its way down the M1.

Everything about the whole saga has shown the NPL up in a very unfavourable light, and also uncovered various other opinions, revelations and allegations which, if true, do them very few favours. And it’s not the first time either, given the way they’ve handled one or two other cases of varying nature in the past.

These people run one of the biggest sporting leagues in the country, watched by thousands every week and consisting of clubs that often include full-time employees trying to make a living.

And yet, everything from the initial decisions made and the justification for them, right through to the paucity of their PR, left a lot to be desired and at times could have put the future of Ilkeston FC in danger.

Whilst it’s true that not owing clubs money in the first place might have avoided these subsequent events, the damage done, and that could potentially have been done, was in no way proportional.

I really hope some major lessons have been learned by all parties in this saga. Sources tell me that the FA, who seem to have worryingly little jurisdiction over the NPL, have nonetheless come down hard on its members for the way this has all been handled.

It’s safe to say that every move the NPL make in future will be watched very closely by a lot of people.