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  • Writer's pictureMark O'Neill

Pontypridd United and 141-Point Penalty

By, Fair use,

Although I am born and bred in Essex, I have a significant element of Welsh ancestry (Ancestry DNA says I am 10% Welsh), Welsh football has not covered itself in glory here. In what has been more of the more unusual sports law cases of recent times, but has fallen under the radar somewhat, the day that James Saddler turned out for Pontypridd United set the scene for some chaotic regulatory responses from the Football Association of Wales (FAW) and proved that even the most experienced and capable of lawyers can make some rudimentary mistakes. As someone who has sat on my fair share of football disciplinary hearings, I can attest that sometimes statutory interpretation is harder than it looks.

On 15 December 2023, the FAW charged Pontypridd United under FAW Rules 38.1.1 and 38.1.2, for breaching the following Rules and/or Regulations:

In practice, it relates to the failure to correctly register James Saddler as a professional player and upload a copy of his professional contract in accordance with FAW Rules and Regulations. Then playing James Saddler in 13 Cymru Premier matches while he was an ineligible player. On top of this, the club were also charged with the non-payment of player wages, and failing to comply with their contractual obligations towards players.

The matter was initially referred to an Independent Arbitrator, David Phillips KC, who was appointed by Sport Resolutions.  Phillips has around 20 years of experience in sports law, is a Fellow of the Institute of Arbitrators, and is also a Deputy High Court judge. Phillips KC also led the Independent Arbitration Panel which heard the previous charges brought against Pontypridd United.

In the original hearing, the Independent Arbitration Panel ordered that Pontypridd United be deducted an eyewatering total of 141 points, with six points imposed immediately and 135 points suspended from the date of the decision until the end of the 2024/25 season. The points deduction would have been imposed should Pontypridd United field an ineligible player(s) during that time.

The sanction from the Panel was based on Cymru Premier Rule 14.1, which states (the important section underlined): 

No Club may play an ineligible Player in any Match.  Any Club which plays an ineligible player in a Match will have three (3) points deducted from its League record for that Playing Season (or in the case of a Play-Off Match, will forfeit the Match) and will also be liable to a fine. If the Player is a nominated but unused substitute for a Match, he shall be deemed as not having played for the Club in that Match.

In these latest proceedings, the Independent Arbitrator acknowledged that he had misinterpreted Cymru Premier Rule 14.1 when calculating the sanction. He had initially understood the Rule to mean that a Club is deducted three (3) points for every match that an ineligible player was fielded, which in calculating the 141-point total penalty would have meant that Pontypridd would have played up to 47 ineligible players across the 2022/23 and 2023/24 seasons. In Phillips' defence, the drafting of the underlined part of 14.1 is not totally clear on this issue, so it is understandable that the Panel came to the conclusion that it did.

The correct interpretation of 14.1 was that the three (3) point deduction applies to the match in which any ineligible player played in, and not the number of ineligible players who played in it. As a result, acting on the FAW’s recommendation, the Independent Arbitrator confirmed that the total points deduction should have been 81, of which 6 were immediate, and 75 suspended. The Independent Arbitrator did not find that there had been any fault or issue with the COMET system.

With regards to the latest charges issued on 15 December 2023, the Independent Arbitrator imposed an immediate three (3) point deduction, on the basis that Pontypridd United had already been sanctioned for 12 of the 13 matches in which James Saddler participated as an ineligible player. Overall, Pontypridd United have now been deducted a total of 9 points for the 2023/24 playing season as a result of the abovementioned hearings. 

The moral of the story, even the best and most experienced of us get it wrong occasionally, but it always helps to take a second look if things are unclear.

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