Why a grassroots volunteer’s appeal over £50 fine proves English football needs an independent regulator

For almost six months now, Lee Warren has been trying to appeal a dismissal during an amateur football match that landed him a three-match ban and a £50 fine.

At the time of the offence, in early October, Warren was club secretary of Brentwood Youth AFC and coach of the Under 17s. He had been club secretary for five years and estimates he committed around 20 hours of unpaid work per week.

But it was worth it. Two of his sons played for Brentwood Youth before leaving for university and another is still there. The club has more than 400 members and several teams from ages four to 18. Warren’s commitment sounds a lot, but it’s not dissimilar to what thousands of people give to support grassroots clubs across the country.

Warren decided to step away in order to pursue his case and if ever there is an example of a decaying system in serious need of reform – and, perhaps, the independent regulator proposed in MP Tracy Crouch’s fan-led review – it’s this small but not insignificant case in an area of football still governed by the FA but where light is rarely shed.

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On 19 October [2021], Warren was charged by the Essex FA for a confrontation with a referee. He requested an in-person hearing but when the Essex FA denied his request and scheduled a disciplinary hearing without the 14 days’ notice period required by the FA regulations he declined to turn up. So, on 6 November, the Essex FA found him guilty, and imposed the sanctions.

The three-match ban meant he was unable to be in the vicinity of a Brentwood Youth AFC game. The park in which they play – Larkins Playing Fields – is 75 yards from his house. So on Saturdays and Sundays if he had been caught walking his dog in the park, as he does most days, while games were taking place, he would have faced a further suspension and fine. And that’s only the start of how farcical the situation has become.

Warren, 52, appealed the decision to the national FA and the appeal board upheld his appeal and, after Warren appeared before them on 16 December, nine days before Christmas, quashed the conviction. Only, it didn’t end there. The appeal board ruled the hearing be rescheduled for a later date. It’s within their power but, on the surface, feels a little unfair.

According to the Appeal Board judgement, available as a downloadable PDF on the FA’s website, the reasoning went that the board agreed Warren was not given a fair hearing due to the lack of notice but that it had decided not to make a ruling on the charge.

At least, that’s what I could make of the 13-page document full of legalese that at one point refers to “the observations of the Equal Treatment Bench Book” and cites cases in the High Court and the Court of Appeal, including “Sri Lanka v. the Secretary of State for the Home Department”.

The document is signed off by Matthew O’Grady, the Appeal Board chair, who is a barrister, and you probably need a degree in law to understand it. Warren, remember, was an unpaid volunteer.

So Warren was not happy, but when the new virtual hearing was set for4 February he was ready and waiting at his laptop, and so were his witnesses – three parents of teenagers at the game. It was a Friday night. Not ideal. One parent was hosting a dinner party and had snuck into a different room, another was in the pub on his phone.

After waiting on the call for approximately 40 minutes, Warren was informed the hearing could not go ahead and would be rescheduled again. He thought if the Essex FA could not present the case against him, the charge should be quashed there and then. But no. Another hearing was arranged, for 22 March. This one was cancelled the night before.

Warren estimates in total it’s taken a full week’s work so far to fight his case. Hours taken tied up with emails going back and forth, phone calls, filling out forms, providing feedback and documentation, organising his witnesses, working evenings and weekend. He runs a small second hand retail business. “It’s not easy,” he said. “They make it incredibly difficult to fight your corner.”

How many others are out there who have disagreed with a red card or yellow card, but paid the fines that make County FAs millions of pounds a year and not contested it? Disciplinary decisions go through the club secretary. “Most club secretaries will not fight back,” Warren said.

Warren doesn’t deny he reacted angrily during the confrontation with the referee back in October, but he does contest the charge and the circumstances around it. And he believes his experience points to serious issues with a system that is unable to cope with increasing problems in the amateur game.

“Behaviour is getting worse,” he said. “The parents are a problem, they encroach on the pitch and that’s happening more and more. I know good people who are walking away from the game.

“The biggest problem football has got is it hasn’t changed its structure for decades. We have very archaic rules and procedures that don’t fit now. It’s put a massive demand on volunteers at grass roots level. The 11-a-side game at grass roots is in big trouble. The system is at breaking point.” If the system is broken, perhaps it’s time an independent regulator set about fixing it.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see where this all ends for Warren. Tuesday marks 170 days since the match in which Warren was sent off from the touchline. Warren’s understanding is the Essex FA had 180 days to issue a charge from a hearing. That would leave them with fewer than the required 14 days’ notice he has to be given for a fair trial.

He’s expecting the charge to be dropped. And his money back.

Saka abuse is pathetic

I tweeted a breaking story last week that Bukayo Saka had left the England camp after testing positive for Covid-19 and some of the responses, nine months after he missed a penalty in the Euro 2020 final shootout defeat to Italy, were appalling.

England fans need to get a grip. Saka, still only 20, is about two years away from potentially becoming England’s best player. A rapid footballer who can dribble, cross, pick a pass, score and defend — he’s the ultimate modern winger. And, more than anything, when he was 19 years old he had the balls to step up and take a penalty in a shootout to try to win his country’s first major tournament in 55 years. I’m certain none of those still criticising him would do the same.

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