The 1995 -1996 season saw Stevenage Borough crowned champions of the GM Vauxhall Conference by an 8 point margin over arch rivals Woking.
The Boro team that season registered impressive stats in winning the Conference including scoring over 100 goals (101 to be exact), amassing 91 points in the process.
Becoming Conference Champions should have seen Boro promoted to the Football League for the first time in their history, but they were denied entrance to the League due to the club not matching the strict admission criteria for ground capacity as at the end of December in the previous year and financial criteria which had to be satisfied in respect of accounts for the current and previous years.
A similar fate had befallen the two previous winners of the GM Vauxhall Conference Kidderminster Harriers and Macclesfield.
Boro were confident that they would be in total compliance with the admission rules before the beginning of the season, so the then Chairman, Victor Green decided to take the Football League to court, the basis being restraint of trade under common law but also potential breaches of the Restrictive Trade Act 1976 and Articles 85 and 86 of the European Treaty.
Stevenage Borough Football Club Limited
The Football League Limited
23rd July 1996
The Basis of Stevenage’s legal challenge was threefold;
1) The deadline for compliance was unreasonably early and served no useful purpose
Mr Stewart, QC representing Stevenage stated that the deadline for compliance was “unreasonable to the point of absurdity”;
- As a condition of eligibility for promotion it requires the club to make a substantial investment in a level of facilities which may never be needed and could easily be a complete waste of money.
- That it is not just private money but also public money (Council, Football Trust) being used which could ultimately prove unnecessary.
- There is no practical reason why a club promoted should not be given some period after promotion, to bring their ground up to whatever standard is reasonably required.
- It is much easier for a club to finance the ground improvements after promotion.
- The 31st December deadline was adopted supposedly because of the difficulties clubs would face doing work in the close season. This rests on the false assumption that it is necessary for work to be completed by that date, even though it is not considered necessary for clubs within the League.
- There is no evidence that allowing a period after promotion to comply with standards would cause any serious problems in practice.
- If a club failed to comply with the deadlines, then it could be subject to the same sanctions that would apply to existing League clubs. Ultimately, this could include expulsion from the League, but in practice competent monitoring and the threat of expulsion would be sufficientto ensure concurrence.
2) The capacity of 6,000 required by the ground criteria was unreasonably and unnecessarily high
Mr Stewart attacked the 6,000 criterion as being unnecessary and excessive; considerations of ground size could be left to the market, since it was in the interest of the clubs to provide facilities sufficient for those that wanted to come. In any event the figure of 6,000 was too high.
Mr Stewart pointed to evidence of actual League attendances in the 1994/1995 season. He stated that rather than looking at average attendances it was probably better to look at the highest six League attendances. This shows that of the 22 clubs listed, only 4 had average attendances for their 6 most popular matches in excess of 6,000 and in many case less than half that figure.
3) The financial criteria achieved nothing or so little that they were not necessary to protect the legitimate interests of the League.
The challenge to the financial criteria is directed principally to the reasonableness of the test based on the comparison of current assets and current liabilities and the fact that no similar criteria are applied to existing League members.
Stevenage Borough achieved a moral victory in the high courts. The Hon. Mr Justice Carnworth, the presiding judge, in his 60 page judgement commenting on the admission rules to the League stated;
“There are features of the current arrangements which in my view do require reconsideration if they (The League) are to resist challenges on restraint of trade principles in the future”
The League took note of the ruling relaxing their entry rules and timing of total compliance for the next season. This has resulted in every single Conference Champion and in subsequent years, Conference Play off winners to secure promotion of the Football League. The likes of Accrington, Barnet and Dagenham& Redbridge to name just three Conference champions, would not have gained promotion under the old rules challenged by Boro.
Returning to the ruling, The Hon. Mr Justice Carnworth dashed the hopes of Stevenage that a retrospective ruling may be made by continuing;
“The proper forum for that (reconsideration) is within the structures established by the Football Association and the other responsible bodies. Although the Court has jurisdiction, in an extreme case, to set aside such rules, the current criteria were accepted for the 1995/1996 season not only by Stevenage itself , but by the representative bodies at all levels of the hierarchy, including the Association of which Stevenage is a member. The present challenge has come too late. I therefore dismiss the claim.”
Stevenage may have won a moral legal victory which resulted in the Football establishment reviewing their entry criteria to the League but this was scant ‘justice’ for the club and its supporters as it took another 14 seasons to win the Conference and for Stevenage to reach the Football League.
It is extremely hard to summarise a 60 page judgement but for the purposes of this article we captured the key challenges made by Stevenage and the judgement made. Should you wish to read through the whole judgement it can be found here. Be warned it is heavy going in places!