THE management and fans of Thurrock FC face a nervous few days as their immediate playing future hangs in the balance.
The club have been charged with playing an ineligible player by the Football Association – and if the case is proved they will be deducted points – a move that will see them relegated to the Ryman One North next season.
The controversy surrounds striker and convicted football hooligan Joel Barnett, a journeyman non-league player and former Scunthorpe United YTS trainee who has played for a number of local clubs including Tilbury, Grays Athletic and Aveley.
And Tilbury will also face a points deduction is it is proved that Barnett played while under a ‘sine die’ ban this season, though that won’t cost them their Ryman One North status. Dockers have been charged with 11 alleged breaches but they finished high enough in the league so that even a significant deduction over a player who scored seven goals wouldn’t affect the future.
For Thurrock though, who beat Lewes 2 – 0 on August 25 with Barnett in the side, the risk of relegation looms large. The deduction of just two points would see Fleet and Carshalton Athletic swap places.
Barnett made four appearances for Thurrock at the beginning of the season, most crucially in a 2-0 win against Lewes on 25 August. If Thurrock were docked just one of the three points won that day they will be relegated after finishing the season on 41 points, one above relegated Carshalton but they have a worse goal difference.
The FA believe that no club should have played Barnett because he was suspended sine die for failing to pay fines to to West Riding FA incurred through a Wakefield Sunday League side, that has now folded.
The problem came to light when Barnett moved to Harlow, but they found out about his suspension and flagged up what had happened to the FA.
As well as Thurrock and Aveley, Conference North side Bishops Stortford, also played the striker in pre-season and they too face FA sanction.
Barnett’s troubled history doesn’t just involve on field problems. In September 2011 he and members of his family were jailed for a violent assault on fellow Huddersfield Town fans, stewards and police at an Old Trafford League play-off final between Huddersfield and Peterborough United on 29 May, 2001.
Paul Barnett, 47, and his sons Jotham, 20, Joel, 21, and Jordan , 29, all admitted affray and Joel admitted an additional charge of criminal damage for defecating in a police van following his arrest. Jordan was jailed for 21 months, Jotham and Paul for 18 months and Joel for a total of 16 months.
After his spell in jail Barnett tried to resurrect his playing career in Essex and Hertfordshire. having failed to secure a spot at Bishops Stortford he then joined Thurrock, scoring once in his four appearances and then made a return to Tilbury, where he had previously played 27 games, and scored seven goals in 13 appearances.
Ryman League Vice Chairman and Company Secretary Nick Robinson explained the procedure that will happen over the next few days – and why it needs to be completed urgently.
He said: “It is The FA who are making the initial charge and if proved the League will then act.
“The FA hearing is first so if the case is not proved, that is an end to the matter. If proved the league will then have a hearing as both Thurrock and Tilbury have requested a personal hearing with both the FA and the League.
“Rule 6.9 provides that if a Club plays an ineligible player it “shall” have points gained deducted so it is likely that points will be deducted if there is a hearing.
“The Clubs are likely then to appeal to the FA; these need to be dealt with by the time we hold our AGM on 16 June so it is important for hearings to be held quickly.”
Thurrock secretary Mark Southgate, who formerly held a similar position at Tilbury , which he left in acrimonious circumstances two years ago, now finds himself in an alliance with his former club as they seek to beat the FA charge.
He said: “I wouldn’t have thought we’ll be docked points. If it was going to be done, it would have been done many, many months ago.
“We’re talking about this now, but it came about in January. It’s the way the appeals process goes. I don’t think there will be a guilty verdict.”
Barnett, who has returned to Yorkshire where he owns and runs the Bar Twelve in Birstall near Leeds, faces many individual charges from the FA but is not directly involved with the appeals by the charged clubs.
While he pulls pints in the north, there will be plenty for Thurrock manager Mark Stimson and club owner Tommy South to mull over as they head for the sun in Magaluf this week for an end of season club staff trip.