The English Football League has defended its treatment of Leyton Orient supporters but admitted it has little power to intervene at clubs in crisis once their owners are in position.
Orient have been in free-fall ever since Italian businessman Francesco Becchetti bought the east London club from Barry Hearn in 2014 and their relegation to the National League was sealed on April 22.
Matters came to a head during last Saturday’s final home game against Colchester when Orient fans invaded the pitch. Their protest was peaceful but it caused a near two-hour delay, with the final eight minutes of the match played out behind closed doors.
On Monday, the league granted Blackpool’s request to suspend ticket sales to visiting Orient fans for this Saturday’s season finale, only to announce a day later that Orient would get a reduced allocation of 1,000 tickets.
These decisions – and the league’s failure to deal with Becchetti, who has been through nine managers and repeatedly failed to pay tax bills and wages on time – have provoked widespread criticism and forced the EFL to issue an 800-word justification of its stance.
The statement starts by claiming the league has “received a combination of criticism and support” for making sure the Orient-Colchester game was completed.
Before explaining the rationale for this decision, which was based on rules brought in following a protest by Blackpool fans that caused the abandonment of a Championship fixture against Huddersfield in 2015, the EFL made a frank admission of its own impotency to challenge club owners unless rules are broken.
“We would like to reiterate that the EFL recognises that supporters of clubs have the right to protest if they are unhappy and very much understand the frustration of Leyton Orient fans in particular at this difficult time,” the EFL statement said.
“As we have stated, unless our rules are broken, our powers to intervene are limited once owners are in position.”
The statement then sets out the league’s duty as a “competition organiser” and says it is “imperative” that all clubs play 46 games of 90 minutes.
“While acknowledging the right of fans to protest, we cannot support this if those actions ‘cross the white line’ and affect the sporting outcome,” it said.
“The pitch invasion at the Matchroom Stadium was peaceful in its nature but led to the referee needing to take the players off the field. We cannot sit back and allow this to happen and have the credibility of our competition, which is envied the world over, questioned.”
Acknowledging the fact those last eight minutes were an uncontested kick-about, the EFL said it does not regret its “difficult decision” but is disappointed that the decision had to be taken.
Moving on to Blackpool’s request to suspend ticket sales, the EFL claimed there were “significant concerns” about a repeat of last weekend’s disruption but once the security arrangements at Bloomfield Road were reviewed it was agreed sales could proceed.