At any junior grassroots sports club, the relationship between player, parent and coach – or the  coach-parent-child triumvirate – is vital. Most people with children involved in a sports team will have encountered tension in this relationship – if not themselves then someone else. By the same token, most clubs won’t ever bargain for being sued for having the temerity to substitute a child, but, astonishingly, that is what happened to a small grassroots football club in Berkshire.

CAN OF WORMS: WELL AND TRULY OPENED

Winnersh Rangers FC have been stunned to find out they’ve been found guilty of ‘emotional abuse’ and fined to the tune of £3000 after the 10 year old boy’s father sued the club for substituting him during a game at a pre-season tournament last summer.

For any grassroots sports club, this, potentially, will open an enormous can of worms. Funds are always thin on the ground at grassroots level and a financial penalty of that size could quite feasibly finish many clubs off. Short of falling into a black hole of impenetrable legalese, it’s difficult to know what clubs can do to guard against this sort of action.

PARENTS MUST MANAGE AND TEMPER THEIR DISAPPOINTMENT

The most common issue causing rifts between coaches and parents is almost always playing time – specifically the children who get less playing time than the others, despite having paid the same subs / fees, and dedicate the same time and effort to training every week. It’s perfectly normal for parents to feel disappointment when their own son or daughter is substituted, or left out of the team, but tempering that disappointment is critical. An open and communicative relationship with the coach helps, but having a clear and consistent policy on playing time could spare coaches the full force of parents’ wrath and avoid potential flashpoints or, unimaginably, future legal battles.

Winnersh Rangers are set to challenge the ruling at the start of May, and they are hopeful of overturning what seems like a mind-bogglingly harsh and unjustifiable decision. Club Secretary Phil Chick explained that the club had initially been reported to the local council’s child protection department, who, alongside the Berkshire FA, carried out two investigations which cleared the club of any wrongdoing.

Mr Chick said:

The player in question played with us for about two seasons. The most important thing for us as a club is the children, we want them to enjoy playing football. If they are a good player that is purely a bonus for us.

Last summer the Under 10s teams played in a pre-season tournament and the manager substituted this particular player. His father didn’t take well to the decision, but substitutions are just a part of the game and the manager wanted to give everyone a fair chance and even playing time.

The parent then brought the player back to the club at the start of the new season in September but quickly removed him and asked to be refunded for his signing-on-fee, which of course we refunded. We were told he contacted Wokingham Borough Council’s child protection scheme and accused the substitution of being emotional abuse. We didn’t hear anything else for a few months but then we received a letter from Reading County Court saying we had missed a hearing and had been fined £3,000. PHIL CHICK, WINNERSH RANGERS CLUB SECRETARY

There are insurance companies out there – some specialists in grassroots sports, such as Sportsguard – that will protect amateur clubs against litigation, but they tend to cover mostly run-of-the-mill stuff like accidents.

There’s probably a good chance the verdict will be overturned at the appeal on May 2nd, but either way the Winnersh Rangers case has set an unwanted precedent in UK grassroots sport, and it’s a case that clubs – of all sports – should follow with interest and possibly a touch of trepidation.

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