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In some respects, Aaron Ramsey, Stoke City and Arsenal should all consider themselves lucky, unlikely as that seems right now. Ramsey, for all the horror of his horrible injury, is a young player who may recover and go onto have a successful career. Stoke and Arsenal both have insurance to cover serious, career-threatening injuries to players. Marcus Hallows and Ashton United are not so lucky.
Back in March 2005, Hallows was plying his trade for Altrincham, then of the Blue Square North, when his career was ended in a horrific fashion. Shortly after coming on as a sub against Ashton United in a regular league match, an Ashton United player by the name of Danny White made a late block tackle on Hallows, breaking his right leg.
The injury was so severe that it took half an hour for an ambulance to attend and treat Hallows. His heart stopped on the way to the hospital and, although he was revived, his footballing career was over.
Hallows, now 35 and working in sales and as an Elvis impersonator, sued both Ashton United and Danny White. Two weeks ago, five years after the tackle, Judge Armitage found in favour of Hallows and deemed the challenge to be reckless, ordering Ashton to pay £32,000. With legal fees, the club face a bill for £130,000 – money they simply don’t have.
But this goes further than a non-league team potentially going to the wall, or discussion around yet another bad tackle. It is no exaggeration that the Hallows ruling could have a huge effect on non-league football and potentially radically alter or even kill some areas of the game.
This ruling now sets a precedent for non-league where any player who has suffered a serious injury could potentially claim retrospective damages against the player and club, if that player was under contract. And in many cases, insurance for this simply doesn’t exist.
At non-league level the insurance cover for a club is beyond what many of them can afford. The Unibond League, where Ashton currently play, have tried to organise quotes for group insurance cover but the costs are so high that many teams don’t have the reserves of cash to pay this.
This is not the Premier League, where insurance is mandatory. This is non-league where a few thousand or even hundred pounds can be the difference between success and extinction.
Very few clubs at non-league level have public liability policies and even fewer have a policy that covers player-to-player liability. Even then, there is no guarantee they will be able to claim for injuries caused by dangerous or deliberate tackles. And very few clubs will be able to afford this.
Unlike in Norway or Germany, where insurance and policy schemes are part of the administration of the game, there is no scheme in place at non-league level in Britain, despite warnings for many years that insurance, or lack of it, was a ticking time-bomb.
The future could see clubs, or players, refusing to play due to lack of insurance. Some players may decide the cost of having to arrange their own policies against injuries to both themselves and opponents is not worth the hassle or simply too expensive, while smaller clubs may refuse to take on players without adequate insurance. Meanwhile, there’s ever chance of further litigation from low-earning players whose careers have been curtailed by injury.
Several solicitors have called for the FA to roll out a national scheme for levels of football to help clubs insure against potential litigation, but that won’t come in time to save Ashton United.
Ashton chairman Dave Aspinall believes the club can appeal on points of law, but will need £9,000 to do so; money, again, that the club doesn’t have. But they may have a case for appeal.
At the time of the incident the referee was five yards from the ball and did not give a free kick. Altrincham did not support Hallows in his lawsuit and their manager, Graham Heathcote, has described it as “one of hundreds” seen across the country over the course of the weekend. There is still hope for Ashton if they can raise money for an appeal.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to blame Hallows in all of this. Here is a man who has nearly died, suffered a serious injury and saw his career finished. After all he’s been through, you can understand why he is putting his needs above football. Many of us would do the same.
Aaron Ramsey will probably play again and, in the meantime, expect plenty of hand-wringing and discussion about whether or not to clamp down on tackles. If Ashton United are unsuccessful in their appeal, non-league may not need their own clamp down – any kind of full-blooded tackle could long become a thing of the past.