Wednesday, 16 May 2007

The Last Word

An excellent article by Martin Samuel in today's Times. It should be the definitive word on this subject but of course it won't be.

It was Tévez's third party so cry if you want to, but a solution would be better
By Martin Samuel

The reason a yellow card cannot be changed to a red after the final whistle, even if television evidence shows what appeared to be a careless elbow was in fact a full-blown punch up the hooter, is that a match cannot be re-refereed after the fact. The Premiership rebel clubs, it seems, would like to re-referee the 2006-07 season. So how many points should West Ham United have deducted for breaching rule U18? One? They stay up. Two? They stay up. Or is the punishment that is sought the precise amount of points necessary for Sheffield United to move above them on goal difference, allowing West Ham to drop into the bottom three, now we know the outcome of all 380 matches?

In which case, the problem is not that the Independent Premier League Commission sat too late, but too early. What an interesting precedent this would set. Wait for the season to be over and then adjust the league table on moral grounds. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got Milton Keynes Dons kicking off in Midland Football Alliance next year and AFC Wimbledon in the Champions League. West Ham got off lightly, we all know that. Privately, those at the helm of the FA Premier League probably admit it, too. A points deduction would have been a more fitting punishment, yet all 20 Premiership clubs signed up to this disciplinary system and none added the rider “unless the decision does not go our way”.

Sheffield United deserve our sympathy. Yet the righteous anger that was so appealing a few weeks ago has metamorphosed into the sort of wrongheaded feeding frenzy that keeps Chris Morris, the media satirist, in pay cheques. Latest to join the mob is Clive Betts, Labour MP for Sheffield Attercliffe, who tabled an early day motion yesterday calling for West Ham to be docked points. Betts would, of course, know much about false paperwork, having been suspended from the House of Commons for seven days in September 2003 for copying a doctored document so that his Brazilian rent-boy escort, José Gasparo, could stay in Britain. Betts also provided Gasparo with a Commons pass, as his “researcher”. Gasparo had worked out of a gay brothel in Earls Court called Villa Gianni and stated that Betts had met him there and paid him £70 for full sex. Johann Hari, writing in the Independent on Sunday, described Villa Gianni as a “sleazy, dangerous environment”. Still, it is good that someone is willing to pull up his trousers and take a stand for morality.

Now, back to the grubby world of football. Far from striking a chord with every club, the truth is that, until the Carlos Tévez and Javier Mascherano controversy blew up, many Premiership chairmen did not appreciate that rule U18 even concerned players’ contracts. The clause governing third-party influence on policy and performance was considered to deal with club ownership and be in place to prevent an investor having an interest in multiple clubs. With reference to players, there is no equivalent of it in many of the leagues around Europe. Dave Whelan, the Wigan Athletic chairman, has accused the Premier League of creating a new transfer window to allow Tévez to be re-registered, but that is wrong, too. Tévez was a West Ham player from August 31. He did not need special dispensation. (Actually, once a player is at a club, his status can be changed at any time. Tim Howard was on loan from Everton to Manchester United and the deal became permanent on February 14, 2007, legally and outside the window.)

The issue of Tévez’s future transfer fee is also a red herring. Whelan has said that the deal cannot be legal unless West Ham receive the money, but that is incorrect. West Ham own Tévez’s registration and always have; the matter of his transfer fee is a separate issue. Rio Ferdinand, Mark Viduka, Dominic Matteo, Michael Duberry, Eirik Bakke, Danny Mills, Michael Bridges and Olivier Dacourt, for instance, were bought by Leeds United on sale and lease-back deals of the type that allows the club to continue playing at Elland Road without owning it. When Peter Ridsdale, the Leeds chairman at the time, broke the British transfer record for Ferdinand in 2000, someone else paid. This third party was reimbursed by Leeds over the period of the player’s contract, plus interest. In the event of falling short on payments, Ferdinand could be sold to give the lender his money back. The defender’s sale to Manchester United in 2002 paid the debt for his purchase, and then some. Others did not. After settling the loan, Leeds would not have received a transfer fee for the sale of many players. This does not mean, however, that they did not own the legal registrations. There are, in fact, similar agreements with banks and lenders throughout football. The situation with Tévez is not unusual.

The suggestion that Tévez and Mascherano would not have been able to play for West Ham this season is also false. Even had West Ham disclosed every financial arrangement on the day of the transfer, the players would still have been registered, even with unworkable contracts. The Premier League lawyers would then have spent several days with club lawyers knocking out each contractual arrangement that was not permitted, which is what happened when Mascherano signed for Liverpool. Richard Scudamore, the Premier League chief executive, states that the large majority of contracts with foreign players need work before being ratified. There was one clause that brought the signing of Tévez and Mascherano into dispute, which stated a third party could move the players on at any time. Premier League policy is to register the player and then iron out such wrinkles. Some may feel that this is too lenient, but it is safe to presume that 20 clubs wish it to be this way, rather than work with a governing body that prevents transfer activity rather than facilitates it.

This does not alter the fact that West Ham’s officials lied. But would Tévez and Mascherano still have played this season? Yes. Were they correctly registered as West Ham players? Yes. Is the final destination of the transfer fee an issue? No. And why are the rebel clubs not so vexed about Everton leaving out the first-team goalkeeper against Manchester United because of a gentleman’s agreement between the clubs that was waved through on the QT by the Premier League and would therefore appear equally baleful? The cynic might suggest because it does not affect them.

So we can continue down the path of recrimination or we can act like grown-ups and do something to ensure that this chaos does not happen again. And that begins with abolishing the loan system. Loans from third parties, loans from Europe, loans from Premiership or other English clubs. You buy a player, he is yours. No half-measures and no possibility of third-party interference. Could West Ham have afforded to pay full price for Tévez and Mascherano in August? No? Then there would have been no controversy. Would Manchester United have sold Howard to Everton last summer, knowing they had Edwin van der Sar and Ben Foster in reserve? Yes? Then he could have played against them on April 28.

Now do you see the root of the problem? You cannot let something go and keep it. You cannot run your shop with another man’s stock. There is a meeting of Premier League chairmen on May 31 and June 1, with the loan system on the agenda. If the clubs do the right thing, it should be gone by next season. Buy the players you can afford, sell the players you don’t want. And if you run short, that’s your fault. Next season the club who finish bottom of the Premiership will earn more from central distribution than the winners of the Bundesliga in Germany. There is no excuse for not paying your way any more.

The contrary argument is that the loan system benefits the small clubs, giving them access to players they could otherwise not afford. Hardly. Take the trio of goalkeepers at Manchester United. It would have been impossible for Sir Alex Ferguson to have kept Van der Sar, Foster and Howard happy, so one would have left. And that goalkeeper would have been signed by a smaller Premiership club, permanently, with no piece of elastic or gentleman’s agreement keeping him tied to Old Trafford. As it stands, the richest clubs win both ways. Foster accrues experience at Watford and returns to Old Trafford an England goalkeeper; but if he had been allowed to tire of his lack of opportunity with United, perhaps he would have moved and then another club would have ended up with the best young goalkeeper in the country, increasing competition.

Similarly, if clubs had needed to buy Tévez and Mascherano outright, the agents would have had to set a more realistic asking price than £30 million. The loan system creates an unhealthy paternalistic system; the smaller clubs creeping around their bigger rivals in the hope of receiving a crumb from the plate. Will Arsène Wenger find it in his heart to toss Birmingham City another trio of reserves (no wonder Karren Brady, the City managing director, is one of the system’s biggest champions)? Will Sir Alex Ferguson bestow the honour of a raw, teenage full back on a managerial protégé?

Get rid of it. Get rid of it all. You want a player? You buy him. Your money. Your contract. We can scream and squawk, but it shows what a mess football has become that something so simple is considered a radical idea.

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