Monday, 18 June 2007

Arbitration Day

Sheffield United take their fight to regain Premier League status to an arbitration panel in London this morning. The relegated club maintain that West Ham should have been deducted points by an independent commission in April rather than being fined £5.5 million for breaching transfer regulations over the signings of Carlos Tévez and Javier Mascherano. According to The Telegraph, the heart of Sheffield United's case is that the penalty imposed on West Ham by the Premier League's independent commission was "irrational". The commission said that points would not be deducted because it was so late in the season that any such penalty would almost certainly lead to the club's relegation. The commission's chairman, Simon Bourne-Arton, publicly admitted that had they met in January, rather than April, they might have come to a different conclusion.

Although West Ham cannot be relegated from the Premiership as a direct result of today and tomorrow's arbitration proceedings, the panel could order a reprise of the initial hearing, but only if the first tribunal's panellists were regarded as remiss in their legal duty. The Premier League and Sheffield United have submitted witness statements to the new panel detailing their observations of the process and how it was conducted. These are open to cross-examination but there will be no league or club officials present at the hearing. The two-day arbitration means the door is still open to Sheffield United eventually being reinstated, but, according to The Guardian, it is only one step on a long road. Even if the new panel finds in their favour and orders a new hearing, a subsequent panel would have to be persuaded that a points penalty was appropriate. The Premier League is confident that the panel will agree that it acted strictly according to its regulations. Should Sheffield United persuade Sir Philip Otton, a former Court of Appeal judge, David Pannick, the leading QC, and Nicholas Randall, a sports and employment law specialist, otherwise, it still is the opinion of The Times that their best hope would be for compensation rather than reinstatement.

While both parties to today's process must agree that the verdict is "final and binding", there is a feeling at Bramall Lane as well as at Fulham and Wigan Athletic - two more of the so-called gang of four, Charlton Athletic being the other - that there is legitimate recourse to civil action. McCabe has suggested that his club would accept the panel's verdict, unless further points were raised which were thought to be worth pursuing. "I'm sure the arbitration panel will be the key people to make a decision and a full decision, so maybe by the close of play on Tuesday we will know, " he said. "I think we will know by then [whether] we are back in the Premiership or playing in the Championship next season. I think the panel is a strong panel that will make their decision properly." He did not, however, rule out the option of pursuing West Ham for £20million in damages. "If the arbitration fails, we go to court," said Fulham's chairman, Mohamed Al Fayed. "I just don't let people get away with unfair and unjust practices. Especially the Premier League." There have already been dark intimations from the West Ham camp that a protracted legal challenge would ensue if the decision is eventually reversed. As is pointed out in today's Telegraph, if West Ham are eventually deducted points it would have to be a very specific deduction - three or more - for Sheffield United to regain their status. Only one club, Leyton Orient, have ever lost three points or more for fielding ineligible players. And if West Ham become the second, the only certainty is there will be more work for the lawyers.

There is an article in The Sun that reiterates the point. Ian McGarry claims West Ham would plunge the Premier League into chaos if Sheffield United win their appeal in the Carlos Tevez affair. He states that the Hammers are facing an eventual points deduction that could see them relegated if the Blades succeed in the hearing which is held today and tomorrow. But the Upton Park club have already vowed to go to court if the arbitration committee rules against them — and that would have a knock-on effect for fixtures. The Premier League schedule for next season was published last week with West Ham included. If the Blades are officially re-instated with legal action pending, however, both clubs could start the season in the top flight. It is a nightmare scenario for League officials but having been fined £5.5million, West Ham feel they have been punished enough. A senior Hammers source informed the paper: "The Premier League made its decision and we were fined and we accepted our punishment. If that is overturned then we will go to court and fight our case there and no one should think otherwise." If that came about, it is highly unlikely the case would be heard and resolved before the opening weekend of fixtures on August 11.

Sheffield United chairman Kevin McCabe insists that the fight to be reinstated in the Premier League is more a matter of principle than profit. "I think we are very confident of winning,” the chairman said. "We have a compelling case that’s based upon an irrational decision given by the first independent commission that was set up. We would not have pursued going to arbitration unless we thought we would win. It’s not so much the money, it’s the fact one club that has not breached the rules has been relegated whilst another club that has breached the rules has retained its Premiership status." Despite the bullish words of McCabe, as well as the lobby of Parliament led by the actor Sean Bean, there was still
not a lot of optimism in this corner of Yorkshire yesterday. "I don't think anyone is anticipating a reversal of the decision," said Neil Warnock. "But I think it is right that Sheffield United carry on the fight to arbitration because most people at the time thought it was an injustice."

When the appeal was launched by the 'gang of four' - Wigan, Sheffield United, Fulham and Middlesbrough - Portsmouth manager, Harry Redknapp, predicted that United's support from the others would quickly fade away "because that is how football is". It is certainly true that Fulham and Wigan have won no friends with their active support of the Blades. At the recent AGM 17 of the Premier League's 20 member clubs tried to persuade them to drop the fight, with only Middlesbrough abstaining. Indeed, Sheffield United may be feeling rather lonely this morning. Neither Middlesbrough nor Fulham have been especially vociferous and Wigan chairman Dave Whelan's gut feeling that unless Sheffield United forced a quick decision they would lose, may be correct. It is more than a month since their relegation and the Premier League fixtures have already been issued without them.

Ironically, The Times believe it is the release of the fixtures than sustains what little hope that remains for the Blades. A 'quirk' of the fixture computer ensured both Sheffield United and West Ham have identical home-and-away commitments next season, suggesting that it would be easy for the clubs to switch divisions if the panel rules in Sheffield United’s favour. Conspiracy theorists are suggesting collusion between the Premier League and Football League, but the top flight’s ruling body said yesterday that the mirroring of fixtures was coincidence. It is just one of many controversies to surround this case. Yesterday, it emerged that the Yorkshire club had breached regulation U18 by insisting that Steve Kabba could not play against them after his sale to Watford. However, Kevin McCabe, Sheffield United’s plc chairman, argued that this had been down to a gentleman’s agreement rather than any contractual matter. "The contract transferring Steve Kabba was one that was open, was honest and was properly looked at by the Premier League and registered," McCabe said. "There is no grey area on that whatsoever." When asked if the Kabba deal had contravened Premier League rules, he replied: "Not at all. There are a few incidents, there must be dozens and dozens, these last few years where there may be gentleman's agreements between managers that in fairness the clubs probably know nothing about. I think there have been one or two instances this season of players between Premiership clubs."


Kevin said...

In reference to the Steve Kabba deal Kevin McCabe, Sheffield United’s plc chairman, argued that "this had been down to a gentleman’s agreement rather than any contractual matter" yeah right o Mr Mcabe no contracts signed and no third party influence there then. Give it a rest, the fact is at the end of the season Sheffield Utd did not have enough points and score enough goals, stop sulking and get on with it.

Taranga said...

According to McCabe, Sheffield Utd not allowing Watford to play Kabba was down to a gentleman's agreement. Clearly he knew that it was dodgy and therefore didn't want any written evidence - so how can that be open and honest? Were the Premier League made aware of this gentleman's agreement at the time?

Whether a written or verbal contract, surely it is still an agreement which allows Sheffield Utd to materially influence Watford's team selection of a league match. And McCabe has now admitted that such a verbal contact (or gentleman's agreement as he calls it) existed.

The key difference between the Tevez and the Kabba case seems to be that Watford were actually prevented by Sheffield Utd from playing Kabba, while nobody but West Ham decided whether Tevez played in any match last season.

Paul said...

I love it, a 'gentleman’s agreement' which actually does constitute third party influence but yet that's okay because it's not written down... hmmm of course that's all above board, open and honest - not tampering with players on (or should i say not being on) the pitch at all.

Burdett said...

How strange that Mr.Mc Cabe should defend his corner from hypocrisy by throwing the attention back on West Ham where he claims two Agentinians played virtually the whole season. Tevez obviously had a major part to play late on but Mascherano played more for Liverpool than West Ham & you don't here us bleating that Liverpool had a player who had been registered with 3 clubs in a calendar year, against FIFA rules I believe!

Leigh said...

As a devoted Blade i cannot see any joy from the arbitration, even if the decision goes our way the Premier League are not going to reverse the decision. The truth is they should have docked points at the time of the first hearing, that or a 50 million fine which is what West Ham would have lost out on if relegated.

Anonymous said...

All very interesting, but I think your phone is off the hook, you really need to get a new one! Really! Go and look!


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