Monday, 16 March 2009

Ripping Off The Plaster

West Ham United and Sheffield United today vowed to build a "positive ongoing relationship" as they attempted to draw a line under the fractious Carlos Tevez affair with a settlement that could be worth up to £20million to the Yorkshire club. The much rumoured out of court settlement was officially confirmed on the day that Lord Griffiths, whose criticism of West Ham's conduct swung the pendulum in Sheffield United's favour in its fight for compensation, was due to reconvene his independent tribunal. That will now be disbanded, states the Guardian, after the clubs negotiated their own deal, and the agreement concludes a legal tussle that has been ongoing since Sheffield United were relegated in 2007 after Tevez's goals contributed to keeping the Hammers up.

In a joint statement, Scott Duxbury, the West Ham chief executive officer, and Kevin McCabe, the Sheffield United chairman, said: "Both clubs are pleased to announce that a satisfactory settlement for compensation has been reached which brings the dispute between Sheffield United and West Ham United to an end. The tribunal will not be resuming."

Duxbury said: "For everyone concerned, the time was right to draw a line under this whole episode. We have had very positive discussions over a number of days with Sheffield United and acknowledge their willingness to resolve this in the best interests of both clubs. This now allows us to concentrate on our immediate ambitions, which include a strong finish to the Premier League season and possible European qualification, without any negative impact on our long-term project. We wish Sheffield United well in their bid to secure promotion from the Championship."

McCabe said: "We are happy and satisfied with the settlement with West Ham. Throughout the finalisation of the terms for the agreement, the discussions were friendly, co-operative and in the best of spirit with both the Blades and Hammers advisory teams. We are two clubs with a fantastic footballing history who now want to move on and focus on the business of playing football - hopefully for us against the Hammers in the Premier League next season. We look forward to a positive ongoing relationship with West Ham at all levels."

As expected, the heavyweights of the football writing fraternity have been lining up to add their thoughts on this latest development. In the Times, Patrick Barclay states that at last a line can be drawn under the Carlos Tévez affair...

There was never going to be justice because of the time that elapsed before Premier League officials realised they had been hoodwinked — it was too late to restore Sheffield United at the expense of West Ham United, whom the dubiously registered Argentinian had saved from relegation with his skill and spirit towards the end of the season before last — but at least the £25 million with which West Ham are to compensate the victims over five years should discourage all clubs from cheating.

Because the punishment is not as severe as Sheffield United’s £45 million claim suggested, it should assist Björgólfur Gudmundsson, West Ham’s Icelandic owner, to sell sooner rather than later, letting Gianfranco Zola get on with the job of providing suitably attractive football at Upton Park. Much more important, though, is an assurance from the league that Tévez will be the last player to perform in it while under third-party ownership (in other words, ownership by a company, agent or other individual rather than a club).

Tévez, now at Manchester United, has yet to be transferred from companies in which Kia Joorabchian has an interest. But he will be, we are promised, whether he stays at Old Trafford or moves to another Barclays Premier League club.

Thank goodness. Third-party ownership is, like betting, a road to corruption and, whatever may happen in other countries, England’s hands must be clean. The idea of syndicates owning players as they own racehorses is not only abominable in itself, but opens the way to match-fixing.

Although Joorabchian appears perfectly honourable, there is no saying who might have taken up his idea and formed a sort of stable of players whose loyalties would be to the company as much as the club to whom they were leased. To hypothesise: in a relegation decider such as West Ham’s visit to Old Trafford in 2007, a future Tévez might have been asked to go easy, or even develop a pre-match groin strain, to save clients at a Sheffield United from relegation.

So the Premier League should be commended on learning from experience. But the only people who come out of the affair with true credit are the directors of Sheffield United, who, by virtue of the doggedness with which they pursued their claim, have done English football a service. May they return to enjoy the hospitality of its elite boardrooms one day."
As in all things pertaining to this saga, the last word is afforded to Martin Samuel in today's Mail...
It does not matter whether the final settlement is £10million or £25m, at the moment the emphasis in the Carlos Tevez dispute shifted beyond the reinstatement of Sheffield United to the Premier League, it became a row over money between two groups of very rich men and since then the ethical issues have been increasingly lost. The lasting significance is in the precedents that have been set by misguided arbiters such as Lord Griffiths who, in finding against West Ham United in a compensation case, established that a game can be played hypothetically, individual contributions surmised and presented as fact and also that a club is not responsible for its league position. Many will feel justice has been done over Tevez but Sheffield United's victory may prove hollow if the rumours circulating about the direction the Iain Hume case is about to take are correct. Hume is the Barnsley striker and record signing left fighting for his life after a challenge by Chris Morgan, the Sheffield United defender. Barnsley were 17th when Hume got injured but this weekend fell into the bottom three. It might be advisable not to spend all of that compensation money at once.
Although Sheffield United originally claimed compensation of up to £45million in lost television revenues, sponsorship, merchandising and ticket sales, the Guardian reveals that West Ham have agreed to pay the Blades £15million over five years, with an extra bond of £5million payable in the event of the club being sold within a certain time period. With West Ham's owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson under increasing pressure to sell the club as a result of the collapse of his businesses in Iceland, it is almost certain that the clause will be invoked. The club will hope that the removal of the uncertainty surrounding the club's potential liability, together with a court ruling last week that protected Gudmundsson's holding company Hansa from bankruptcy for another three months, will give the sale process fresh impetus.

On that front, at least five potential buyers have signed non-disclosure agreements with Standard Bank of Standard Africa, which is leading the process. Yesterday's Observer disclosed a definite interest from an English-led group planning to spend around £100million on the club. It is reported the group intends to provide manager Gianfranco Zola with a "serious" ­transfer fund of £30million, while rolling over club debts now approaching £50million. However, with the cost of paying off ­Sheffield United set to take up a quarter of the total investment, sources close to the potential buyers are not confident they will complete the deal.

For their part West Ham officials ­recognise that the club's future will not be determined by its titular owner Gudmundsson, but they do not expect the club to change hands until the summer. Instead, the five banks holding West Ham's debt will decide who to sell to, with Standard Bank principal among them. Any proceeds from the sale will be put towards settling Gudmundsson's ­financial liabilities. Duxbury, who flew to Reykjavik over the weekend for talks with Gudmundsson about the club's future, will face further scrutiny as a result of an ongoing joint FA and Premier League review into the affair. But, muses the Guardian, there must now be a serious question marks over whether that review, currently in the process of re-interviewing the main players, will result in further action or even see the light of day.

Regardless, the next few weeks will go a long way towards determining West Ham United’s future and victory over West Bromwich Albion this evening would only add to the positive vibes coming from Upton Park. Gary Jacobs in the Times writes that the prospective sale of the club is gathering pace as fast as their ascent in the table and bid for a European place next season. Although one serious bidder has hit a stumbling block in his attempt to buy the club, a second takeover in less than three years is very much expected. Meanwhile, the dominance of the domestic trophies by the “big four” is likely to ensure that seventh place will earn a spot in the Uefa Cup, to be rebranded as the Europa League next season.

Looking ahead to the prospect of European qualification, Gianfranco Zola said: "If we do achieve that then we will need to strengthen the team because there will be very competitive teams in Europe but also there will be more games to play so we will need a strong team. The squad has to be strengthened." In the meantime, the Italian is understandably keen for the club’s future to be settled as soon as possible so that he can look towards the future with some certainty. "I have to focus on the work out on the pitch," he said. "This is why the club employed me and if I can make things work on the pitch I can help the club in the process. Hopefully the Carlos Tevez situation will be resolved soon and that will be a good because then we can sit down and plan for the future knowing exactly what we are dealing with. I am told the club will pay the money to Sheffield United over a period of years and it will not affect our spending. If we want to strengthen the team in the summer I will be able to do that."

When Zola joined West Ham, his immediate ambition was to improve upon last season’s 10th-place finish. "There was a time we were two points from the bottom but even then the team believed in what we were doing and stayed together," he said. "The aim this season was to finish ninth. So far we are doing better and now we have another opportunity. When you achieve your objective you have to reassess things." Which is why Zola is now aiming higher. Despite a recent crop of injuries and a two-match suspension for main striker Carlton Cole, the manager believes a UEFA Cup place beckons at the end of the season and from there, perhaps even the Champions League further down the line.

"I hope that one day I will be competing with those big teams in the Champions League and I hope it will be soon," he said. "We will see how well I do my job and how well the team does the job. That is one of the targets we have. It might be possible that seventh is enough for Europe this season and that would be great for this club. Not just for the club to be in Europe, but for the players to play internationally makes them better. I played many times as a player in European competition and I know how it can make a player better to play those kind of games. Besides, if I didn’t stick to what I believe then I would not do this job. I would rather do something else. I’m not manager here because I need the money. I’m here because I like it and because I want to follow my philosophy."

While new owners should bring fresh transfer funds for Zola, for now the Italian must make do with a patched-up and depleted squad. Valon Behrami and Jack Collison will miss all or most of the rest of the season because of injury and Cole is suspended for the first of two matches tonight. It could give Diego Tristán, signed in October until the end of the season, an opportunity to start for the first time. The former Spain forward, 33, has scored once in eight appearances this season, far removed from the potent player he was at Deportivo de La Coruña, although his fading fortunes are perhaps reflected by spells at Mallorca and Livorno.

"Zola keeps encouraging me and saying that I have plenty more goals left in me," Tristán said. "I may be 33, but there is a lot of football left in me. My head tells me to do everything I used to and, while the legs do not always follow, I feel strong and still have my speed. Cole has been doing very well, but this is a chance to show what I can do. I have recovered my desire to play. It was not so much that I had lost the desire, but my last few months with Deportivo were not good, nor my time with Real Mallorca, either."

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