Five years will have passed next month since the original allegations about the financial rule-breaking of Manchester City were published by the German magazine Der Spiegel, and then – as now – it remains the fundamental issue in English football.
If the Premier League can be characterised as an infinite dispute over the game’s wealth, its distribution and its limits – occasionally interrupted by football matches – then the destiny of City’s charges are key plot-twists. One day English football’s Jarndyce v Jarndyce will be over, although no-one knows if this will be the end to the legal action – or just the start.
The investigation, and its presumed progress or otherwise, ebb and flow within the game’s consciousness, briefly propelled to the surface and then subsumed again. It was the same this week when Telegraph Sport revealed the Premier League were seeking a 12-point deduction from the independent commission hearing Everton’s case for breaching profit and sustainability rules.
A brief glimpse into the process surrounding Everton only prompted the inevitable questions about the progress of City’s charges.
For the 18 clubs not being investigated by the Premier League for alleged breaching financial control regulations – or indeed in City’s case, those relating to provision of financial information, disclosure, managerial wages, or Uefa licensing requirements – this was news. The clubs are offered no updates on either case. Nor were any more forthcoming on the heels of Telegraph Sport’s report.
What might constitute an appropriate sanction? And then, after that, what comes next? In other words, what clubs, in the Premier League and the Championship, might claim was the effect on them over the seasons in which the breaches are alleged to have taken place.
Over the last 10 seasons, a 12-point deduction would only definitively have relegated Everton three times, in the two most recent seasons and 2015-16 – although 2014-2015 would have come down to goal difference. There is every chance that this season, an Everton in desperate decline may achieve the feat themselves without the added burden. As with City, any potential sanction has to be seen to fit the scale of whatever wrongdoing may or may not be proved. Even that is no guarantee over what comes next.
In the event of the independent commission finding that in one or both of City and Everton’s cases there was wrongdoing, the aggrieved will form the second wave. The challenge for the commission in both will be to try to protect the league from a riptide of legal claims from third parties.
There is no question that Everton’s is the simpler of the two, fought over alleged breaches for three seasons. It is already being heard by the commission and a verdict feels relatively imminent. Of course, both are separate and the Premier League will not confirm even who chairs the commission. The KC, Murray Rosen, head of the Premier League’s independent judicial panel, may chair one – or neither. None are yet prepared to say. Both clubs deny wrongdoing. Everton say they strongly contest the allegations. City point to a ‘comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence’ to support their own claims.
The commission has unlimited powers in terms of sanction and could expel a club. But if its sanction has no material effect on a club that has been found to break the rules, then what indeed will have been the point?
The regulations of a sporting body tend only to gain muscle as they are tested – and the Premier League’s have never been tested to this extent. At Uefa, the introduction of financial fair play saw the introduction of affiliated independent chambers to investigate and then rule. In City’s case the latter reached a guilty verdict in 2020 on similar charges to those the Premier League is pursuing. Uefa’s verdict was, to a large extent, then reversed at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. It fell to Uefa’s in-house legal team to defend that appeal, rather than the investigatory chamber who had brought it.
The Premier League has no separate legal department to handle the prosecution of vast and involved cases such as City’s and, to a lesser extent, Everton. It instructs external legal counsel but it is the same team that oversees all its business, from commercial deals to the bidding for its broadcast rights. These too are no small considerations.
What kind of Premier League will emerge from these two landmark cases already seems clear. A necessarily more combative organisation with the proposed new real-time financial controls which will suck in more resources. It is the clubs that have made it that way. Both those, like City and Everton, who have been charged and also the rest who lobby privately for a quicker process.
It will also have to consider what might come next. For the last two seasons there have been suggestions of a rebellion from those clubs who might consider themselves aggrieved parties. Leeds United and Burnley threatened an alliance of sorts at the end of the 2021-22 season, which fizzled out. Both have since been relegated.
In the end, all clubs – rich and not quite so wealthy – benefit from the robustness of the league. A robustness in terms of competition, and the jeopardy of every matchday. The rise and the fall for the fortunes of its competitors. A global audience undoubtedly loves the biggest names in the league but it also thrills to their humblings as well as their successes.
Robustness also means following the rules and, at times, accepting that what is good for the league’s health is necessarily the ideal outcome for one’s own club. It is a compromise. The league has to be able to sanction without effectively being punished for it.
There is a belief that the Premier League can withstand anything – and remain such a compelling offering. Whether that is government regulation, greater revenue sharing or the fundamental changes proposed in Project Big Picture three years ago. That is still quite an assumption. But first of all it needs to be able to sanction with confidence that it does not invite more chaos.