03 April, 2008

Ineligible? The FA couldn't Give a Monkey's

Last season a scandal involving West Ham United and two supposedly ineligible players saw Sheffield United, most vocally but among others, fuming at the perceived injustice of it all. You can see their point too, as arguably without the world-class injections of Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez, the Hammers would almost certainly have faced the drop themselves instead of Neil Warnock’s battling Blades. In April last year, the necessary bodies within the FA concluded that, because the two Argentine stars were contracted only with their representative Kia Joorabchian and not the club themselves, rules had been breached. West Ham were fined a record £5.5million for the transgression, and also warned that Tevez would be ineligible to play unless they cancelled the third party agreement that existed in his original contract, but unfortunately for Sheffield United, they still suffered relegation. Those are the nuts and bolts of it then, but to be honest, everything’s still pretty confusing to work out even a year after the event. What is clear however is the feeling throughout the country that the FA bottled the decision to hand-out a proper penalty for this serious breaking of the Premier League rules, instead preferring to take the soft option of merely a fine.

The point here is that interestingly this past weekend in the Championship, a slightly similar incident occurred in the game between struggling Sheffield Wednesday and then-league-leaders Stoke City. Now the Football League’s rules dictate that in the 16-man squad announced by each team, only five loan players can be included, however, in claiming a late draw against Stoke, Wednesday actually had six loanees, with one of these players (Franck Songo'o, on loan from Portsmouth) actually bagging the vital goal. Within the lower leagues, loan signings are becoming a significantly important part of the process, with Championship sides pushing for promotion to the top flight especially reliant on these extra sprinkles of quality to get over the final hurdle.

In a statement made by Stoke City today, their case in any forthcoming inquiry will include the fact they weakened their own team on Saturday by omitting on-loan duo Paul Gallagher and Gabriel Zakuani to comply with League rules. Wednesday will clearly protest that not all six of their loanees were actually on the pitch on Saturday (hired hands Adam Bolder, from QPR, and Bartosz Slusarki, of West Bromwich Albion remained on the bench throughout) but the sheer fact that one of these six men had a direct impact on the game’s outcome could set a serious precedent. Even though the same scenario has happened once in the past, with Leeds being fined £2,000 after including six loanees in a Championship fixture at Burnley in November 2006, Leeds lost the game in question, so were obviously not seen to have gained any advantage from it.

Without doubt Wednesday will be punished for this, whether it be a fine or even a deduction of the point they earned, but as with Sheffield United last year, it is Stoke who will most likely be left out in the cold. However, with things so tight at the top of the Championship, would the likes of Bristol City, West Brom, Watford and Hull accept it if Stoke were retrospectively awarded the extra two points that they should perhaps be due? It’s an interesting decision certainly, with plenty of speculation all over message boards and 5Live call-ins as to what the ‘fair’ ruling will be. You can’t help but feel that to award Stoke points would set too dangerous a precedent, but if you deduct one from Wednesday then you’re admitting that they didn’t deserve the draw, and surely a Stoke win should stand? Conversely though, punish Wednesday with only a relatively soft fine and it seems to imply that should teams chose to field 11 loan players, they’ll only continue to be punished by a monetary hit. If this is what it takes in order to win games convincingly, then I’m sure plenty of sides will be happy to cough up every match, with the 60million pay-off in the Premier League as the end-goal.

If points weren’t at stake, in a Cup match for example, then undoubtedly Stoke would be awarded the win, but with so much to play for, it’s simply too big a call with one or two points for either side maybe enough to get them promoted or relegated. One compromise would be for Stoke to keep their one point from Saturday whatever happens, and for the two clubs to then replay the fixture for only the remaining two points. Again though, what if players from either side were injured or sent off? As you can see, a veritable quagmire exists for the Football League and the FA to navigate through.

While it’s difficult to see a ruling that awards Stoke two points, the core issue is that an ineligible player directly affected the result of a game. This is a pretty sour pill to swallow for any team, but especially worsened with promotion to the Premier League likely to come down to a single point here or there on April 26th