Injuries can not only end careers, but can also affect a former player's life afterwards. Ashley Shaw looks at the legal action taken by Ian Knight after his livelihood was taken away by a bad tackle
When a player suffered a career ending injury in the Good Old Days the options left open to him were fairly well defined. Almost automatically he would be forced to seek alternative employment – some opened pubs, others ended up cleaning windows, some even went into management. No one in their right mind would even contemplate taking a fellow pro to court – it just wasn’t done and besides there was little money in it.
That has all changed in the 1990s. Paul Elliott, Ian Durrant and John Uzzell have all tried, with varying degrees of success, to sue their fellow professionals for tackles which they regarded as an intention to cause injury and which, they claimed, effectively ended their careers. Only one pro has so far been successful in winning a case of this kind, when last December Brian McCord won £250,000 compensation from Swansea’s John Cornforth. And it was this case that finally confirmed the view that actions on the pitch had gone totally beyond the realm of the FA and placed authority squarely in the lap of the courts.
But if the premature termination of an unspectacular lower league career is worth £250,000, how many millions would we be talking about if a player were proved to have abruptly halted the career of, say, Michael Owen or David Beckham? And where does it end? Is compensation limited to the termination of a career or could a club sue on behalf of a player if he were to miss a vital game costing the club another season in the Premiership or a run in Europe? Manchester United’s lawyers might even have contemplated suing Cantona after the Selhurst incident for lost revenue. They might even be hatching a plan to take Roy Keane to court for stupidity – in order to recoup lost earnings for an injury which might yet cost them the European Cup.
The most recent case of a player instigating proceedings against a fellow pro involved Ian Knight. In 1987 he was a promising England Under-21 centre-half who could justifiably claim to be as good as Tony Adams or Des Walker. That was before he was steamrollered by well-known lower league hardman Gary Bennett (then with Chester City). That ‘tackle’ left Knight with a lower leg broken in seven places and, despite frequent attempts at rehabilitation, a career that was similarly fractured.
Still, had the Sportsnight cameras not been present, a case could not have been brought. Tony Gubba, the commentator at the game, was asked to give evidence, while Howard Wilkinson (Wednesday manager at the time) demonstrated how the tackle should have been made on the floor of the High Court – Geoff Hurst was even due to be roped in to give the pro’s view. In the end that case, like so many of its kind, was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, something which may mean bigger cases being brought and even larger pay-outs being awarded to players who could reasonably expect to earn even bigger salaries.
PFA Chief Executive Gordon Taylor for one believes that the future might be blighted by hundreds of such cases. Speaking after the case, he said: “We would never encourage a professional to sue a fellow professional, but premiums for universal no-fault cover would be out of this world.” Estimates put the cost at £15m. “We can do no more than remind our members that they have a duty of care to one another and never to go in for wild, reckless play. In an ideal world, there would be a system, but this isn’t an ideal world. It’s a litigious one.”
The legal term ‘duty of care’ is the key to all these cases. Proving that a player intentionally injured a fellow professional, going beyond what can reasonably be expected on a football pitch, is where the case invariably stands or falls. But the truth is that while players earn massive salaries and football gets bigger by the second, the FA is becoming increasingly powerless to stop the rising number of footballers who will wait for their day in court.
One proposal, which will be up and running by December, is the formation of the Sports Dispute Resolution Panel (SDRP) to administer compensation and award damages. Devised by the Central Council of Physical Recreation, it plans to administer and resolve compensation claims from all different sports, not just football.
However, the body will run into problems because players have to voluntarily accept the judgement of an independent body, sacrificing their day in court. This would mean that the amount of money they can claim will be drastically reduced, even though they will get a decision much sooner than the seven years it took for Ian Knight’s case to reach Sheffield High Court.
And it’s thought that even if players had the ultimate authority of the SDRP written into their contracts, any case which involved a player of promise or an international would still have to be heard in front of a judge, such are the amounts of money involved. Then again, working out how much a player’s career is worth is a tricky business. Beckham and Owen might look to be worth millions, but so did David Rocastle and Norman Whiteside at similar stages of their careers.
As football legal expert Dan Tench explains, “A court would be reluctant to award millions because it is difficult to accurately project earnings. All income could theoretically be recovered including future sponsorship deals and players’ salaries, but a court would be reluctant to do that. There has to be a line drawn somewhere.”
The most likely outcome for football from all these days in court could be a fundamental change in the way the game is played. FIFA’s Sepp Blatter has already stated his intention to ban the slide tackle. He has made no bones about making football a virtual non-contact sport – and most of what Herr Blatter wants Herr Blatter gets. FIFA want to see more goals so that they can market the game along the same lines as basketball – by promoting the individual skills of certain high-profile performers.
The success of the NBA in taking Michael Jordan from minor sport obscurity and making him into the world’s best known and highest paid sports star has not been lost on Blatter and his boss João Havelange.
In turn FIFA will try to change the emphasis of football away from the team game and toward the marketing of a superstar. Therefore, in order to protect such a high profile marketing tool FIFA are already changing football’s rules to fit their aims. But the resulting changes with regard to the outlawing of the slide tackle and, almost inevitably, any tackling will have to be got by the associations and law-makers in individual countries.
One of the most convenient ways to convince the English and Scottish FAs of FIFA’s case will be to point to the growing number of court actions of the type that Elliott, Durrant and Knight have brought. The English and Scottish FAs’ inevitable conclusion will be that the game has gone beyond their jurisdiction and that the product would probably be more attractive were it to have a higher goal per game ratio and rather less physical danger attached to it anyway.
The result will be a fundamental change in the way that football is played. If a slide tackle is good enough to earn a defender an instant red card, there will be no room for the kind of kicking centre-half that has struck fear into skilful strikers for the past century of English football.
Similarly, the art of goalscoring will become devalued. One of the masochistic joys of football is the scarcity of goals. Every supporter can recall lost afternoons where the programme has become more interesting that the game. But if the average scoreline in British league football is 3-3 with three men sent off, then what could you call a great game? The 0-0 stalemate would become a thing of the past.
The only sure-fire winners will be the lawyers and accountants. If, as in other businesses, a prime asset of a floated football club is removed because of the irresponsible actions of an employee of a rival firm then the only recourse can be to the courts – the shareholders will insist on it.
So until FIFA play their political endgames the modern day player will need to know as much about how to find a good lawyer as finding the back of the net.
From WSC 130 December 1997. What was happening this month