1 February ~ The Premier League’s decision to fine Blackpool £25,000 for fielding a “weakened” side against Aston Villa met with a mixed reaction when it was announced last week. While the media scrum concentrated on the immediate future of manager Ian Holloway and his threat to resign, most of their readers – although sympathetic – simply shrugged their shoulders and wondered whether anybody really expected a different outcome. After all, Mick McCarthy and Wolves were given a suspended fine of the same amount for a similar misdemeanour last season.
However, one wonders what would have happened if Villa’s James Collins hadn’t scored a last-minute winner. After all, it would have been extremely difficult to fine a team that avoided defeat. But having set such a dangerous precedent the Premier League would have been hard-pressed to explain why they have a rule that appears so arbitrary.
They are not the only ones. The Football League and the FA have also fined clubs in the past for fielding weakened teams – but only when the team in question have lost. Back in 1999, Millwall managers Keith Stevens and Alan McLeary ran the same risk Holloway did when they took the decision to make 11 changes when their side were set to play a league fixture against Colchester United four days before they were due to face Wigan Athletic in the final of the Auto Windscreens Shield.
The pair handed full debuts to two youth team players and recalled several reserves for what proved to be their only starts of the season. If that wasn’t enough, they named three youngsters on the subs’ bench too – one of whom, Mark Hicks, would go on to make his only League appearance of his career.
Yet despite facing a full strength U’s side, the home team ran out 2-0 winners thanks to a brace from Kim Grant and the Football League, who had representatives in what proved to be one of the club’s lowest ever attendances at the New Den, decided it would not be in the “best interests of the game” to fine club. But by the letter of the law Stevens and McLeary had fielded an under-strength side and should have been punished accordingly. Which begs the question who actually decides what is and what isn’t a weak side?
The Wolves side that 3-0 lost to Manchester United back in 2009 featured five internationals. What’s more Stoke City, Bolton Wanderers, Hull City, West Ham and Wigan Athletic all lost by greater margins during the course of the same season (Wigan managed to do it twice). Even AC Milan came away from Old Trafford at the wrong end of a 4-0 thumping. Yet despite getting the better result, the Midlands club picked up a fine for their troubles, albeit suspended.
It’s hard not to agree with Alex Ferguson’s assessment: “You are allowed to have 25 players. They ask you to name them. They don't ask you to name your 11 and 14 substitutes.” So if ever there was a law that was a bit of an ass, it’s this one. Neil Andrews