Wednesday 20 May ~

The tabloids have got into a lather today about the impending threat to Paragraph E20. This is the section of the Premier League rules that states "in every match, each participating club should field a full-strength team". It is of direct relevance to this weekend's matches because Manchester United will disregard it for their fixture at Hull, three days before the Champions League final. The Mirror's Alan Nixon thinks that the "blooding up to four rookies" will "trigger a hell of a row" while Ian McGarry in the Sun warns that "such a deliberate act would compromise the integrity of the Premier League" and claims that officials from the three north-east clubs have met to discuss taking legal action against Man Utd.

But what exactly constitutes a weakened team? Fans of Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Newcastle might say that their respective managers have been guilty of this every time they've picked Djibril Cissé, Afonso Alves and the limping husk of Michael Owen. In fact, any player from the Man Utd "shadow team", likely to include Jonny Evans, Federico Macheda and Nani, would be a first-choice for the sides in the bottom half of the Premier League while a place on the bench next Wednesday will be at stake for some.

The press are hoping for a nice big controversy to tide over the lean summer months, the prospect of which has McGarry drooling: "If an under-strength United lose and Hull stay up, what happens next could make Tevezgate look like a bunfight a toddlers' birthday party." Instead, what will happen is that United might be fined while an official communiqué from the Premier League will waffle on about "the integrity of the competition". Of course if United were somehow obliged to field a full-strength team, Hull's chances of staying up would be improved immeasurably against opponents who would be simply taking care to avoid injury.

League rules may require players to give their best in every match. But the fact is that they won't. After clinching the 1982-83 title in early April, Liverpool took only two points from their last seven matches. One of the two teams who drew with them, Coventry, subsequently stayed up by one point. Two years later Coventry avoided relegation as a direct consequence of a 4-1 win over newly crowned champions Everton who fielded eight of their regular eleven. If that match had been played a month earlier it's likely that Coventry would have lost. Norwich, who went down instead, complained bitterly and Everton had to write a cheque to the League.

The relegated clubs in 2009 stand to lose far more from the drop than Norwich did in 1984-85, but then they have known that since August – at which point Hull's closing fixture with Man Utd would have looked like the hardest possible end to the season. Only a threat of points deductions for the following season would compel clubs with nothing to play for to give their all, but that would be taking integrity a little too far for "the world greatest football competition". Brian Gibbs

Comments (6)
Comment by pedro2002 2009-05-20 14:11:32

The press and affected managers make a fuss now but how is this different to the "weakened" sides put out by Champions League teams at other times in the season. Although the consequences are more obvious this week 3 points is 3 points whenever the game is played.

Comment by loppy 2009-05-20 14:48:35

I think all four teams involved in the delegation scrap should be happy, if anything Hull might have the short straw. Man Utds second XI are better than 80% of Premier League teams first XI and all of them will be playing for contention in Rome. Sunderland, Middlesborough and Newcastle play, respectively, a Chelsea team with only a very faint chance of second - if they can be bothered since Champs League group stage qualification is already assured, a West Ham side in mid table with nothing to play for, and Aston Villa, who may try to save their car crash of a second half of a season by attempting to finish 5th, but again have 6th and Europa league entry assured.

I said the same over Tevezgate where Sheff Utd relegated themselves by being too awful to even draw with Wigan at home, win your own matches (and in the situation all 4 of these matches are winable) and make what goes on elsewhere irrelevent.

Comment by hullabaloo 2009-05-20 20:51:57

does anyone else think that 'full-strength' is open to interpretation? the rules don't say, for example, a team must field the strongest team available for selection.

what does 'full-strength' mean? who's to say a given XI is not as 'full strength' as another XI? would fielding 9 or 10 players, as opposed to 11, be considered less than full strength?

anyway, as mentioned in the main piece, this is little more than padding, yet again, from the press. will it ever end? probably not.

Comment by PRB 2009-05-21 03:15:41

It's way to open for interpretation no doubt.

Full strength for me is fielding 11 players and not simply 10.

Comment by Max Payne 2009-05-22 06:33:54

"does anyone else think that 'full-strength' is open to interpretation?"

In these days of squad rotation, most definitely.

Comment by ykikamoocow 2009-05-22 15:31:35

Hull will be at a disadvantage here. Imagine you’re in line for a start in the CL final, say like Ronaldo or Vidic, then do you think you’re going to risk injury so close to the event when you’ve nothing to play for? I know I wouldn’t. Man U fielded a full strength side against West Ham two seasons back and a series of half-hearted tackles allowed someone called Tevez (whatever happened to him) to weave his way through the defence and score the goal that kept the Hammers up.

Whoever gets picked to start for Man U may have something to prove, if not to Ferguson then to anyone watching who might want to offer the chance of first team football that they are unlikely to get at Old Trafford. They are also an unknown quantity, which means that, from Hull’s perspective, preparing to nullify the threat that they may pose will also prove difficult.

The North-East Mafia might even benefit, given that they’ve had a few Man U rejects over the years. They should get their scouts to the KC as one (or even two) of these clubs may be able to be in a position to make enquiries after this season ends.

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