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