Error of judgment

West Ham are set to avoid relegation after escaping a points deduction from the Premier League. Some Middlesbrough fans are almost as unhappy about this as those of Sheffield United. Take Harry Pearson

All that I know about legal matters dates back to the days when I was doing a diploma in hotel management. From what I recall precedent was all-important. “But it was established in Rex versus Pettigrew, 1936, that ‘a repast of sandwich and pickles did not constitute a substantial meal and therefore the sale of beer in this instance was illegal’,” our lecturer would drone as he lead us through the bizarre intricacies of the ­British licensing laws. Strangely, however, in all the waffle that the case of West Ham, the Premier League and Carlos Tévez has generated in the national media, precedent hardly seems to have warranted a mention.

To supporters of the last Premiership team to have been docked points this is a cause of righteous vexation. Shortly before Christmas, 1997, Middlesbrough failed to fulfil a fixture at Ewood Park, crying off with 24 hours’ notice citing an outbreak of flu that, coupled with a spate of injuries, had deprived manager Bryan Robson of 16 first-team players. A month later, with Boro lying bottom of the table, the Premier League fined the club £50,000 and docked them three points.

Middlesbrough were relegated by a margin of two points on the final day of the season. A lot of Boro fans blamed the Premier League for this. At the time I was not among them. I blamed the team’s habit of getting beaten at home by Leicester, Southampton, Spurs and Sunderland. Now, in the wake of the West Ham debacle, I am starting to reconsider. I now wonder what would have happened if Boro had been treated in the same manner as the Hammers. We would have stayed up, Juninho would have stayed put and (let us dream) Roberto Di Matteo’s shot at Wembley would have bobbled off his shin and ballooned over the crossbar.

Ultimately, what bothers me most about the Premier League panel’s verdict on West Ham is not so much the decision itself, but the reasoning behind it. The League’s judgment is that ­committing an “honest error” (as they themselves described Middlesbrough’s offence) is worthy of a heftier punishment than a deliberate attempt at deception (which the three-man investigative team found in the case of Paul Aldridge, though West Ham’s former chief executive disputes this). Even leaving this aside, there was enough to make even the most saintly Boro fan ­simmer with resentment.

Couched in the sort of football legalese that called to mind David Mellor in his pomp, Simon Bourne-Arton and his team’s statement contained the following observations: “The fans and the players have been fighting against relegation, against the ever present threat… the efforts and loyalty would be to no avail were we now to dock points.” Furthermore, “a points deduction, say in January, whilst unwelcome, would have been somewhat easier to bear than a points deduction today”. In other words the Hammers were not docked points because it would have been unfair on the fans and the players.

Middlesbrough’s fans and players elicited no such sympathy. Perhaps Boro’s supporters were somehow culpable for the failure of the team to cross the Pennines. Perhaps in the Premier League’s view it is the duty of season-ticket holders to pick up the sickbeds of the squad and bodily carry them to the ground, then dump the occupiers on the pitch with a cry of “Now get on with it, you malingering young monkeys”. If so, you might expect that keeping a close tab on registration and ownership would also fall within the supporters’ remit.

The question of the timing of the ­judgment is another sore point. Middlesbrough failed to turn up at Blackburn on December 20. West Ham signed Tévez and Javier Mascherano on August 31. Unfortunately, this admittedly less glaringly obvious offence was not discovered for four months. In Middlesbrough’s case the Premier League’s verdict took just a month to deliver. In the case of West Ham, however, it took over eight weeks. Had the three-man panel arrived at its judgment on the Tévez affair as swiftly as it did in Boro’s case, then it would have delivered its verdict on or around March 20. A points deduction – bizarrely judged to be “fairer” earlier in the season than later on, whatever the material effect – would then, presumably, have resulted. Instead another five weeks went by at which point it was deemed no longer decent or just to deduct points. Lucky old West Ham saved from the Championship by the long-winded machinations of Mr Bourne-Arton. If M’learned friend ever sits in judgment on your club, you’d be well advised to keep distracting him.

From WSC 245 July 2007