Judge for yourself

Neil Rose wonders if the high profile involvement of lawyers in the administration of the game may be causing more problems than it solves

Graham Kelly and the ‘Gazza Rap’. An unsavoury pairing if ever there was. The connection? Lawyers. As a breed, lawyers may have committed many sins on this earth over the centuries, but these two surely rank among the greatest.

Throughout the history of football, lawyers have played a large and influential role. It was a solicitor, Ebenezer Cobb Morley, who is credited – if credit is the right word – with having had the idea to form an association that eventually became the FA in 1863 and so must take indirect blame for our Graham. And it was a solicitor, Mel Stein, who wrote the lyrics to the ‘Gazza Rap’ (also known as ‘Geordie Boys’) which spluttered to No 31 in the charts in 1990 as a rightly forgotten follow-up to ‘Fog on the Tyne’.

But lawyers are now coming out of the shadows and assuming key and increasingly high-profile roles throughout football. Keith Wiseman, chairman of the FA, is the fifth solicitor to hold the post. Football League president Gordon McKeag is also a solicitor, while the new chief executive of the Premier League, Peter Leaver, is a barrister. From Manchester United to Fulham, Leeds to Scunthorpe, lawyers are on the boards. It is a solicitor who is behind the efforts to save Bournemouth, a barrister-turned-judge whose report on stadium safety has changed the face of British sport.

The earliest major football lawyer was Harold Hardman, who won an Olympic gold medal for the United Kingdom’s football team in 1908, played for Everton in two FA Cup finals, and then as chairman of Man Utd steered the club into European competition against Football League opposition in 1956, all while practising as a solicitor. His mantel has been taken up in the 1990s by Man Utd director and solicitor Maurice Watkins, now a regular club spokesman and the man who had the pleasure of defending Le Grand Eric in court after his display of innovative crowd control techniques.

For Watkins, the business of football is the simple reason more lawyers are involved. “Everything is more complicated,” he says. “Lawyers bring their training, experience and ability to solve problems.” Solicitor Howard Culley, a director of Sheffield Wednesday, says: “Football relies on some quite complex arrangements, such as sponsorship and media rights, and it is therefore useful to have someone on the board with experience of negotiating contracts.”

Lawyers are also part of the process that is making football more professional, argues Trevor Nicholls, solicitor and former director of Norwich. “One of the problems that has existed in professional football in the UK and which still exists to a certain extent is that it has been dealt with in an amateur way,” he explains. “The FA is a prime example of that.”

But as a result of lawyers’ involvement, amateur rules and decision-making are not only seen as unacceptable, but the courts are now telling the game that they are, most famously in the Bosman case. Rex Garton, a solicitor and vice chairman of Scunthorpe, hopes that the increasing number of football-related court cases will make the authorities sit up and think. Despite the money-grabbing image of lawyers, most involved in football do not believe the courts are suitable for the game. Garton says: “I would like to think sports could regulate themselves a little better. I am not a fan of people going to court and suing each other – it’s not in the spirit of sport.” But he, like most of the lawyers, do not see change happening quickly.

It’s a view expressed at the top. “Experience teaches that you very rarely get an entirely satisfactory result from the courts. There aren’t many examples I can think of where a court decision has been of major benefit to everyone,” says Keith Wiseman

Wiseman also notes a growing anti-law sentiment in the game. “There is a major move afoot in the international football bodies to try to restrict access to courts, sometimes inappropriately because there are cases where the right form of remedy, such as injunctions, can only be granted by a court. They think clubs and individuals should not be diving off to the High Court every time something goes wrong in the game but should respect the jurisdiction of the footballing bodies, with additional access to arbitration,” he says.

Not all agree, however. Sports lawyer Jonathan Ebsworth, who represents Vinnie Jones among others, says cases like Bosman show the courts can be a good thing, at least for the players. “Football people do not agree because clubs have ruled the roost for the last century and done very well on the back of restrictions [like no free agency].”

It is, however, a fallacy to say that the courts have only recently become involved in football. As long ago as 1878, the criminal law became involved when a footballer was killed after being kneed in the stomach by an opponent. Then there were civil cases such as George Eastham’s against Newcastle in the 1950s – which introduced the concept of restraint of trade to the transfer system – through to Paul Elliott’s against Dean Saunders and then Bosman. It all shows that the Rule of Law prevails, even over football.

Despite this, the concept of ‘sports law’ has only recently developed among lawyers. Recognition of the close relationship between sport and the law has grown from a three-part series in the Sunday Telegraph back in 1978 to a legal textbook over 500 pages long. The British Association for Sport and Law, chaired by Maurice Watkins, is soon to celebrate its fourth birthday. Sports law is, to quote Trevor Nicholls, “flavour of the month”.

As the stakes get higher, football is following the rest of society in becoming gradually more litigious. The Times recently raised the prospect of Southampton suing the FA if Le Tissier played for England against Mexico, got injured and could not play again while the Saints were relegated. Ten years ago, nobody would even have thought of such a thing.

And while all this may not be the lawyers’ fault, you can be sure they will benefit. Law firms cash in on football club success ran the headline in a recent legal magazine, as it drooled over all the legal work involved in share deals involving Rangers, Sheffield United and Nottm Forest, as well as the flotation plans of Sunderland, Southampton and West Ham.

Talking about the obligations managers of stock exchange listed clubs now face, Sunderland’s lawyer said: “If a club was about to sign a £15 million player, the manager can’t simply announce that to the press any more. He now has to obey rules on price sensitive information being disclosed first to the Stock Exchange. In effect, we have to give him a script and tell him what he can and cannot say. Of course, that’s good work for lawyers and will be a source of repeat income.”

Whether you like it or not the involvement of lawyers in football is now inevitable. As Rex Garton says, “I can’t say whether it is good or bad. Sport and the commercialism attached to it are changing and we have to live in the real world.”

From WSC 123 May 1997. What was happening this month