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Mar 20, 2009

Legal anarchy in the UK

My head spins at the prospect of summarising the repeated absurdities of the Carlos Tevez saga. For two years I have banged my head against the wall as football's ill-informed opinion makers have painted a hopelessly inaccurate picture of a heroic Sheffield United, valiantly struggling for 'justice' against the pantomime villains of West Ham United.

Following this week's news of further compensation claims by Neil Warnock, twenty Sheffield United players as well as the only-vaguely connected Fulham and Leeds United, I wonder whether the rest of the world will finally start to see the true nature of this affair.

For the benefit of those who by now instantly tune out when the name Carlos Tevez is mentioned - I sympathise, by the way - I'll briefly bring you up to speed.

Thanks to Lord Griffiths' assertion that the Argentine was responsible for the Blades' relegation, Neil Warnock and his former Sheffield United charges now believe that their inability to win enough games to avoid the drop should be rewarded with the very bonuses and earnings they would have received had they have done so. Got that?

It is the latest in long list of attempts by those associated with Sheffield United to profit out of a disaster of their own creation. The actions this week of Warnock, Bates et al prove beyond doubt that the driving force behind the whole sorry affair was the acquisition of money. The notion of the Blades fighting for justice looks naive to these eyes.

Whereas in recent years the media has lambasted the avarice of 'Cashley' Cole and even West Ham captain Lucas Neill for attempting to maximise their income, they have turned a blind eye to the Blades' pursuit of compensation cash.

This is largely due to the success of Sheffield United Chairman Kevin McCabe in manipulating the popular perception of the Tevez saga. His version of the Blades' noble fight has now been uttered so many times it has, indeed, become the accepted truth.

Sheffield United's version of events has rarely been challenged. After the initial Tevez enquiry, unwilling to enter into a protracted war of words with the likes of Warnock, McCabe and Wigan chairman Dave Whelan, West Ham kept silent. By opting out of the debate, West Ham allowed the ideological landscape of the saga to be coloured by the version of events coming out of Sheffield which, to this day, continues to be the accepted one.

Let me get one thing absolutely straight. Carlos Tevez was at all times registered and eligible to play for West Ham United. His registration, completed in August 2006 was repeatedly ratified and never once terminated by the Premier League.

Similarly, it is a myth that West Ham United concocted a scheme to secure the playing services of Tevez and Mascherano. The very idea is laughable to West Ham fans who have, for decades, suffered at their club's inability to organise the proverbial shindig at a brewery.

This is the club that missed out of a League Cup semi final by accidentally fielding a cup-tied player. It is the club who in a couple of seasons went from the Premier League, where they fielded the likes of Ferdinand, Lampard, Carrick, Cole, Defoe and others, to a struggling Championship side giving a game to Robbie Stockdale. Portraying West Ham as having undertaken a dirty tricks campaign of Watergate proportions is the worst piece of casting since Sean Bean starred in, well, take your pick.

Let us strip away the melodrama that surrounds the Tevez saga. The whole story rests upon the fact that West Ham fell foul of an obscure rule relating to third-party influence on team matters, of which there was none.

The alleged third-party clause concerning Tevez was one that allowed the striker to be moved to a different club - something that would have worked against West Ham.

Of course, certain club officials at West Ham acted improperly in attempting to cover up the offending contractual detail. The club were quite rightly punished with a world-record fine which, had the Hammers been relegated (as seemed likely at the time), would have helped push the club to the brink of extinction.

There are those that say rules are rules. I agree and point to the long forgotten fact that West Ham were punished. But to suggest that West Ham's rule-break was the determining factor of a 38-game Premier League campaign has always seemed a total nonsense.

Likewise, the misnomer that Tevez "single-handedly" saved West Ham from relegation.

For the record, Bobby Zamora scored 4 goals worth 12 points to West Ham in that relegation run in. His contribution is obvious but ignored. Likewise the individual performances of Robert Green, James Collins, Mark Noble, Nigel Reo-Coker, Lucas Neill and of course manager Alan Curbishley.

Ironically, Tevez and his compatriot Javier Mascherano were, if anything, responsible for West Ham being in the mire in the first place. Unwanted by Alan Pardew and resented by their team mates, the arrival of the Argentineans precipitated a disastrous erosion of form and morale that took UEFA Cup participants West Ham from 4th in the Premier League on a run of nine games without victory, and seven without a goal.

Even allowing for his hot streak at the season's end, over the course of 38 games West Ham were statistically better off without Tevez in the team.

West Ham without Tevez: P12 W4 D3 L5 Points per game: 1.25

West Ham with Tevez: P26 W8 D2 L16 Points per game: 1

However, when West Ham finally showed signs of form in that relegation battle, fellow strugglers Fulham, Wigan and Sheffield United collectively lost their nerve. Their ships were sinking. In an attempt to keep their heads above water they ganged up on the one side holding a life-preserve. Armed with West Ham's inconsequential rule-break they proceed to bash the Hammers silly with it. Understandable perhaps, but principled? Do me a favour.

When Sheffield United's relegation was confirmed, they chose to ignore the fact that they lost over half their matches as well as 8 of their last 11. Even then the Blades would still have saved themselves had they drawn at home with Wigan in their final game. They lost.

It was in their hands. Literally in Phil Jagielka's case. His bizarre handball in the box condemned the Blades to defeat. Jagielka is reported to be one of the twenty Sheffield United players attempting to sue West Ham. How it is that Jagielka who, as a direct result of the Blades' relegation, now enjoys the form of his life for Everton and England and earns a reported £40k a week, feels entitled to make that claim?

Jagielka and Sheffield United have since refused to accept their culpability in failing to determine their own Premier League destiny.

They say that teams and clubs are shaped by the personality of their manager. As anyone who follows football should know, former Blades boss Neil Warnock is a past-master in finding other people to blame for defeats suffered by his teams.

Warnock has presided over teams that take gamesmanship and the physical side of the game to the limits. Even this week, while expressing trademark ire towards Premier League chief Peter Scudamore, Warnock told the Daily Mail, " I'd love to get him in a room on my own for an hour, no holds barred." Charming.

That a boy who has cried wolf more often than Lon Chaney should be given credence, let alone portrayed, as he has been, as a white knight crusading on behalf of what he calls "justice" and "principles", I find as a deep irony.

Sheffield United appealed three times before they could find someone to agree with their version of events. Enter the Right Honourable Lord Griffiths, the 85-year-old mediation lawyer and expert in insurance. He headed an arbitration panel that ruled as fact that Carlos Tevez was the sole reason for Sheffield United's relegation.

Griffiths' report said:

"Ultimately, however, we have not found it necessary to come to a conclusion whether the cause of Sheffield United's relegation was (a) the number of points achieved by West Ham with Mr Tevez's assistance or (b) Sheffield United's poor performance."

You haven't thought it necessary to consider Sheffield United's role in their own relegation? So they could have intentionally knocked in 16 own goals every game, and it would still be West Ham's fault? Griffiths' verdict is illogical. Personally, I'm planning to sue Manchester United. After all, it is clearly their fault that West Ham haven't won the Premier League this year.

My feelings on the absurdity of the judgement are too lengthy to explore here. However, I must highlight the types of evidence considered by Lord Griffiths and his panel.

Evidence heard included an opinion offered by journalist Henry Winter concerning West Ham's final day win at Manchester United. Winter said that Carlos Tevez scored the goal that kept West Ham up. Actually, he didn't. Had Tevez not scored and West Ham drawn 0-0 they still would have stayed up. In his Daily Telegraph match report for that same game Winter actually made West Ham's Robert Green his man of the match.

Also considered were the on-screen summings-up of Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker - a man whose job it is to present glib banalities to a television audience.

Based on those pieces of conjecture, it was determined that no other team, player, or manager affected the relegation battle and West Ham were to pay compensation for fielding a player who was always legally entitled to play for them. Is that justice?

Even though Sheffield United could appeal 3 times, West Ham were forbade from appealing against Lord Griffiths. Is it little wonder that this week the Hammers decided to settle out of court with Sheffield United?

Griffiths' decision to divest Sheffield United of responsibility for their own relegation, has terrible ramifications for football. The Tevez saga looks likely to go down as a Bosman-like test case, green-lighting a litigious path for any side not collectively man enough to take defeat on the chin. From Stuart Atwell's, 'ghost goal' for Reading all the way back to Sir Geoff's infamous effort in the 1966 World Cup final (would the Blades have that triumph awarded to West Germany?) - the possibilities are surely endless. Where there's blame there's a claim.

This week West Ham called it 'legal anarchy.' The legal actions of Warnock, Bates, Fulham and the rest show that might be not as paranoia.

Sheffield United's opportunism (and popular support for it) has pushed football further away from sporting endeavour and firmly towards the pursuit of money, bereft the notion of nobility and dignity in defeat. Money is far more important.

To these eyes, it is Sheffield United and Lord Griffiths that have tarnished British football and not West Ham United. The Blades' legal action could prove far more damaging to the game than anything West Ham could dream of inflicting upon themselves.

Blades have been rewarded to the tune of £25 million. So, please, I beg you, no more talk of justice. My head hurts enough as it is.

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