QPR ruling could leave league in limbo
Four years ago Carlos Tevez scored the only goal of the game for West Ham United at Manchester United, a goal that kept the Hammers in the Premier League ultimately at the expense of Neil Warnock's Sheffield United.
Tevez, as we are all now well aware, arrived at West Ham essentially on secondment from Kia Joorabchian's MSI investment group, something West Ham decided not to tell the Premier League and which, in many people's eyes, should have resulted in a points deduction.
None more so than Warnock, who spent months accusing the Football Association of lacking bite and fudging the inquiry as the Blades went down on the last day. Today, Warnock is playing a very different tune as his Queens Park Rangers side wait anxiously to find out if they will rejoin English football's elite next season.
QPR sealed the Championship title with victory at Watford on Saturday with celebrations that were, understandably, a little more muted than Norwich's after they confirmed the second automatic slot at Portsmouth on Monday. The QPR fans are well aware that doubts hang over their place back in the Premier League.
QPR's automatic promotion fate may be decided at Wembley this week, and they will be desperate not to be forced to return to the stadium at the end of the month in a possible play-off final.
Newspaper speculation suggests they could lose as many as 15 points - just two weeks after whispers indicated a positive outcome for the Loftus Road club. Warnock may continue to stand firm in his belief that they will be exonerated, but it now appears unlikely they will receive the sort of leniency that saw West Ham escape with a £5.5 million fine.
It's remarkable that the FA has managed to get itself into this position for a second time. West Ham's punishment was handed down on April 28, with a points deduction ruled out by an independent panel as that would have meant certain relegation for the East London club amid fears of ongoing legal battles. As it was, the legal battles did go on but not so that the league calendar was affected. That may not be the case this time.
QPR's fate will be revealed even later, with the decision over the transfer of Alejandro Faurlin from Instituto in 2009 set for Friday, May 6 - 24 hours before the final day of the Championship season. It threatens to throw the end of season into turmoil should QPR be deducted enough points to send them out of the automatic places and into the play-offs.
There are links between the Faurlin and Tevez cases - including Warnock and Ian Mill QC, who represented Sheffield United over Tevez and is now fighting QPR's corner - but nothing to set any precedent. Back in 2007 there was no specific rule to bar clubs from third party ownership, with West Ham's charges based around them entering into an agreement with another party who could influence their use of the player.
That has now changed, but when QPR signed Faurlin in what they claimed was a £3.5 million deal in the summer of 2009 the rules had not been adopted by the Football League, which means they may argue there was no rule to break. The Football League fell into line with the Premier League at the start of this season, when QPR applied to buy the outright ownership of the midfielder. They were directed to the FA to complete the paperwork, which began an investigation into the transfer.
While West Ham pleaded guilty to all charges in a bid for leniency, QPR and chairman Gianni Paladini are fighting it all the way.
The whole case is going to centre on exactly what QPR told the authorities in 2009, both in terms of the player's contract and the intricate details of his transfer.
Although QPR claim to have paid £3.5 million to Instituto, the club actually received no money from Rangers. Faurlin had affectively come to the end of a leasing arrangement from his true owners, three Argentine agents, and as such they had no economic rights. It could be the alleged illegal payments made to an unlicensed agent which are the Rs' biggest downfall, with Luton Town docked 10 points for a similar offence recently.
There is pressure on the FA to right the wrongs of the Tevez case at the first opportunity; by docking QPR points it can set a precedent.
No one wants a disciplinary hearing such as this to take place in the final week of the season - and that goes for players, managers, chairmen, the FA and the Football League. So how has the FA managed to cook up a convoluted disciplinary process which lands them in precisely that position?
Although the charges relating to Faurlin - the QPR fans' and players' Player of the Year in 2009-10 - were only announced in March, the FA had been looking into the deal for six months. And still it will only manage to reach a conclusion on the eve of the season's finale.
It leaves not just the FA, but more notably the Football League, backed into a corner. If QPR are docked enough points to knock them out of the automatic promotion places they are certain to lodge an appeal; they have 10 days to do so.
The Championship play-offs are due to begin on May 12, which will be impossible should an appeal be necessary. The number of points deducted will have a direct bearing on which sides play each other in the play-offs, as well as who has home advantage. And if QPR fail in their appeal they are certain to look at every other avenue to test the ruling.
QPR have worked steadily to achieve a return to the top flight, backed by the millions of Flavio Briatore, Bernie Ecclestone and Lakshmi Mittal and, considering their wealth, it is likely they will investigate every option to ensure their investment obtains its place among the riches of the Premier League.
While it is thought the Football League has already drawn up a new play-off schedule in anticipation of a points deduction, QPR's next move will be crucial and could leave English football in limbo. The situation could have been easily avoidable had the FA not dithered and sorted out the case in a more timely manner. It has had almost eight months to do so.
If the Football League cannot get the play-off final staged on May 30 as planned, a two-week international break follows which could easily rob the finalists of key players. That would make June 12 the next available date for a final - six days before the new season's fixture list should be published.
It's a situation which has infuriated those managers in the play-offs who will be affected by the ruling. Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers and Dave Jones at Cardiff have both expressed their dismay at the timing of the hearing.
If QPR are docked seven points or more Cardiff will be back in the hunt for automatic promotion; nine points and Swansea remarkably come back into contention. If it is as much as 15 points then Cardiff and Swansea will battle it out to join newly-crowned champions Norwich in the Premier League.
But none of those teams want to meet the best side in the division in the play-offs. While it would be a huge task for QPR to recover and win the play-offs, they still have the better players and, arguably, a better manager than any of the four other clubs who could contest the play-offs.
It does not seem beyond the realms of possibility that the FA will hand down a face-saving six-point penalty and a considerable fine.