Justice of a kind

The Mirror gets it right for once

I rarely write anything about football on this blog. Anything I feel or think I can get out of my system with 90 minutes of shouting and screaming during the match. But today is an exception. May 15th, yesterday, saw justice of sorts finally done when West Ham United were relegated losing the Premier League place they stole off my team, Sheffield United, four years ago.

I wrote about the Tevez Affair at some length back then but a brief recap might be in order. Just prior to the start of the 2006 – 2007 season West Ham United stunned the football world by signing Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, two global superstars who’s profile, to put it politely, was somewhat higher than that of the usual Upton Park recruit. At the time people said there must be something rather fishy about it all.

The fishy stench reached the offices of the Premier League, not generally a place where such pongs elicit much of a reaction. On September 1st 2006 Jane Purdon, Premier League company secretary, asked West Ham’s legal and commercial director Scott Duxbury “if the club had entered into any arrangements with any third parties. Ms Purdon says that his answer was an unequivocal ‘no’. Mr Duxbury says that he essentially ducked that question”. The following week Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore sought clarification on the deals from Paul Aldridge, West Ham’s chief executive officer. “He (Scudamore) wanted to know how the clubs had got these players so cheaply and whether or not there was any documentation of any sort in respect of these players which the FAPL had not seen. He received a categorical assurance that there was no such documentation…

Except there was. Premier League Rule U18 states that “No club shall enter into a contract which enables any other party to that contract to acquire the ability materially to influence its policies or the performance of its team”. However, under clause 2 of the contract signed between West Ham, Tevez and Mascherano, MSI Group Limited (MSI) and Just Sports Inc (their management) which brought the highly rated Argentines to Upton Park, “Tevez fully acknowledged that the companies had the sole, exclusive and unilateral right, upon serving written notice to the club during the transfer window, to terminate his contract with West Ham upon payment to the club of £2 million

At the first hearing into what would become known as the ‘Tevez Affair’ it emerged that when, prior to signing the contract, Duxbury asked Purdon whether “that arrangement (namely the third party clauses referred to above) could be in the contracts between the club and the players” she replied “that such an arrangement would not be acceptable, due to Rule 18”. Duxbury disagreed, saying “there was no reference at all to that Rule”.

If Duxbury is telling the truth and Rule U18 wasn’t discussed with Purdon then it seems odd that he should then go and discuss the matter with Aldridge but that is exactly what he went and did. Aldridge “told him he would place the fact of the third party ownership into what he called side agreements, which he said he would not disclose to the FAPL (Premier League)”. The world cup winning players were signed in deals which stunk like Billingsgate on an August afternoon.

The affair came to light in January 2007 when Mascherano moved to Liverpool. The Premier League ordered a hearing and West Ham denied all charges. “Even having submitted (the full contracts) West Ham United continued to argue that these agreements did not influence its policies or performance of the team and therefore were not in breach of Rule U18” the Premier League subsequently said. Crucially, West Ham’s denial delayed the hearing until April 27th 2007, the very eve of the end of the season.

On April 26th 2007 West Ham’s owners, a bunch of soon to be bankrupt Icelanders led by the extra terrestrial Eggert Magnusson, decided that they were guilty after all. Thus it was that when the hearing convened on the 27th it found West Ham United guilty of “an obvious and deliberate breach of the Rules”, “a grave breach of trust as to the FAPL and its constituent members” and that “the club has been responsible for dishonesty and deceit”.

What we believe to have occurred here”, the Premier League’s damming verdict went on, “is that Messrs Brown, Aldridge and Duxbury were anxious to complete the registration of these players by the deadline of 31st August. They knew that the only means by which they could acquire them would be by entering into the third party contracts. Equally, they were aware that the FAPL, at the very least, may not – and in all probability would not – have approved of such contracts. They determined to keep their existence from the FAPL” Desperate to secure these players, the verdict went on, “an officer of the club, its chief executive officer (Duxbury), told Mr Scudamore a direct lie, namely there was no documentation of whatever kind in respect of these players which the FAPL had not seen

To general amazement however, West Ham not docked points. Instead they were fined £5.5 million, a world record, but only about 10% of what they could expect to receive if they stayed in the Premier League.

And it was by no means certain that West Ham would stay up. Even with their star Argentines West Ham were having a dismal season and, at the time of the hearing, were second from bottom of the table on 32 points, 3 points behind fourth bottom Sheffield United.

Sheffield United were enjoying their first season back in the top flight since 1994. The Blades had been most people’s favourites to go straight back down with a team featuring a mix of the young (Phil Jagielka, Stephen Quinn), the old (Keith Gillespie, Chris Lucketti), the journeymen (Jon Stead, Adi Akinbiyi) and the exotic (Luton Shelton, Christian Nade). Yet somehow Manager Neil Warnock, against all the odds, had fashioned this cheaply assembled rag bag into a team with a fighting chance of staying up, a team which had earned creditable draws against Liverpool and Aston Villa, wins against Arsenal and Tottenham and dished out a 3-0 spanking to West Ham.

Yet, with so much at stake, the Tevez Affair was about to take a bizarre, dramatic and grubby twist.

The day after the hearing West Ham were due to face fellow relegation strugglers Wigan Athletic. Tevez had recently hit form scoring four goals in the previous seven games and West Ham were desperate for him to play against Wigan and in the final two games of the season. Curiously, given that they had found the deal which brought him to east London riddled with “dishonesty and deceit”, the Premier League were willing to let him.

All West Ham had to do was tear up the offending clauses in the contract for which they were given a deadline of noon on April 28th, three hours before kick off at Wigan. As the Premier League was subsequently forced to reveal

Prior to the deadline set of noon 28 April, the Premier League Board received the following documents:

i) A letter from West Ham United sent to Carlos Tevez, MSI and JSI terminating the private agreement between them dated 30 August 2006 and notifying those parties that the private agreement shall cease to have any further force or effect.
ii) A letter from the legal representatives of MSI and JSI acknowledging receipt (my italics) of the above letter
iii) A letter confirming that the above letter had been served on Carlos Tevez personally

On the basis of this the Premier League concluded that West Ham had “acted in a manner that is consistent with them having terminated the offensive third-party agreement”. That afternoon Carlos Tevez set up two of West Ham’s goals in a 3-0 victory. The next week he scored twice as West Ham won 3-1 against Bolton. And on the final day of the season he scored the only goal of the game to give West Ham a win away at Old Trafford. Honest Sheffield United, who had been struggling since top scorer Rob Hulse broke his leg at Stamford Bridge on St Patrick’s Day, were relegated.

The aroma of fish was hanging heavily over Upton Park once more. It subsequently emerged that in response to West Ham’s termination of the alleged clauses Joorabchian had simply replied that “all my clients rights remain fully and expressly reserved”. He said West Ham had “unilaterally terminated the agreement and I have left it in the hands of my lawyer”. Furthermore, when West Ham tried to hand a letter to Carlos Tevez informing him of the termination of the agreement he “had declined to countersign the termination letter, and was not even prepared to do so in order to acknowledge that he had received it”.

It might seem strange that the Premier League was willing to accept the word of West Ham United, a club it had just found guilty of “dishonesty and deceit”, that these contract clauses had, indeed, been terminated. Indeed, it began to look stranger by the day as everyone involved, West Ham, Tevez, and his agent Kia Joorabchian, carried on acting as if they still existed.

It’s worth remembering again the wording of Rule U18, one of the two rules West Ham were found guilty of breaking; “No club shall enter into a contract which enables any other party to that contract to acquire the ability materially to influence its policies or the performance of its team”

The issue had always been that, under the original contract, Joorabchian had retained the right to withdraw Tevez from Upton Park and send him somewhere else. As the hearing on April 27th stated “The third party may be able to determine when and to whom the player may be transferred, which may not coincide with the wishes and interests of the club for whom the player is playing…”. Dan Johnson, a spokesman for the Premier League, said “The only problem we had with the deal was the existence of a clause in the agreement which would allow Joorabchian to sell the players to another club at any time”. Carlos Tevez had been allowed to play on in the final three games of the season on the explicit understanding that this could not happen.

The reek of mouldy sea food wafted up the M1 to Bramall Lane. As Tevez continued to be hawked around Europe’s top clubs, including Chelsea and Real Madrid despite protestations from Upton Park that he would remain a Hammer, more and more people began to wonder if the offending clauses, the termination of which had enabled Tevez to play on and score the goals that kept West Ham up, had actually been terminated at all. Sheffield United chairman Kevin McCabe called for a tribunal to look into the matter. Even though the Premier League admitted he had every right to do so, they still took the extraordinary step of pronouncing that the Blades were “wasting their time and money”.

The remit of the tribunal, announced on May 23rd 2007 and commencing on June 18th 2007, was “Sheffield United are asking the arbitral panel to determine two matters. The first is whether the decision by the independent disciplinary commission on April 27th to fine West Ham, rather than dock points, was legally flawed such as to require the issue to be determined afresh by a disciplinary commission at some point in the future. The second is whether the Premier League acted unlawfully by not de-registering Tevez. Fulham are seeking similar relief”.

It should be noted here that contrary to what many West Ham fans came to believe, this was not Sheffield United having a go at overturning the findings of the April hearing; that had been convened by the Premier League, not Sheffield United, and had already branded West Ham as guilty of “dishonesty and deceit”. The tribunal was looking into subsequent events at Upton Park and the Premier League.

The tribunal reported on July 3rd. It announced “SUFC have now been relegated. They have done nothing wrong to merit this outcome. WHU on the other hand were found by the Disciplinary Commission to have been deliberately deceitful and yet they remain in the FAPL”. It went on to say “We would go as far as to say that this tribunal would in all probability have reached a different conclusion and deducted points from WHU”. Nevertheless, it felt it could not overturn the verdict of the April hearing.

As for the question of whether the offending contract clauses had, in fact, been cancelled, the tribunal found that “It is obvious that the possibility of the third parties’ ability materially to influence was not entirely excluded. Indeed it may still exist” and that “the arrangement may not have been legally watertight”. Yet, once again, it found against Sheffield United.

There, it seemed, the matter lay. Sheffield United were back in the Championship, West Ham were in the Premiership having been fined 10% of their winnings, and Carlos Tevez was a West Ham player and would remain one as long as West Ham wanted because the clauses granting third party influence had been cancelled.

But just two days after the tribunal delivered its verdict it was reported that Carlos Tevez would be moving to Manchester United for £20 million. Eggert Magnusson was adamant, claiming that “Carlos Tevez is a registered West Ham player, contracted to the club until June 2010. There is no agreement with West Ham for Carlos Tevez to leave the club and we expect him to return in time for next season’s preparations”. Kia Joorabchian was having none of it. He issued a High Court writ against West Ham stating “The Companies seek the court’s intervention to compel West Ham to release the registration of Carlos Tevez in accordance with contracts entered into between the parties. We are asking the court to intervene so that Tevez can be registered to play with Manchester United as soon as possible”.

Mysteriously, when faced with this threat West Ham folded. Despite the Premier League stating that “The only problem we had with the deal was the existence of a clause in the agreement which would allow Joorabchian to sell the players to another club at any time” and that, on April 28th, “West Ham chose to terminate the third-party agreement with Joorabchian. They presented the Premier League with written evidence of the new arrangement”, West Ham United suddenly decided to release Carlos Tevez from his contract in return for a derisory payment of £2 million from MSI.

Contrary to the assurances of West Ham United and the Premier League, it seemed as though third party influence was alive and well. West Ham had been caught lying again.

This was the justification for Sheffield United to launch a bid for financial compensation. In this new inquiry into whether Carlos Tevez was, indeed, eligible to play in the final games when he scored the goals that kept West Ham up, Graham Shear, Joorabchian’s lawyer, was asked if, while loudly proclaiming that the third party clauses were cancelled, Duxbury had, privately, been telling Joorabchian’s people that they weren’t. Shear replied “Broadly, yes. West Ham were desperate to ensure Tevez played for the club in the critical last few games of the season. Whilst having no choice but to adhere to the Premier League’s requirements, West Ham wanted to do everything possible to attempt to placate the rights owners” For his part Duxbury was shameless; “I saw it as my job to make sure Tevez played and helped the club in the fight against relegation, even though it was clear he was very unhappy with the agreement being terminated. I made it clear to Tevez’s advisors that if Carlos stayed and helped us to the end of the season then, yes, I would not stand in his way if he wanted to leave for another club

Lord Griffith concluded that “If the Premier League had known what Mr Duxbury was saying to Mr Joorabchian’s solicitor following the commission decision, we are confident the Premier League would have suspended Mr Tevez’s registration as a West Ham player”. In short, West Ham had lied to get Tevez in the first place and lied again to keep him for the final games when he kept them up. It was too late to restore Sheffield United to their place in the Premier League but they were rewarded with compensation of a staggering £25 million.

My club has wasted that money and much more besides. We have made bad decision after bad decision since relegation on that rainy afternoon against Wigan in 2007. All we were left with at the end of the day was vindication, knowing we were right and had been seen to be right. But that had been little comfort when you got home from a draw away at Colchester, turned on the TV, and saw West Ham playing at Arsenal or Liverpool. We may not have got our spot back, but the squatters have been evicted.

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