Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Forget Tévez - loan system leaves game open to abuse


Martin Samuel

The first thing any follower of West Ham United should admit is that it was not fair. There will be no glee and no gloating here, so supporters of Wigan Athletic, Sheffield United and Fulham can read on without risk of hypertension.

The club’s representatives lied and no mitigation outweighs that. Carlos Tévez, the West Ham player of the year, brought the club points that should have been taken away. Paul Jewell, the Wigan manager, Dave Whelan, the chairman, and Neil Warnock, the Sheffield United manager, insist that, in the same circumstances, their clubs would have been docked points in double figures, but that is unproven and unlikely.

At this stage in the season, it would appear that the FA Premier League would rather incinerate its rulebook than have relegation issues decided in the High Court, as would surely have happened. The shrewdest move by Eggert Magnússon, the West Ham chairman, was not withdrawing the threat of legal appeal if a points deduction was imposed, even when admitting guilt. On moral grounds, this should not have placed the Premier League in a difficult position, but in reality it did.

While West Ham’s case was heard by an independent commission, it is unthinkable that those involved in the decision were not made aware of the organisational meltdown that would result from one particular form of punishment.

No one should use this to justify the decision. West Ham’s penalty should have been the same whether applied in October or April, sitting in tenth place or eighteenth. It is also worthless to assess Tévez’s impact in terms of goals or points gained; he galvanised West Ham’s season, pure and simple. If the Premier League had demanded retribution equivalent to Tévez’s impact at Upton Park, points would not suffice; the only conclusion would have been summary relegation.

So mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, confiteor Deo omnipotenti. But.

On Saturday, when Manchester United played at Goodison Park in a match that is looked upon as definitive in the running of the title race, Tim Howard, the Everton goalkeeper, could not play because of an agreement between the clubs. And if that is not a third party influencing the policies and performance of a team, what is?

That was the root of West Ham’s rule infringement, remember. The systematic lying was the worst of it, but the reason that former directors were so keen to cover up the truth of the Tévez and Javier Mascherano transfers was to avoid a breach of Premier League rule U18, which governs third parties having a material influence on club policies and performance.

Mascherano’s career was controlled by two outside companies, Global Soccer Agencies and Mystere Services. Tévez was owned by Media Sports International and Just Sports. But when the Everton goalkeeper is removed from a match against Manchester United by Manchester United, how is that so different?

Howard was on loan from United to Everton this season, but on February 14 his move became permanent. At that moment, all aspects of his loan arrangement were discontinued, bar one. As a condition of the deal, United insisted that Howard could not play against them when the teams met on April 28. Everton had no choice but to acquiesce because David Moyes, the manager, wanted the player signed as soon as possible to ward off interest from other clubs (Howard has had an excellent season).

Had Everton not consented to the April 28 clause, United would not have allowed the loan to become permanent until the summer, running the risk of a rival bid, and Howard would still not have been able to play against United last weekend. Over a barrel, Everton agreed, which on Saturday meant that a third party (Manchester United) materially influenced the selection of a player who contractually belongs to Everton.

There is more. The April 28 agreement became active only if the title had not been decided. So there can be no suggestion that this is standard practice. United insisted on an arrangement that would be of benefit to them if the match was significant; if not, Everton could have played Howard. And did it influence Everton’s performance? You bet.

In the 61st minute, Everton were leading 2-0 and were comfortable. At that moment, Iain Turner, the goalkeeper standing in for Howard, dropped a harmless corner by Ryan Giggs at the feet of John O’Shea, who scored. This was the turning point. Sir Alex Ferguson had kept Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench, behaving as if he felt the game beyond recovery. When O’Shea got his goal, Ferguson swiftly introduced the Player of the Year and United went on to win 4-2.

Turner was very weak for the second goal, too, which was put through his own net by Phil Neville, the Everton midfield player and brother of Gary, the United captain. And, despite these bizarre coincidences, there is no suggestion of nefarious activity at Goodison Park; but no thanks to the Premier League for that.

The governing body that took £5.5 million from West Ham for concealing third-party influence at their club has allowed a system to foster domestically that has far greater potential for abuse. There have been three United goalkeepers active in the Barclays Premiership this season – and only one of them for Manchester United.

As well as Edwin van der Sar, the first-choice, Ben Foster plays for Watford and Howard for Everton. So in four of 38 matches, United have guaranteed facing an understudy in goal. They are not alone in farming out talent (Tomasz Kuszczak, Van der Sar’s deputy, is on loan from West Bromwich Albion), but considering Turner’s hapless hand in the destiny of the title, they are the system’s greatest beneficiaries this season.

Taken to its practical conclusion, United could legally, according to Premier League rules, assemble a squad of ten talented goalkeepers to be loaned throughout the division, ensuring that they alone would play half of their matches against inexperienced understudies. On a smaller scale, this has happened. Howard, not Turner, will play in goal for Everton against Chelsea on the final day of this season, while Foster was desperately unfortunate to be on the losing side against Chelsea on March 31, beaten deep in injury time by Salomon Kalou after an heroic display.

In three matches against United this season (including an FA Cup semi-final), Watford have fielded Richard Lee, the second choice to Foster, and he has conceded ten goals.

While obsessing over the role of foreign agents, which is negligible, the Premier League has given the green light to a far more dangerous loan and transfer system that allows third parties (who are also rivals) to dictate team selection and frequently compromises the competition through complex financial arrangements. If United win the treble this season, Everton will be £1.7 million better off as part of bonus clauses included in the Wayne Rooney transfer. Is that healthy? Is that not open to greater manipulation than any of the arrangements between Tévez and Mascherano’s owners and West Ham?

On the final day of the season, Everton visit Chelsea for a match that could decide the title. For argument’s sake, say that fixture involved a trip to Old Trafford instead. The terms of Rooney’s transfer could dictate that by losing to United, Everton gain £1.7 million; by winning, the club forfeit the same sum. If the manager or chairman were unscrupulous, might that fact not influence policy and performance? Might that not equate to a half-strength, experimental team, or a lack of ambition? It says something that English football is not corrupt because it sure as hell is given the chance to be.

The loan system has had a dubious influence on the Premier League for many years, which is why, although West Ham supporters know that the club have got away extraordinarily lightly, few will be lying awake at night racked with guilt.

In 2003, when West Ham were last relegated, Bolton Wanderers survived in part because of Sam Allardyce’s astute use of the loan system. Players such as Iván Campo, Salva Ballesta, Bernard Mendy and Florent Laville kept Bolton up, home-grown English players such as Joe Cole went down and were lost to West Ham soon after. No one cared about a rogue system then. Allardyce, because he is a fine manager, built a club and made Bolton a success story with permanent players, but the foundation on which that success was laid is propping up a tower of contradictions over third-party control and interest.

Something has to give. Either the Premier League has to grow up and acknowledge that the business of football is changing and third-party arrangements that are commonplace in South America have to be accommodated within the rulebook, or it has to look beyond Tévez and Mascherano to a system that allows the opposition to pick players for Everton and could make Saturday’s result at Goodison Park a nice little earner for everyone.

In the end, who would you rather have influencing policy and performance at Everton: Moyes, Pini Zahavi or Ferguson?

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