Confession: As a life long Manchester United fan, I have always believed that Manchester City were up to no good.
This is a belief (and for the moment, nothing more) which, at long last, the English Football Association has come to share: the legion of charges against City, which run to over a hundred individual instances of alleged financial malfeasance, have been covered extensively elsewhere.
It behooves me as a journalist, albeit with great reluctance, to put on record the rather obvious fact that for the moment, these are charges, and City have not been found guilty of anything. No doubt the club’s lawyers will be well paid to construct the most comprehensive possible defence.
What is more interesting than the intricacies of the case, though, is the question of what punishment should be levied against a club found guilty of repeatedly breaking the financial rules in order to sign the best players, and, in turn, dominate the world’s most prestigious league competition for more than a decade?
The first thing to say is that no punishment should be retroactive: Since the news broke on Monday, fans of both Liverpool and Manchester United have speculated that their teams might retroactively become champions for the years where they finished second to Manchester City. This would be, I might suggest, a terrible idea:
In the first instance, the triumphs would be hollow. No fan of Manchester United, for example, is going to feel any joy over being retroactively declared Premier League champions in 2011/12. An honest Liverpool fan would presumably say the same thing about 2018/19. The games have been played, and the tears of joy or frustration already shed. Fans care about the future: The past is useful only in so far as it can be used to taunt other fans about their relative failure.
Second, such a punishment would destroy the credibility of the competition. If, as looks likely, Arsenal go on to win the Premier League title this year, for example, then that achievement and all others like it would be forever linked with an asterisk beside them – may be subject to future review.
Think of Athletics – the credibility of the sport has never recovered from the approach to doping. When you start to declare that a fellow who won a gold medal 30 years ago did not actually win it, and start awarding gold medals to people years after the event is over, then not only is the winning moment 30 years ago ruined, but the excitement is taken out of future events. Perhaps I am alone in this, but I for one now tend to see Olympic Gold medals in Athletics as “pending a drug test”, rather than as something I can genuinely believe in.
The magic’s gone, in other words.
On the other end of the scale, if City or any other club were to be found guilty, then financial penalties like fines would be a joke. The whole point of this investigation, at the end of the day, is that City have so much money that they are always trying to break the rules -allegedly- to spend more of it. A fine would be like punishing the Sahara Desert by taking a bucket of sand away. Nobody would take it seriously, and few would even bother pretending.
No – any punishment, assuming there is found to have been a serious breach of the rules, must be sporting, and it must be geared towards the future. This was an alleged breach of the rules that had a sporting impact – it gave City a competitive advantage by allowing them to acquire vast amounts of top talent.
A punishment then must give them a disadvantage, and it must also provide a serious deterrent to other clubs:
If guilty, they should be relegated. Arguably, I would say, to the bottom tier of the football league. But at minimum, to the Championship.
This would constitute both a financial and sporting penalty – financial in the obvious loss of television and competition revenues; sporting in the obvious loss of the chance to compete at the highest level until that chance is earned again through fair play.
It would also send the strongest possible message to other clubs in English football that they have a duty to abide by the rules of the game off the field as well as on it.
But such a punishment should also be accompanied by a further tightening of the rules: For all the talk in recent years of a “European Super League”, the English Premiership is rapidly becoming just that. It is inevitable to some extent that clubs with bigger fan bases and bigger commercial footprints will have more money, and therefore more success. But there is a difference between a club like Liverpool, with a huge fan base, and a large but limited budget, and a club like Newcastle United which now essentially has the budget of the Saudi state behind it, and functionally unlimited money. Manchester City should be a lesson for the league, not an aberration.
Anyway, that’s my view. Manchester City fans can, and should feel free, to complain in the comments below.
The latest episode of “The Week that Really Was”, featuring John McGuirk and David Quinn discussing the topics of the week, can be found here, as well as on all the normal podcast platforms.