Let us be clear about one thing. There is no new law involved here. If one sportsman deliberately injures another or is so reckless having regard to the physical nature of the sport in question, then he will be liable for that injury. The Professional Footballers' Association has long warned its members that they owe a duty of care to one another and following the eye injuries in more recent times, first to John Uzzell and then Gary Mabbutt, we have run a dramatic poster campaign in all the club dressing rooms. What the court is being asked to decide is whether Dean Saunders actually intended to injure Paul or acted so recklessly in what he did that he did not care whether Paul was injured. Who can best decide? Lawyers, who are adept at public speaking and presenting difficult legal and factual issues, or those who have spent a lifetime in professional football: players, coaches, managers and referees?
Everyone has the right to go to court, but the costs can be tremendous and the lengthy time span of pressure and worry overshadowing the parties extremely damaging. And what of the players who are dragged into court to give evidence? They are asked for their personal views, a recipe for setting one player against another, one club against another with the risk of recriminations. Vinnie Jones has spoken out in a national newspaper expressing his horror at being subpoenaed. He was not being asked to give evidence; he was being asked to state, in his view, who was at fault.
I am very sorry that Paul Elliott finds himself out of football. I am also sorry that we do not already have machinery which adequately compensates injured players without having to consider the courts. On behalf of the PFA, I have done all possible to help Paul achieve a good settlement at Chelsea, but we have to stop short of supporting an action against another member of our association. To support such an action would mean our acting as judge and jury and deciding which member to support. That would be divisive.
Dean feels, and many will no doubt support him, that he has done nothing that has not happened many thousands of times before in football, yet on this occasion a dreadful injury resulted and he has spent months with his life overshadowed by an action which if successful might bankrupt him.
For a long time now, the PFA has sought to set up a football tribunal to adjudicate in matters of this kind. A tribunal cannot overreach the jurisdiction of the courts; it would comprise representatives from football and its governing bodies and would be best placed to make a quick decision, where an aggressor can be disciplined and an injured player compensated.
This brings me to the question of insurance, because compensation has to come from somewhere, and to award it against another player (who may not be able to pay) is not the answer. The injured player must be compensated, quickly, with the knowledge that he will be paid whatever is awarded to him. If compensation claims through the courts, with all the legal costs, become the order of the day, insurance premiums to cover liability will go through the roof. The PFA has considered trying to set up protection policies for players, but they would be an invitation for litigation. If only the governing bodies and the clubs could get together to set up a tribunal system, backed by adequate insurance to cover compensation, then insurers can feel more comfortable in the cover they offer and the cost of premiums can be contained and shared throughout football.
Insurance is not new in this area. Most clubs carry insurance in case their star players are injured. Many players now carry their own insurance against permanent disablement. It is a type of insurance policy commonly set up through our financial advice arm, PFA Financial Management. If only the cover could be extended and streamlined.
I am sorry that it has taken the injury to Paul, the worry for Dean and the soul-searching for all players and officials who have been asked to give evidence to bring this matter to the forefront of the minds of those who follow football. It is our national sport and its players deserve better.