"Deeply disappointed" at the decision to uphold the Premier League's punishment of a points sanction and pounds 50,000 fine, Middlesbrough went away to consider whether to take their fight to the High Court, even though such action is frowned upon by Fifa, the game's world governing body, whose stated policy is that clubs should never go to legal war with their own domestic authorities.
Middlesbrough had invested heavily in George Carman QC, the country's most eminent barrister, who is reported to charge pounds 10,000 a day, to argue that with 23 players either ill, injured or suspended they could not have put out a side at Ewood Park on 21 December. The club faxed that information to the Premier League 24 hours before the match, but did not contact Blackburn.
The three-man board ruled that Boro"were quite capable of fielding a team and that the club did not have just cause in cancelling the fixture". The breach of Rule 19 relating to a club's obligation to fulfil its fixtures was, it said, serious.
Victory at the five-hour hearing held at a Heathrow hotel would have lifted Middlesbrough three places to 14th in the Premiership table, four points above the relegation zone. Now, with only seven games remaining, their predicament remains acute.
"Importantly it was accepted that the club acted in good faith in very difficult circumstances and in what it considered to be the best interests of the club, its supporters and the League," the club's solicitor, Simon Ledbrooke, said.
The game will now be played on 16 April and no restriction will be placed on either Blackburn or Middlesbrough with regard to the players they can select. Some clubs had argued that Middlesbrough should play with the seven first-choice players who were fit at the time.
Confirmation that the punishment would stand came just hours after the Middlesbrough manager, Bryan Robson, heard he had been voted the Premiership's manager of the month and his Brazilian midfielder, Juninho, the player of the month, the first time either award had gone to the Teesside club.
Robson left vowing that it would not hinder his team's prospects of securing their Premiership status for next season. Bottom just a week ago, they had put together four successive victories before Monday's draw with Nottingham Forest. They have also fought their way to the Coca-Cola Cup final and FA Cup semi-finals.
"When I found out about the award it was very sweet but we are obviously disappointed about the result of the appeal," Robson said.
The board comprised Geoffrey Thompson, chairman of the FA's disciplinary committee, Barry Bright, the committee's vice chairman, and Frank Pattison of the Durham FA. It heard argument from Blackburn that they should be given the game, but decided that was neither practical nor appropriate. It also ordered Middlesbrough to pay the costs of both the Premier League and the appeal board.
It was a rare defeat for Carman, whose grateful clients include the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, Elton John and the Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan. "Obviously I'm disappointed and we will have to consider the impact of this decision," Carman said.
The verdict angered Boro fans. "Middlesbrough would have had to throw in six or seven kids and that would not have been fair on supporters who pay good money to watch good football," Simon Bolton, the Middlesbrough supporters' club secretary, said. "Neither the fans, nor the players had done anything wrong. A fine would have been sufficient."
There was sympathy and relief from Harry Redknapp, the manager of West Ham, one of Middlesbrough's fellow relegation candidates. "I feel sorry for Bryan Robson, but at the same time we are all selfish and, let's be honest, everyone is only interested in their own team.
"Every manager in the bottom seven apart from Bryan will be saying `that's a good result'. I'd be a hypocrite and a liar if I said I was disappointed."
Jim Smith supported the board. "I cannot believe that a professional club cannot turn out a team and I think the decision to take away three points was correct," the Derby County manager said. "If a team in the Sunday morning league had acted like that, they would have been thrown out."
P W D L F A Pts
Man Utd 31 18 9 4 61 33 63
Liverpool 31 17 9 5 53 26 60
Arsenal 32 16 9 7 52 28 57
Newcastle 30 15 7 8 59 36 52
Aston Villa 31 14 8 9 37 27 50
Chelsea 31 13 10 8 51 44 49
Sheff Wed 31 12 13 6 41 37 49
Wimbledon 30 12 10 8 42 37 46
Leeds 32 11 8 13 26 34 41
Tottenham 31 11 6 14 38 43 39
Leicester 31 10 9 12 37 44 39
Blackburn 31 8 12 11 33 32 36
Everton 31 9 9 13 37 45 36
Derby 31 8 11 12 35 47 35
West Ham 31 8 9 14 31 41 33
Sunderland 32 8 9 15 29 48 33
* Middlesbro 31 9 8 14 44 52 32
Nottm Forest 33 6 13 14 28 49 31
Coventry 32 6 12 14 27 46 30
Southampton 31 6 9 16 39 51 27
* Middlesbrough deducted three pointsReuse content