Football: European place for fair play

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The Independent Online
UNDER WRAPS at Premier League headquarters lies the most up-to- date league table in a competition that offers the chance of a coveted place in Europe next season.

It is the fair play table, the rules of which are baffling in their detail, but it could still hold out a multi-million pound lifeline to clubs otherwise denied a route into the Uefa Cup.

While Sheffield Wednesday, Liverpool and Wimbledon may have thought European qualification was beyond them this season, they actually lead the way in the domestic league along with Manchester United and even Arsenal, despite the Gunners' tally of red cards.

In an attempt to foster the traditional spirit of the game, European football's governing body has decreed that three places in next season's revamped Uefa Cup will be on offer to teams with the best fair play records.

Every game played by a country or club in European competition is painstakingly marked in six different categories - red and yellow cards, positive play, respect towards opponents, respect towards referees, behaviour of team officials and crowd behaviour.

This started almost two years ago and forthcoming games until the end of May still count - including Manchester United's European Cup ties and Chelsea's encounters in the Cup-Winners' Cup.

A record is kept of every country's average score and the leading nation gains an automatic place in the Uefa Cup, while a host of other high-scoring countries enter a ballot for two remaining places.

However, these European berths do not go to sides finishing high up in the Premiership, Serie A or the Scottish Premier League. They are given to the teams who win their country's domestic fair play league, disregarding any clubs who have already qualified by other means such as winning a cup.

In Uefa's most recent table from January, Scotland led the way - setting them up for an automatic European place if they keep ahead of the likes of Norway, Estonia and Finland before June - with Kilmarnock at the top of the latest domestic fair play league.

England, who suffered from Paul Ince's sending-off and crowd trouble in Sweden last autumn as well as red cards shown to Liverpool and Arsenal players in Europe, were still third, while Wales were 12th and the Republic of Ireland 13th.

Unless England can top the table or by contrast fall by the wayside, they will therefore enter the ballot in early June for the two remaining Uefa Cup places.

If successful, with a roughly 20 per cent chance of being drawn out of the hat alongside about 10 other countries with an average points tally of eight - England had 8.16 in January - a Premiership club would then qualify for Europe.

The current full domestic table has not been revealed by the Premier League but the top five, as at 31 March, have been disclosed.

Manchester United are currently top with an average of 8.17 points out of 10, followed by Sheffield Wednesday (8.01), Arsenal (7.98), Liverpool (7.95) and Wimbledon (7.93).

While red and yellow cards count against clubs, marks can be gained through attacking play, respecting refereeing decisions, helping injured opponents, being good winners or losers and fostering a healthy crowd atmosphere.

Observers are on hand to mark each Premiership game until the end of the season, so several clubs still have everything to play for - even if their chances of Europe may ultimately come down to a lottery.

The Tartan Army have been warned their future conduct could determine whether a Scottish club gains an additional Uefa Cup place next season.

The Scottish Football Association has stressed that Scotland's hopes of leading the European-wide fair play standings could be damaged by crowd conduct.

That comes after Scotland supporters at Parkhead last month jeered their own captain, Gary McAllister, and failed to observe the Czech Republic's national anthem. McAllister has since retired from international football but the SFA is concerned that any repetition of such behaviour from supporters will be counter-productive.

The Scots led Uefa's fair play rankings at the halfway stage of the season, meaning the team currently ahead in the list north of the border, Kilmarnock at the last count, would make Europe.

SFA spokesman Andy Mitchell said: "Uefa base their list on all competitive matches and we deplore the actions of the small minority at Celtic Park which will have had an impact."

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