If the law is on occasions an ass, and the judge a donkey, Crystal Palace struck lucky in the High Court on Thursday. Charged with refereeing the unusual case of Simon Jordan, the Palace chairman, against Steve Bruce, still the Palace manager but desperate to become Birmingham's, was Mr Justice Michael Burton – a football fan, no less.
No "who is David Beckham?" here. Mr Justice Burton may have been a supporter of Palace's tenants Wimbledon, but in Court 73 he demonstrated impeccable impartiality to rivals in distress, and a grasp of the sport's principles. "This is a case where the defendant has snapped his fingers at his contract," he decreed. It was "staggering" for Bruce's legal team to suggest that Palace would suffer no loss if he departed to their fellow promotion contenders.
Having granted an interim injunction forbidding him working for any other club, the judge even put back the date of a full trial until January, because on the proposed date of 11 December Palace – by a delicious coincidence – play Birmingham in a First Division match. The matter may remain unresolved for months after that, as Bruce has indicated that he will not risk the costs of a trial and does not want Palace employees who would be called as witnesses "washing dirty linen in public".
"1-0 Jordan" ran the headline in the South London Press, which must have given Palace's brash young chairman as much pleasure as the chantduring the recent 4-1 victory over Crewe: "There's only one Simon Jordan". He was in Las Vegas at the time, watching an even more one-sided contest involving Lennox Lewis. Also there was his friend Ian Wright, the former Palace hero who – in another public relations coup – is to do some work for the club as a strikers' coach and in the commercial department.
Supporters initially suspicious of Jordan, even after he bought the club out of administration last year, are slowly being won over, though some doubts remain. Neil Witherow, editor of the fanzine Palace Echo, said yesterday: "I think the feeling is that Jordan has done exactly the right thing. There's just a little nagging worry over why the trouble blew up in the first place – whether it was because cash wasn't being made available as promised. But there's no sympathy for Bruce."
Jordan is credited with acting decisively in sacking Alan Smith with two games to go at the end of last season, just in time for Dougie Freedman's goals to save Palace from relegation. While Bruce remained loyal to his fourth club in three years – for all of five months – he looked an excellent appointment.
The chairman also secured the respected coaches Steve Kember and Terry Bullivant on four-year contracts, hoping to thwart any attempt by Bruce to take them to St Andrew's. Other supporters, however, believe that the club is effectively in limbo without a manager, and that the manner in which they were badly outfought at Gillingham the night before the High Court case does not bode well.
While Jordan has won the legal argument – or taken a 1-0 lead – he could be pegged back if he appoints a new manager without having persuaded Birmingham to cough up any compensation. Nick Smith, a barrister specialising in employment law, says that in those circumstances Bruce could have a case for constructive dismissal: "It might effectively be a repudiation of contract, because it would demonstrate that trust and confidence had gone."
There may be more work for the legal Eagles yet. In the meantime, even John Barnwell's League Managers' Association has been forced to admit that contracts are "a two-way street". And, instead of being in charge of Birmingham's derby with Coventry today, Bruce remains on so-called gardening leave, at a salary (£260,000 pa) to make any gardener greener than the best-kept lawn.Reuse content