Graham Kelly: Lawyers the guaranteed winners in sporting disputes

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The Independent Football

The old American cowboy turned vaudeville star Will Rogers used to say: "Make crime pay, become a lawyer." Well, one particularly successful commercial litigator, Ian Mill QC, might be said to have adapted the maxim: "Make law pay, become a sports lawyer." Mill, 45, has been appointed by the Football Association to sit as the chairman of the appeal board on 18 March with council chairman, Geoff Thompson, and Roger Burden to hear Rio Ferdinand's plea against the eight-month suspension imposed by a disciplinary commission in December for his failing to take a random drugs test.

Mill is advertised as an important decision-maker in sporting disputes. He sat as chairman of the UK Athletics' disciplinary committee which handled the so-called nandrolone cases involving Linford Christie, Dougie Walker and Mark Richardson. He has also been appointed to panels by the FA Premier League and the International Cricket Council. Mill acted for Portsmouth in the defence of a claim of breach of contract brought against the club by their former manager Tony Pulis, which was settled before judgment. He also successfully helped the agent Dennis Roach to take action against the FA, when the Association was attempting to enforce Fifa rules.

Mill appeared for the former South African rugby union player Joel Stransky against Bristol Rugby Ltd. Stransky was awarded £150,000 for loss of earnings after the judge ruled that a meeting at a restaurant in Bath resulted in an offer for a contract of employment.

It would appear that he is following in the footsteps of his as yet - may I say? - more distinguished colleague at Blackstone Chambers, the Honourable Michael Beloff QC, who has a most notable track record in sports law, both national and international. Beloff, whose written output can only be described as prodigious, is a member of the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne and has recently accepted the important position of ethics commissioner for the London 2012 Olympics bid.

There was a time when lawyers were strictly taboo in football. The only legally qualified people permitted at hearings were those who were actually on boards of directors. So, of course, clubs made their legal advisors directors. Maurice Watkins has been worth his weight in gold to Manchester United over the years. Not, I hasten to add, that United have sailed closer to the wind than other clubs. It is just that he has usually been on hand to offer timely advice on the complexities of FA articles of association and constitutional issues.

One of the first major legal challenges to football came when Coventry's Ernie Machin went to the High Court, backed by a millionaire chairman, Derrick Robins, to contest a sending-off in 1972. Machin's success led to a revolution in the disciplinary system, but, unsurprisingly, the march of the law left the Football League and its acerbic secretary, Alan Hardaker, unhappy: "The next thing," he said, "will be for a batsman in a Test match to demand a replay because the cameras proved he was wrongly given out. When lawyers come into the game they are a cancer. The referee's decision on the field must be accepted as right, even though he is human and makes mistakes. Television is to blame for using gimmickry."

Two decades later Beloff succeeded in having Tottenham Hotspur's 12-point penalty for financial irregularities reduced to a fine at an independent arbitration panel. The Spurs chairman, Alan Sugar, aggrieved at being penalised largely for misdemeanours committed by a previous regime, could not accept that the club should suffer punishment on a par to that imposed on Swindon Town not long before, launched his complaint, and lawyers for the FA were nervous about exposing the five members of the original disciplinary commission to cross-examination in the High Court, so, despite the reservations of many within the governing body, an arbitration process was commenced.

I will go to my grave believing that points deductions are the only effective sanctions for powerful clubs and their mogul chairmen. How ever can fines be made to bite? The Honourable Michael worked the oracle for the equally honourable Alan, but, sadly, where the original FA commission went wrong was in declining to set out a statement of the reasons for their draconian penalty. This failing opened the door for the arbitration panel to label the FA decision "irrational" and for Sugar to call me arrogant and ignorant when I disputed his claim that it was Spurs themselves who had disclosed the irregularities. So what? Will Rogers said everybody was ignorant, only on different subjects.

Ian Mill QC is highly unlikely to suffer ridicule like the notorious judge who enquired: "Who is Gazza?", for he is widely regarded as the leading entertainment silk, having represented The Spice Girls, George Michael, Stevie Winwood, Elton John, Michael Jackson and Barry Humphries.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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