Injustice of a saga settled by penalties

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The Independent Online
CONGRATULATIONS to the Football Association for winning this month's Fantasy Punishment competition. Considering that neither rope nor birch was available to them, their selection of sentences on Spurs was a feat of fiendish originality that reveals a previously unsuspected depth of imagination behind the wrinkled brows of the game's governors.

Their resolve was doubtless born of the view that the match without end between the forces of good and evil in football will never be settled other than by penalties. This may well be so but only if the penalties (a) fit the crime, (b) nail the wrongdoers and (c) do not enrage tens of thousands of paying customers.

Alas, the rantings and ravings of that tetchy tycoon Alan Sugar have tended to spoil any chance of a calm and sensible discussion of the injustices involved in punishing Spurs for a previous regime's habit of making irregular payments to players in the shape of loans free not only of interest but of repayments as well. The Spurs chairman, dynamic as he might be, may not have been in the game long enough to realise that a less challenging approach is needed, that the chairmen who achieve most for their clubs in the corridors of power are those of a more furtive, statesmanlike nature.

Accusing the FA of running a personal vendetta against him may not give them reason to take a more sympathetic view of the club's case when the appeal is heard. Besides, football is by no means averse to big shots in the boardroom but prefers those with a silencer fitted and who put their money on the table and leave their egos in the bank. Big shots are permitted to be hard and ruthless - as Fergus McCann, of Celtic, proved to be when he sacked Lou Macari on Thursday - as long as they are quiet.

It is as a result of Sugar's very noisy public squabble with Terry Venables that the FA began digging for bodies at White Hart Lane in the first place. Venables has since been recruited for a mission of urgent national importance and the FA made it clear that he will remain thus occupied, however much Sugar attempts to implicate him in the legal retaliation.

This brings us to another side of Sugar that may have tilted the affection of the authorities away from him. He tends to lean towards our learned friends when his dander is up and this failing was compounded when he appeared before last week's commission armed with a QC and a few file carriers. Football folk do not welcome outsiders at these occasions. They prefer to settle disputes within the game, with accusers and accused talking in a language they all understand. They are used to striped shirts but they hate striped trousers.

They are aware, too, that it would not take the most astute legal brains in the world to run rings around most of football's disciplinary decisions, a weakness shared with many sports. But that would lead to a far more rigid and unhelpful legal structure. Sugar should not want to be the perpetrator of such a future any more than the FA would want to have it thrust upon them.

The last time Sugar was in court, during a legal battle with Venables last year, he made allegations of an irregular payment to another manager who transferred a player to Spurs. Football abounds with stories of backhanders to players, agents, middle men and managers but this is nothing new in a game which has had questionable cash swilling around it for a century. As much as we may sympathise with Sugar's instinctive defence of his club, it would be wrong for him to do so with another barrage of mud-slinging.

It would also be wrong for the FA to let their feelings about Sugar deny Spurs a mature reconsideration of the punishment. The priority should not be to make an example of them, or to trawl around for past culprits at other clubs, but to redefine what payments can be considered fair and proper in modern times. There are a lot more noses in the trough these days in most businesses, and dealings with players are far more complex than even 10 years ago.

The most difficult part of the punishment to accept is that those who infringed the rules are no longer at the club, and the main sufferers - and I include the fans in that description - are completly innocent. The second most difficult part is to establish exactly the size of the advantage Spurs gained. Did these loans transform the heroes into superstars? There is little evidence of that.

Did they help Spurs reach the FA Cup final in 1987 or to win it in 1991? The FA came to the ludicrous conclusion that they did, hence the decision to ban them from the Cup next season. It would have been more fitting to take away their exemption and make them qualify with the lowly.

To deduct 12 points before they start next season was equally bizarre. Relegation would have at least presented the club and their fans with an attainable target of self-redemption. All they have now is an uphill fight against relegation that begins on day one.

Comparisons have been made with the case of Swindon, who were found guilty of illegal payments in 1990 and were relegated to the Third Division after just clinching promotion to the First. But Swindon, who were moved up to the Second on appeal, admitted 36 charges of illegal payments made during the course of their rise from the Fourth Division to the First in five years. Unlike Spurs, they did not declare the payments to the taxman which led to their chairman being jailed.

When a player is transferred and the clubs cannot agree on a fee, a tribunal calculates a fee on the basis of the wages he is to receive. But if part of his wages are to be paid under the counter, that calculation will be on the low side and cheats the selling club. If that is done often enough, a considerable advantage can be gained by a club climbing up through the divisions.

There were one or two instances of a tribunal being involved in the case of Spurs, but nothing remotely on the same scale. Since the top personnel have changed, the players concerned have gone or got older and the club is not noticeably enhanced by it all, there is no justification for the punishment inflicted. In any case, the only appropriate penalty for a financial 'foul' is a financial one. A pounds 2m fine or more would have led to less outrage, and left Tottenham's fans with a full season to anticipate, as is their right.

No doubt the hardship will close the club's ranks and may even be an extra motivation. Spurs' friends in the music world have already rallied round. So the loyal Tottenham fans not only have a barren season ahead, they have got to sit through a Status Quo concert.

YOU can tell we're in the middle of an old-fashioned English summer - the sun is shining and there isn't a Welshman in the Test team.

We are back to the dark ages when promising Glamorgan players perished on the vine for want of being picked with a little perseverance in mind. Perhaps we can hope for a little encouragement now that Ray Illingworth is in charge. I suspect, however, that he'll only pick a Welshman if he was born in Yorkshire.

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