Transfer deadline day is always exciting- this year it brought Berbatov to Old Trafford, Robinho to the Eastlands and Frazer Campbell to Tottenham- but perhaps the most exciting deadline day was that of 2006 when Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez moved to West Ham. The surprise was not that either had moved that summer but that they had come to West Ham. Rumours had linked both players with clubs as illustrious as Real Madrid, Manchester United and Barcelona. West Ham at that point had just come up from the first division the season before- and were firmly established as a midtable Premiership side with an outside chance of a cup competition- they got to the final of the FA Cup the season before. When they arrived at West Ham, most English football supporters were stunned.
However things did not go entirely to plan. For whatever reason- partly because the managers Alan Pardew and Alan Curbishley were unable to fit the Argentinians into the team, the Hammers slid down the table alarmingly. They were taken over by an Icelandic biscuit manufacturer who was in competition with the agent who controlled the destinies of Tevez and Mascherano. Ultimately both players left- Mascherano went to Liverpool in January and Tevez to Manchester United at the end of the season. West Ham survived relegation barely- winning on the last day. They were assisted through the goals of Carlos Tevez who effectively saved the club from going down- scoring five in the last ten games and netting the vital winning goal against United that kept West Ham up and sent Sheffield United to the first division.
As that was all happening, controversy was beggining on the subject of the players' original arrival. When Mascherano transferred to Liverpool, the FA (English football's governing body) announced that his registration with West Ham had been faulty- whilst playing for them he was owned by a third party (illegal under Premier League rules). The Londoners were prosecuted- and fined but were not deducted points because as the tribunal said it would hurt their fans if they went down. Sheffield United's fans were hurt deeply as the Yorkshire club fell into the first division- and a perfunctory fine hit the London club. Furthermore the FA were just beggining to get draconian with other clubs- deducting points from Leeds United, Luton Town and others whose supporters were less valuable. Furthermore there were precedents for deducting points from Premiership sides- Middlesborough had lost points for being unable to field a team in the mid-1990s.
West Ham's supporters' case has always been that it was Sheffield United who were relegated and they deserved the position they were in at teh end of the season. That is fair enough- save for the fact that Sheffield United played by the rules. West Ham did not. The position in question is not Sheffield's but West Ham's. West Ham should not have had the extra players- maybe they would have stayed up without those two players- maybe like Reading this season they would have gone down. But we can definitely say that Tevez in particular saved them in several games- saved them from being relegated. Without him in the last few games of the season they would have gone down- and a cursory reading of any of the newspapers or viewing of any of the matches at the time would have shown you that.
West Ham deserved to be relegated and deserved to have points taken off them. What has happened today has been long in coming- the Premier League betrayed itself with this decision and its chief executive- Mr Scudamore should resign. The reason that the Premier League gave for its decision- that West Ham fans should not be denied a season in the Premier League because of their board's actions- is one that makes a mockery of the neutrality that the game's authorities are supposed to have between the clubs. The Premier League didn't care about fans on the Tees or in Yorkshire so much as about fans in London. Today's judgement rights that wrong symbolically- at least now we know that West Ham should have gone down.
What it cannot do though is right the actual wrong. Even if Sheffield United get the 30 million pounds compensation they are asking for, that would not compensate them for the possibility of being a Premiership side for the last two seasons- the TV Deal on its own is worth more than that. Nor would it contribute towards bringing back the players that they lost when they went down. The 30 million is more of a slap on the wrist to the Hammers- whose spending plans have been curtailed. What this tribunal result demonstrates though is the unfairness of English football- we have here an admission that some fans count more than others. We have also an admission that a small unfashionable northern club are always going to lose to a fashionable London club.
The last thing though that this reinforces to me is the dissillusion that I feel with football in general. Games are now decided in courts partly because of the financial rewards on offer through promotion and relegation- the Premiership is stratified itself now with noone outside the top five worth betting on unless they are bought out by a billionaire. The fate of Sheffield United demonstrated that football had lost its soul- the present state of the Premiership demonstrates that there might not be that much worth recovering from the wreckage.