The court of appeal ruling yesterday that blocked Manchester City’s attempt to prevent details of the Premier League’s investigation into allegations of financial irregularities becoming public confirmed that a probe is still in progress. The verdict is unlikely to make much difference to City but it might have a longstanding impact on the ruling body.
The Premier League opened their inquiry into the club three years ago after hacked emails were published in Der Spiegel that suggested City had breached financial fair play rules. The Etihad strenuously deny any wrongdoing.
The leaked information led to a similar case pursued by Uefa. European football’s ruling body banned City from the Champions League for two seasons and fined them €30 million. The Court of Arbitration for Sport last year overturned the ban and reduced the fine to €9 million.
READ MORE: How CAS overturning Man City’s European ban revealed Uefa is not fit for purpose
City objected to the jurisdiction of the Premier League’s arbitrators and were reluctant to hand over information required by the investigation. The nub of yesterday’s judgement, however, concerned the reporting of the case.
The chancellor of the high court, Sir Julian Flaux, said: “The suggestion that press interest and speculation might disrupt the investigation or the arbitration, where both are being conducted by experienced professionals, is entirely fanciful. Likewise the suggestion that press comment and speculation following publication might damage the club’s relations with commercial partners was unconvincing.”
The judges noted that the Premier League backed City’s attempt to keep the matter private. “That the PL supports the Club’s appeal so that both parties to the arbitration are opposed to publication is of some weight, but should lead to the Court being careful not simply to accept the parties’ wishes without scrutiny,” the judgement said. Flaux backed this up with a quote from an earlier case: “When both sides agreed that information should be kept from the public, that was when the court had to be most vigilant.”
This is a point that may come back to haunt the Premier League. The demands for an independent regulator in football have grown stronger since the failed attempt to create a Super League in April. The Government rushed through a “fan-led” review of football governance led by Tracey Crouch, MP. The provisional report from the 11-person panel is expected to be released in the next few days. The lack of transparency within the game has been one of the themes in the supporter backlash against clubs and ruling bodies and is expected to be a prominent theme in the review.
The Premier League’s commitment to secrecy was underlined on Monday when the arbitration case over the Newcastle United takeover was suspended until next year. On Tyneside the lack of information as to why the Saudi Arabia-financed buyout stalled has become a running sore.
Last week a delegation of supporters travelled to the ruling body’s London headquarters and protested outside with placards that said: “Public arbitration for our club.” Earlier this month Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle Central, wrote to Richard Masters, the Premier League chief executive, and Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Media and Sport, to “demand greater transparency.”
The Premier League’s dealings with Mike Ashley and the consortium bidding to take over at St James’ Park have been opaque. The organisation’s stance in the City appeal will renew concerns about football’s decision-making being made behind closed doors.
Without yesterday’s publication of the court of appeal’s intervention, it would be impossible to know the status of the Premier League’s investigation into City. The club said: “The decision relates to ongoing proceedings and we are obviously not in a position to provide comment until those proceedings are complete.”
The Premier League did not comment.
Lord Justice Males’ final point in yesterday’s appeal alluded to the lack of information in the public domain. He opined: “The Club has been anxious to emphasise before us that ‘the arbitral proceedings relate to an ongoing and confidential investigatory and disciplinary process which is still in its early stages’, and that it may be that no charges will ever be brought against it.
“While that may be true, it seems to me that this is, if anything, a factor which tells in favour of publication. This is an investigation which commenced in December 2018. It is surprising, and a matter of legitimate public concern, that so little progress has been made after two and a half years – during which, it may be noted, the Club has twice been crowned as Premier League champions.”
Open communication is likely to become the next big issue in football administration. Secrecy may not be the best policy for the Premier League.
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