The attempts by Manchester United’s Gabriel Heinze to move away from Old Trafford and become part of Rafa Benítez’s Anfield squad could well have opened up quite a can of worms at the Premier League.
The short version of the story is that with two years left on his contract, no doubt on quite high wages and no longer first choice, Gabriel Heinze wasn’t really wanted at Old Trafford. As a result, Manchester United’s chief executive, David Gill faxed his agent to say that he could leave the club for a fee of €10m. That’s the reason the strange figure of £6.8m sterling has always been quoted as the effective release fee. However Manchester United just assumed that the Argentinean’s agent would know that any club but Liverpool were acceptable as purchasers of their unwanted player.
That’s where it went wrong. A desperate United board had to try and stop their most-hated rivals, the team that may just be becoming their biggest threat, from signing the player that they didn’t really want themselves. It clearly wasn’t a matter of them being worried that the player might help their rivals to overtake them in the title race, it was purely down to the deep-seated hatred felt by a manager who, well-past his retirement age, still throws toddler-style temper tantrums when he can’t get his own way. Ask the BBC why Ferguson refuses to speak to them. If you can, ask Manchester United why they sold Juan Sebastian Veron to the team that has won the title twice in the last three years. United’s claim that they don’t sell to Premiership rivals seems a little hollow in the light of that forgotten fact.
The United chief executive had made a huge error. His manager was furious – he really does hate Liverpool. So a story about a tape-recording suddenly started to do the rounds. Either United tape all conversations they have (and if they did there would no doubt be some explosive evidence if it fell into the wrong hands) or United were trying to alter the facts after the events had already taken place.
They blocked Heinze’s move, rejected Liverpool’s bid and forced their own player to take them to a hearing in front of a Premier League “independent” panel. How independent a panel can be when it’s headed by the former chairman of Sheffield Wednesday, a chairman with history between himself and Liverpool is for you to judge. In theory the case wasn’t between Liverpool and Manchester United, it was between the player and his club. But surely there is a conflict of interest here? That former chairman of Sheffield Wednesday is now the Premier League’s chairman – Sir David Richards. The legal adviser on the panel – there has to be a legally qualified member on the panel – was solicitor Peter McCormick an “associate director” of Leeds when the then-Premiership side started to have problems.
McCormick is no doubt very skilled at searching for the appropriate interpretation in any document he has available as evidence, that’s what lawyers are paid to do, but as part of an “independent” panel it’s not his place to take sides. Very little has been revealed as to the actual wording in the letter that said Heinze could leave, but for the panel to declare the letter to be unambiguous does not exactly sit easily with the fact that it took them two days to work this out.
If this weren’t such a serious situation for a player who has stuck his neck out to leave a club he doesn’t like, and a manager he clearly does not get on with, it would be laughable. All the more so given that the decision seems to have revolved around the currency used in the letter for that minimum fee. The panel said that because it was quoted in Euros, it has to mean he was only being offered to clubs in countries where the Euro is in use! That decision really does not stand up to any scrutiny, and if it really was the reason for the decision then an investigation ought to be made. How can the currency used in the letter to be sufficient for it to be “unambiguous in that it envisages only an international transfer”? And how can it take two days to come to such an obvious conclusion?
Heinze’s solicitor, Richard Green, spoke to BBC’s Five Live and was confident that an appeal would be successful, should the player be willing to make one. It won’t happen before the transfer window closes, but if he was successful the Premier League are allowed discretion to let him move, under rule M4. Green said: “My client and myself hoped the appeal would be concluded by the end of the window but that is clearly not going to take place. It is too early to say what may happen. I don’t know if there will be any other teams interested. I don’t know if United’s attitude will change or if they are happy for him to stay or not.” He did confirm today that an appeal is to be made: “We are extremely disappointed with the result and we will be appealing,” he said.
The panel’s verdict yesterday said: “The Premier League Board-appointed panel have heard submissions of evidence from both parties and has ruled to dismiss the player’s case. The hearing concluded that nature and intention of the disputed 13 June 2007 letter, especially when taken in context of verbal discussions and Manchester United FC’s transfer policy, was unambiguous in that it envisages only an international transfer. Furthermore, the hearing finds the letter constitutes an ‘agreement to agree’ and did not create an obligation or binding agreement for the club to transfer the player to any particular club.”
To refer to “Manchester United FC’s transfer policy” as part of the decision is another reason the ruling seems flawed. That policy did not prevent Veron joining Chelsea. Where does the line get drawn in terms of “rivals” in the same league? Tim Howard was sold to Everton last season after being on loan, and that deal was not a stranger to controversy. Conveniently swept under the carpet controversy too. And if United are worried about their rivals, does their policy also exclude Champions League rivals? That means any club in the Champions League of course.
According to Green there were no restrictions – United wanted shot of him and so his agent did as he was asked and tried to find him a new club: “The player believes, as do his advisors, that the fax which was sent – which is the one being talked about – gives him the right to move to any club. The club were happy to sell the player. As a result his agent went to find clubs who were keen to buy him. That is how this has arisen – it is not because he has tried to force a sale or engineer a sale of any sort.”
Of course the idea of avoiding rivals in the Champions League would mean the only other club seriously linked with the player would be unable to sign him. Lyon had considered a move for the player, but want him to commit to being a full-time centre-back. However, as French Champions, Lyon are one of United’s rivals in the forthcoming Champions League.
If Heinze does decide to appeal he’ll continue to be a United player, but will never play in their first team again. If he loses the appeal – and doesn’t then decide to take the matter to the European Court of Arbitration for Sport – he would be stuck until January. However there is every possibility he would be allowed to sign on loan for another club until that January window opened.
Unlike real court hearings, the Premier League hearings are held in private. No doubt the public would hear things the League would prefer them not to hear. However details do still emerge, including the allegation that was reportedly made against Liverpool by the United legal team. It is alleged that they accused Liverpool of trying to get Crystal Palace to sign Heinze before then selling him onto Liverpool. Yes, Liverpool’s long-time friends and allies, Crystal Palace!
Rafa Benítez has had enough. Still reeling from losing two points on Sunday after Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea were falsely awarded a penalty by Roman Abramovich’s builder, Rafa finds this situation “unbelievable”. He said: “I would like to ask the Premier League a number of questions. How can a player with a signed agreement be treated like this? He has a document which is clear, but the Premier League prefers to believe the word of someone else who made a mistake.”
He finds the allegations made against the Reds were also unbelievable: “I know there were accusations made against Liverpool in the hearing which were unbelievable. How can this be allowed?” Don’t expect an answer Rafa – unless the new owners are willing to get a legal team onto this to try and get to the bottom of what was said. If it were true then I doubt Rafa would be bringing the subject up – so Rafa is right to wonder how United could use false information to help their case.
Away from this case, Rafa has got sick and tired of how Liverpool’s fixtures seem to benefit their rivals. It may just be a coincidence, but it’s been happening for some time now. And if it is a coincidence, is it not time that step were taken to stop it from continually happening? Rafa said: “Then I would like to ask the Premier League why is it that Liverpool always plays the most fixtures, away from home in an early kick-off, following an international break? We had more than the top clubs last season and we have four already to prepare for this season.”
And back onto the seemingly preferential treatment that Manchester United get: “Then I want to ask the Premier League why it was so so difficult for Liverpool to sign Javier Mascherano, when we had to wait a long time for the paperwork, but it was so easy for Carlos Tevez to join Manchester United?”
Rafa isn’t under the illusion that all of these issues – and more – can be blamed should Liverpool not win the league. But they don’t help: “It’s going to be very difficult for us to win the Premier League because the other teams are so strong, but I want our supporters to know that despite the disadvantages we have, we will fight all the way.”
In fact Rafa issued a rallying call. Factors outside our control have to be overcome, and his players will fight to overcome them: “We will fight to cope with our more difficult kick-off times and all the other decisions which are going against us.”
It’s unclear now whether Rafa will sign someone else instead of Heinze. Heinze was his first choice and it’s now so late in the day that he may take a chance on keeping faith with the players he has until Heinze is back. He can choose from John Arne Riise, Alvaro Arbeloa and (when fit again) Fabio Aurelio at left-back, although he also sees Heinze as cover at centre-back if needed.
Rafa’s comments are quite out of character, and suggest that he’s determined not to let the Premier League show any further signs of lacking impartiality. Perhaps Sheffield United’s forthcoming court case against West Ham will bring into the public domain some of the secret dealings that take place behind closed doors in the league. For Rafa Benítez to make these complaints so strongly suggests that he too feels something isn’t right behind those closed doors of the Premier League. Or perhaps he’s realised that the louder you scream the more you get away with.