Well, well, well. The chickens look like they’re coming home to roost!
The question was raised only last week on this blog about the fairness of this years relegation battle with Manchester United facing a showpiece European Champions League Cup Final just three days after playing relegation threatend Hull City when the Championship had already been safely clinched
What is Alex Ferguson supposed to do? Risk fatigue or injury to key players in what for him is a meaningless game? Is being fair to other relegation threathened clubs more important? Will he be breaching his contract if he did not look after his clubs interest before anything else?
It’s a puzzle that the Premier League will find difficult to find an answer to. United themselves as well as other clubs have fielded weakened teams prior to important Champions League matches, they just happened to be earlier in the season rather than a crucial final game but the points at stake were just as valuable.
This is how The Sun saw this vexed question today
THIS weekend, the integrity of the Premier League will come under scrutiny like never before.
If Manchester United decide to field a shadow team against Hull on Sunday, serious questions will be asked of the champions and those who govern the competition.
Alex Ferguson has already said that he intends to rest most of his first team as they prepare for the Champions League final three days later against Barcelona.
But what, if any, respect would that show for the same competition that grants them entry to the European Cup in the first place?
And if a United reserve side is beaten by Hull, who stay up as a result, what does it say about the Premier League’s power to enforce its own rules?
At the centre of the debate, which threatens to turn into a war, is paragraph E20 of the Premier League rules.
It states: “In every league match, each participating club should field a full-strength team.” That sentence is the core of what protects the richest and most successful club football competition in the world from being accused of corruption.
So why has it not always been upheld? And why has no club ever been officially challenged on whether or not it fielded ‘a full-strength team’?
That, however, may be about to change.
As SunSport reveals today, the relegation-threatened trio of North East clubs are not prepared to let United walk all over them by fielding a reserve team against Hull.
Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Sunderland are in danger of dropping into the Championship — a threat made more grave if Hull beat the champions at the KC Stadium.
All indications are that United will start just one of their first XI in the last league match as none of their stars will be risked ahead of the Champions League final next Wednesday.
Midfielder Darren Fletcher, who is suspended for the game in Rome after his red card in the semi, is expected to captain a United side whose average age could be as low as 20.
Here is how United could line up — first names are excluded as they are irrelevant — Amos, Eckersley, Chester, Evans, Fabio, Tosic, Fletcher, Gibson, Nani, Macheda, Welbeck.
Sound familiar? Didn’t think so.
And it’s a line-up which will horrify the fans of Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Sunderland.
At the same time, why should Fergie risk any of his big guns when they have such an important game just three days later?
Well, it could be argued that by playing a shadow side, United are showing a blatant disrespect for the same competition they have fought so hard to win.
Even though the title race is over, the competition comprises 38 games.
And surely such a deliberate act would compromise the integrity of the Premier League by unfairly weighting the match in favour of Hull.
United and Ferguson will no doubt counter that they are fielding their strongest team in the circumstances and the result will not necessarily be affected.
In fact, in the past Fergie has argued that the under-strength team he put out should have been good enough to beat the opposition.
Take the game of May 13, 2007 for example. Manchester United faced West Ham at Old Trafford in a match the Hammers had to win to have any chance of staying up.
Until that day, United, who had already won the title, had lost just one league game at home all season — to Arsenal — while West Ham had won three of their away games.
Form and the bookies said that this was just another day at the office for United until the teamsheets were handed to the referee.
With an FA Cup final to prepare for, Ferguson rested Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand and left Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs on the bench.
West Ham won 1-0 thanks to a goal by a certain Carlos Tevez, while Sheffield United lost to Wigan and were relegated to the Championship.
Ferguson called Blades manager Neil Warnock the next day to apologise — kind of.
“We battered them, Neil,” he said. “We had 25 shots. The team was good enough to win. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
The fallout from that day still reverberates through English football as the Hammers have agreed to pay £15million in compensation to Sheffield United for ‘Tevezgate’.
Two years on and all the signs are that the Argentina striker will once again have a major say in who goes down on the final day.
Ironically, this time it could be his absence from the field which proves crucial, as Fergie once again looks to protect his stars.
But if an under-strength United side lose and Hull stay up, what happens next could make Tevezgate look like a bunfight at a toddler’s birthday party.
It only takes one club to make an official complaint to the Premier League, which the board would then consider.
If one or more clubs back the protest — and the feeling is that at least six will, for starters — the authorities would then ask for submissions from all parties.
Charges could then be brought against United, followed by a decision whether to proceed with disciplinary action.
All of this, remember, is unprecedented for this particular breach of rules but, if it were pursued, then further action couldn’t be ruled out.
For example, any club relegated as a direct result of United’s team selection would have grounds to sue for compensation similar to those Sheffield United cited.
The Blades successfully showed that striker Tevez’s contribution was a major factor in keeping West Ham up.
Proving the same of a game after 10 rookies are fielded should not be too difficult.
At the heart of this controversial scenario, one man has the power to remove any whiff of controversy.
His 37 major honours to date and a third Champions League trophy to play for, are proof enough that, when it comes to a contest, Ferguson is pound for pound the greatest of the greats.
He is rightly lauded for his brilliance, renowned for uncontrolled ambition and admired for the way he transmits those qualities to his players.
Maybe his methods can occasionally jar with others but the fact is that, when Fergie wins, he wins fair and square.
His haul of trophies has made him the greatest manager in the history of the game.
As such, maybe he should just ask himself not what he might do, but what he should do.