Thursday 22 February 2018

Analysis: Liverpool's embarrassing £60m Van Dijk failure exposes football's 'tapping up' issues


Southampton's Virgil van Dijk. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Southampton's Virgil van Dijk. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Sam Wallace and Jeremy Wilson

It is a measure of the seriousness with which Liverpool principal owner John W Henry took Southampton's allegations against his club of an illegal approach to Virgil van Dijk - and the potential consequences - that it was the American billionaire who oversaw yesterday's remarkable climbdown.

The final wording of the apology statement released on Liverpool's website was agreed between the two leadership groups at the clubs, which at Anfield meant Henry and Mike Gordon, another key member of Fenway Sports Group.

They dealt directly with Saints chairman Ralph Krueger and his key aides including Les Reed, the executive director.

It was an unprecedented response by Liverpool to an unprecedented problem.

A statement from Liverpool read: "Liverpool FC would like to put on record our regret over recent media speculation regarding Southampton FC and player transfers between the two clubs.

"We apologise to the owner, board of directors and fans of Southampton for any misunderstanding regarding Virgil van Dijk.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

"We respect Southampton's position and can confirm we have ended any interest in the player."

Southampton were well aware that their player was being tapped up, but when multiple stories emerged this week that he had decided to join Liverpool, the view at St Mary's was that enough was enough. Their evidence was so compelling that Liverpool had no option but to back down.

At stake was a Premier League investigation, and the initial complaint that Southampton sent to the League still stands. However, if both clubs decide that Liverpool's statement is an end to the matter, then there will be no further action.

The saga could yet have consequences for key figures at Liverpool, with technical director Michael Edwards to be asked how the club got it so wrong.

The stance by Southampton shows that traditional selling clubs are prepared to be pushed only so far. The view from owner Katharina Liebherr and Krueger until now has been that Saints are not willing to sell Van Dijk.

A world-record offer could possibly make them reconsider, but this summer the mood is very different to previous years.

What the whole sorry saga does is shine a light into the 'tapping up' process of transfers which is legislated against but rarely acted upon.

In Section T of the Premier League's handbook, under the title 'Approaches to Players', is arguably the most futile few paragraphs you might find in any rulebook in the world.

On the subject of player transfers, it details how no club, whether "by any of its officials, players, intermediary" or indeed "any other person on its behalf" should make an approach whether "directly or indirectly" to another contracted player.

Should such an approach happen, the rulebook warns that the club would be in breach of the rules and "may" be dealt with under the provisions of Section W of the disciplinary code.

The vague "may" wording of the rule does at least appear to apply, given how most managers, agents, chief executives or players would privately testify to just how few transfers actually now begin simply with an offer, out of the blue, from club to club.

This is nothing new. Great players from the 1950s and '60s all tell their own stories of being approached directly outside stadiums by one scout, manager or another.

Brian Clough sourced the number of Bobby Moore direct from a journalist when he was trying to lure him from West Ham to Derby County in the early '70s.

Now, mostly it is done via agents. That is all generally accepted - even if it goes against the letter of the Premier League rules - but there is also an accompanying unwritten code. David O'Leary once said that "it is just about how blatant someone is doing it" and there are times when clubs feel that a line has been crossed.

Southampton clearly felt this was the case with Van Dijk. For them, it will be a matter of respect and courtesy as much as any forensic interpretation of the rules.

They are not so naïve to be surprised that an agent might have been discreetly working out what options might be open to Van Dijk this summer.

What has deeply angered them is a series of reports, all emerging at the same time, to the effect that Van Dijk wants to join Liverpool.

The accompanying detail, that he is specifically attracted by the chance to work with Liverpool's charismatic manager Jürgen Klopp, as well as how he might fit into his team, is their main problem.

Rightly or not, there was also now a suspicion of contact between Klopp and Van Dijk.

What happens next will be fascinating and Liverpool will hope that their statement puling out of the deal will end the matter.

Yet suppose, as Southampton suspect, some level of informal or formal contact could be uncovered? Can the Premier League then look away and accept a defence of 'it happens in every deal'? Yet if it acts, would it leave itself wide open to a flood of similar complaints about member clubs?

What is certain is that the Premier League's position - and rule - has left it wide open and it now has a choice of whether it should work with rather more proactive diligence to ensure that its rules are upheld.

If not, perhaps it is time Section T was repurposed in a way that actually reflects football's realities. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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