If – and it must be remembered that it remains a very big if at present – Manchester City are found guilty of the over 100 charges brought against them by the Premier League, then the Sergio Aguero moment will be forever tainted.
So much focus is on what happens next for City if they are guilty of wholesale cooking the books – heavy fines, points deductions, even expulsion from the league – but what is also exercising fans is what happens about the past? City won three league titles during the nine seasons they stand accused of breaching financial regulations and three more during the five years of allegedly failing to co-operate. If those charges are proven, should all those titles stand? And what of City’s six League Cups and two FA Cups?
Aguero’s late, late goal delivered that first title in May 2012, taking it away from Manchester United only on goal difference. The timing of it – 93min and 20sec – is emblazoned on the side of the Etihad Stadium. There is a statue of Aguero ripping off his shirt in celebration. It was voted the most iconic Premier League moment ever.
And yet. If they are found guilty, can it ever be viewed the same? At the very least, there will be an asterisk beside it in the history books.
Taking away titles is difficult, and such retrospective punishment does not actually appear to be within the powers of the independent commission, although there is a catch-all “make such other order as it thinks fit” which could cover that. Like so many things in this case, it would be open to further appeal.
Nevertheless, it feels like a step too far. It will be hard for clubs to prove that they lost out on a trophy or, more pertinently for some because of the finances involved, Champions League qualification directly because of City’s behaviour, even if they were seeking an unfair advantage.
Yet United and Liverpool may take note – especially with the words of Lord Justice Males, the Court of Appeal judge, who said in July 2021 of the length of time the Premier League investigation was taking “during which, it may be noted, the club (City) have twice been crowned as Premier League champions”.
City’s defence is fiercely robust. In a terse 79-word statement, the club could not be clearer in its belief that there is “a body of irrefutable evidence” to support its case and that needs to be aired.
What the charges also show is that the top-flight clubs are at war. City sources believe the Premier League has acted under huge pressure from other clubs and point to the fact that nine of them – Arsenal, Liverpool, United, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Leicester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Newcastle United and Burnley – wrote to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in March 2020 to argue that City should be excluded from Europe while their successful appeal was heard. Wolves later pulled out.
In the early Abramovich years, Chelsea also acted in a similar spending manner to City, provoking Arsene Wenger’s famous “financial doping” comment, then worked to change the rules to stop others following them.
That is also true, but it is not a good argument. After all, if the speed limit is lowered on a road, it is no defence for a driver to claim he should not be prosecuted for speeding because his neighbour drove past his house at 30mph and not 20mph the year before.
Even so, the next meeting of the Premier League clubs promises to be spicy. City will feel they have been ganged up on. The gloves are off. At the same time, this is the ultimate test for the Premier League to show how strong it is, whether it can prove there is no need for an independent football regulator as it has decided to take on City and the legal might its owners have threatened to call on.
The sheer scale of the charges suggests that the endgame is not just a fine and a rap over the knuckles, while City will fight every point. This will take months, maybe even years. In English football, this is unprecedented and potentially seismic.
There is so much going on here. So much potential whataboutery and politicking – and geo-politicking – but it needs to be stripped down to the facts: if City have been caught out, if they have broken the rules, they should be punished. And punished severely. Other clubs are sailing close to the wind on Financial Fair Play, and this will serve as a warning to them.
City should not have their titles taken away from them, though. What purpose would that serve? It may delight rival fans but would not only feel vindictive but it is hard to directly prove the title was won because of financial irregularities. Even so, those titles will be spoilt as they will forever be associated with wrongdoing.
Certainly though, if guilty, City need to be severely punished in a meaningful way that affects their future. The sheer volume of charges is shocking and warrant sanctions such as a very large points deduction and being restricted in the way they can operate in a number of subsequent transfer windows.
The bigger question is whether they should face immediate relegation from the Premier League, and there will be demands for that, and the answer clearly depends on what is proven and the scale of it.
Instinctively, it feels a step too far given the grievous damage it would do to the club and the people it employs, but it is something that City might have to face up to.
After all, other clubs could then argue that they have been damaged, and had to make cuts, because of City’s behaviour.
If the charges stick and the book is thrown at them, City can have no complaint. They will also have spoiled their own history.
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