Wolves’ fine highlights an uneven playing field

By Rhys Hayward

premier league football

The Premier League has never been a level playing field and the decision to hand Wolves a suspended £25,000 fine for fielding a weakened team against Manchester United last December seems to have confounded the point.

Granted, this is a small fine for a Premier League club and the fact that it has been suspended suggests its purpose was designed as much as an arbitrary slap on the wrists as a serious attempt to punish Mick McCarthy’s team. After all, what is £25k when survival is worth an estimated £40 million?

But the whole affair highlights the uneven playing field of the Premier League.

When Manchester United headed into the last game of last season with the League title secured an a second successive Champions League final still to come, Richard Scudamore adopted a somewhat different approach.

“You can’t alter the fact they’ve won the League and they’ve got the most significant game the following Wednesday against Barcelona” he said. “You have to be realistic: they’ve got a squad, and therefore you can’t argue that they deploy the benefit of that squad in a game on Sunday.”

So there is one rule for Sir Alex Ferguson and another for Mick McCarthy? Of course we all know that United’s second team is good enough to beat most sides in the division whereas Wolves’ is probably not; but that is beside the point.

Mick McCarthy is a stoic type and has accepted the fine — officially for a breach of rule E20 which states that clubs are required to field full strength teams in every match — though he claimed he intended to “only pick a team that was in the best position to get a result.”

Wolves’ 2-0 win over fellow relegation battlers Burnley the following weekend went someway to vindicating McCarthy’s decision and though any football fan would feel for the 3,000 fans who travelled to Old Trafford to see their team meekly surrender to the champions, they will surely forgive their manager should Wolves survive come this May.

This is not an impassioned defence of McCarthy’s actions. In an ideal world even teams like Wolves — who most people will forget put up an impassioned and plucky performance that evening, despite going down 3-0 — would believe that they could beat United at Old Trafford, but it is simply unattainable.

The financial gulf is so significant between the ‘big four,’ and their nouveau-rich contemporaries such as Manchester City, that as many as 10 or 12 of the clubs in the division are effectively playing in a different league.

On a purely footballing level, would anyone who watches Manchester United regularly have been able to tell the difference between Wolves’ reserves and some higher-profile sides who have surrendered in a much meeker fashion than McCarthy’s side did on that occasion. Probably not.

Many observers were surprised that any punishment, however token it may have been, was handed down to Wolves. The midlands club was also found to be in breach of rule B13, which requires teams to “fulfil its obligations to the league and other clubs in utmost good faith,” ostensibly to stamp the issue of morality on the decision and to claim the moral high ground over one of the Premier League’s more expendable assets.

It is difficult to argue with the Premier Division on the matter. Technically they are correct, but the hypocrisy and faux pomposity of the ruling smacks of injustice.

The precedent is now set. Manchester United, who recently brought up a run of 100 games where their starting line-up differed from the previous match, could well be in a similar scenario to last season come the final game of the season. Sir Alex, never one to shy away from controversy, will surely once again rest the majority of his first team, regardless of the implications of the decision on other teams.

What then will be the reaction of Scudamore and his cronies?

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