Frequently debated and often misunderstood, the three point deduction that Middlesbrough FC suffered in 1997 is a bone of contention for many a Boro fan. Instead of offering my own views, I present to you the transcript of Steve Gibson’s letter to Peter Lever of the Premier League.
Having read and digested it, I will leave you to draw your own conclusions. Feel free to use the comment section at the foot of the page to vent your spleen if you so wish.
I am in receipt of your letter dated 27th May 1997. As you may except I am deeply disappointed with it’s content. I believe that you have dismissed our request for an independent review on the technical legal strength of you case which is strongly enhanced by the Ouster clause an no consideration has been given to what is just and equitable. Given the legal strength of your case I have no alternative other than to accept the penalties imposed upon my Club which constitutes a £50,000.00 fine and the deduction of 3 points.
This resulted in the playing performance of the Club being artificially place in 19th position against the true merit position of 14th in the premier league. The consequences have been a loss in the ladder system payment of £528,575 and relegation to the First Division with a forecast revenue loss of £7,500,000.
I have carried out a full investigation of my Clubs involvement in this incident and I have taken all action which I consider appropriate. I am still left with a grave sense of injustice as I am unable to reach any other conclusion than that this incident was most certainly avoidable and that it was not avoided is, I believe, due largely to the action of the officials of the Premier League both on the day and subsequent to it.
The duty of the care and responsibility which the officials of the Premier League owe to the member clubs was not afforded to my Club and I believe that the facts show your officials to be both incompetent and negligent. The basis for this conclusion was presented to you at our meeting on Friday 16th May 1997 and then again in my letter to you dated 21st May 1997 and you have been unable, or unwilling to answer any of the questions I have posed. As a member of the Premier League clearly dissatisfied with the performance of its officials I must demand that you now respond.
Presently the only injured party is my Football Club is outlined below and I ask you immediately commission an independent enquiry into the actions of your officials and respond in full to the questions which follow our evidence.
FRIDAY 20TH DECEMBER 1996
1030 hours: Club Manager Mr. Robson advises Club Chief Executive Mr. Lamb that in addition to a serious injury crisis the situation has been exacerbated by a virus which has disabled 8 members of our playing staff, leaving available only 17 players from a squad of 40. The 17 fit players consist of 3 goal keepers and 5 young players who have never featured in the first team squad.
1045 hours: Club Doctor Dunn advises Mr. Robson and Mr. Lamb “I am uncertain how many of the 17 fit players will be fit tomorrow due to the virus”
1100 hours: Mr. Lamb rings the Premier League and asks to speak to Mr. Parry. Mr. Lamb is told that Mr. Parry is away from the office. Mr. Lamb asks to speak to Mr. Foster but is told that Mr. Foster is on holiday. Mr. Lamb eventually speaks to Mr. Cooke and asks for guidance on whether a game can be postponed.
He is told.
1. No power for the Premier League Board to postpone a game exists in rules of the Premier League.
2. The game could be postponed on the grounds of “just cause” but this had to be a decision made by Middlesbrough Football Club.
3. That Mr. Lamb should list the injured and ill players and confirm this by fax to the Premier League before the postponement is announced.
1130 hours: Mr. Lamb contacts Mr. Cooke further and invites the Premier League to conduct an independent medical assessment of the playing staff. MR. Cooke declines this offer and asks Mr. Lamb to send medical evidence by post.
1200 hours: Mr. Lamb drafts the letter containing the detail requested by Mr. Cooke and calls him to confirm that the wording and content is sufficient for the Premier League requirements.
1250 hours: Mr. Lamb sends the fax requested by Mr. Cooke having carefully considered that the circumstances constitute”just cause”. Mr. Lamb rings Mr. Cooke to inform him of the Clubs decision to postpone the game. Mr. Cooke volunteers to inform Blackburn Rovers and agrees that Mr. Lamb should inform the press at 1300 hours. Mr. Cooke informs Mr. Lamb of the potential breach of Rule B.19.1 after Mr. Cooke had spoken to Mr. Parry. Mr. Lamb tells Mr. Cooke that he is confident that the situation will amount to “just cause”.
1300 hours: At the weekly pre-match press conference Mr. Lamb and Mr. Robson announce the postponement of the game by Middlesbrough Football Club.
1430 hours: Mr. Lamb returns to his office, a message awaits that Mr. Foster had rung at approx. 1300 hours. Furthermore Mr. Finn of Blackburn Rovers had rung to express his surprise that he had heard of the postponement through the media. Mr. Foster speaks to Mr. Lamb and advises Mr. Lamb that the Club must accept the consequence of the postponement.
1. Why did Mr Cooke advise that no rule exists for the Board to postpone a game when power exists under rule B2(2)?
2. Why was Mr Lamb advised the Mr Parry was away from the office when we now know that he was on the premises?
3. Why did Mr Cooke not advise that there were no cases that could give guidance on what constituted “just cause” especially given the findings of the FA Board of Appeal in 1987 which instructed Mr Graham Kelly to change the “just cause” rule because it is unfair to ask Clubs to decide for themselves what amounts to “just cause” and then punish them if they get it wrong (Doncaster v Chester 16/12/87)?
4. Why did Mr Cooke not tell Mr Lamb that he had to play the game especially given the Doncaster v Chester 1987 FA Board of Appeal ruling which says that Clubs should always be told to play the game if they enough fit players.
5. Why did Mr Cooke ask Mr Lamb to send a fax and send medical evidence if he knew that the Club had more than 11 fit players and that the game should be played (Doncaster v Chester 16/12/97)
6. Why did Mr Cooke not ring Blackburn Rovers and inform them of the postponement as he volunteered?
7. At what time did Mr Cooke advise Mr Parry of my Clubs problems and what information did Mr Cooke pass to Mr Parry?
8. Did Mr Parry seek to constitute a Board meeting with Sir John Quentin and if not why not?
9. Why did neither Mr Parry, Mr Cooke nor Mr Foster at any time either verbally of in writing inform Mr Lamb that the game could not be postponed on the grounds of “just cause” for the reasons given orally and in writing by Mr Lamb to Mr Cooke?
THE PREMIER LEAGUE COMMISSION 14TH JANUARY 1997
The procedures instigated by the officials of the Premier League both leading up to and during the Commission Hearing evidence further the incompetence and gross negligence of the Officials of the Premier League and consequently prevented my Club from receiving a fair hearing. On 30th December we received a letter dated 23rd December from Mr Foster charging my Club with breach of rule B.19.1, failing to fulfil its fixture with Blackburn Rovers on the appointed date without “just cause”. We were instructed to supply the names of our representatives and witnesses as well as written submissions, witness statements and any other evidence by 7th January 1997. We noted the invitation to Blackburn Rovers to make representation to the Commission. We complied with Mr Foster’s request.
In the week prior to the commission Mr Castle, the Clubs Company Secretary, made several requests to Mr Foster asking for details of the Premier League case reciprocating the information we had previously supplied. This was denied to us. Furthermore, we received no indication from Mr Foster that Blackburn Rovers would have prominent legal representation at the Commission and at no time were we made aware of correspondence between Mr Foster and Blackburn Rovers. So concerned was Mr Castle with the lack of co-operation from Mr Foster that at 1030 on the 13th January 1997 a fax was sent to Mr Foster asking for an adjournment of the Commission and also expressing our deep concerns.
“I am concerned sufficiently to write to you now to express the reservations of this club in relation to the conduct of tomorrow’s Commission.
Firstly, I am concerned that we have not seen any statements or details of the evidence that you intend to bring by way of your submissions. We, on the other hand, forwarded statements and supporting documents to you last week. You will have had several days to digest our submissions but even if we receive yours today we shall have little opportunity to determine whether we require other witnesses and supporting evidence to help our case, or whether we require the advice of Leading Counsel.
The rules of natural justice demand that a party should know the case to be submitted and have an equal opportunity to address the issues put forward once all the facts are known.
I am therefore asking you to provide me with all the details of the Premier League case to be submitted to the Commission, together with supporting evidence, by return. If it is not possible for this Club to address any issues raised in this information between now and tomorrow, I reserve the rights to request an adjournment of the Commission tomorrow without any award of costs against the Club. Once we have this information we may consider it necessary to appoint counsel to represent this Club.”
At 1400 on 13th January 1997 we received a reply from the Premier League instructing our Club to attend the hearing and furthermore the letter included the following quote:
“While I will be representing the Premier League as the party which brought the charge rather than playing the act of the prosecutor I expect to act more in an advisory capacity, accordingly I have no intention of calling witnesses or making written submission.” This letter was from Mr Foster.
The strategy of my Clubs representatives going into the Commission was to concentrate only on the justification of “just cause”. After presenting our case we were somewhat surprised that Mr Foster presented any case for the Premier League in view of the previous day’s letter. He stated that the fixture list was sacrosanct and that fixtures could only be postponed with the consent of the Premier League. Furthermore, he stated that illness and injury could never constitute “just cause” for postponing a fixture as long as there were sufficient fit players to field a team. Mr Foster referred to previous decisions which stated this position.
Mr Foster submitted written submissions from both himself and Mr Cooke.
We are now informed that Mr Foster supplied 4 previous cases of postponed games to the Commission either immediately before or in the days prior to the Commission. Each case was detrimental to my Club’s strategy proving “just cause”. We became aware of this action several weeks after the Commission and only 7 days before the FA Appeal Board when the Premier League Solicitors, Denton Hall, asked Mr Castle to verify a bundle of documents.
It is now obvious to us, given the content of the documents supplied by Mr Foster to the Commission, that our strategy was fatally flawed. If “just cause” can not be justified in circumstances where a team has more than 11 fit men available then it was never possible for my Club to show “just cause”. Had we know that it was the intention of Mr Foster to lead the Commission this way our strategy would have been totally different. Furthermore my Club’s representatives were only given sight of Mr Cooke’s and Mr Foster’s submissions during the Commission hearing
1. Why did Mr Cooke or Mr Foster not give to my Football Club on Friday 20th December the same advice Mr Foster gave to the Commission?
2. Why did Mr. Foster present the Premier League case after writing to Mr Castle to in from him that he was not acting as prosecutor?
3. Why did Mr Foster present the Commission with written submissions from Mr Cooke and himself when less than 24 hours prior he wrote “I have no intention of calling witnesses or making written submission”?
4. Why did Mr Foster circulate previous case histories to the Commission?
5. Why did Mr Foster not circulate the same previous case histories to my Football Club?
6. Why did Mr Foster only circulate previous case histories which can only be assessed as damaging to my Clubs strategy?
7. Did Mr Foster subsequently circulate previous case histories once he was aware of our case and in doing so was he motivated to seek to damage our case?
8. Were the Commissioners aware that:
a. My club had not been given details of the Premier League case as presented?
b. My club had not been given the previous case histories presented?
c. Mr Foster had written less than 24 hours prior confirming:
i. He would not prosecute?
ii. He would not present written submission?
d. Mr Foster did not inform my club that Blackburn Rovers would be represented by Queens Council until 10.00 am on the day before the Commission hearing.
9. Did Mr Foster inform the Commission of the Doncaster v Chester case in which the FA Board of Appeal instructed Mr Kelly to amend the “just cause” rule because it is unfair to ask Clubs to assess for themselves what amounts to “just cause” and then punish them if they got it wrong. If Mr Foster did not inform the Commission was he being selective in the presentation of information and if so what were his motives?
10. If Mr Foster was, as he claims in his letter to Mr Castle, acting in an advisory capacity whom did he advise, on what subjects and when? What advice did Mr Foster offer my Club?
11. Did Mr Foster, prior to the Commission, hold any debate or discussion with its members and in particular with Sir John Quinton?
12. Did Sir John Quinton discuss this case with any of his officials i.e.Mr Cooke, Mr Foster or Mr Parry and if so could he then take an impartial view at he Commission?
13. Under the circumstances why was Sir John Quinton on the Commission?
14. Why was Mr Cooke not at the Commission and why does his submission only commence at 1245 hours and not at 1100 hours?
15. Why were my Club representatives questioned and cross examined by the Commission when neither Mr Cooke nor Mr Foster were subject to the same examination?
16. As Mr Cooke played such a prominent part in the events of the day in question was Mr Cooke purposely kept away from the Commission and if so why and by whom?
The Commission ruled against my Football Club and imposed the penalties outlined earlier. In order for my club to assess its position on the prospects of appeal we waited for the transcript of the hearing and written findings of fact which, under the rules of the Premier League, should have been sent to my Club within 7 days of the Commission. We received the required documents after 14 days after much prompting and many requests by Mr Castle to the Premier League.
1. Why did the Premier League not adhere to its own rules?
2. Who was responsible for the non-compliance with the Premier League rules?
3. What internal action has the Premier League taken to ensure further compliance?
Upon receipt of the transcript of hearing and written findings of fact we engaged Mr George Carmen QC. The advice given was such that there was a belief within my club that we would win the appeal on “just cause”. Seven days prior to the appeal we first became aware that the Commission had been given the case history by Mr Foster that was denied to us. Mr Carmen remained confident on “just cause” having regard to the Premier League rules as drafted and advised that my club had a very strong case. As a consequence he advised us that we should not jeopardise our long term relationship with the Premier League, its board or its officials by outlining their negligence. The appeal was a re-run of the facts heard at the Commission at which our case concentrated on proof of “just cause”, and mitigation or the penalties. Once again Mr Cooke and Mr Foster escaped examination and the Appeal Board upheld the penalties imposed by the Commission.
The content of this letter should have and could have remained within football but unfortunately the attempts of my Club to receive a fair and balanced hearing have been met with a mixture of arrogance, complacency, incompetence, negligence and self interest. The extent of the penalties imposed defy Natural Justice and my Football Club can no longer be forgiving.
I can see no evidence of the Premier League taking steps to ensure that other member do not suffer in the future from ambiguous advice or incomplete rules. By referring the issues raised in this letter to an independent inquiry you will go some way toward ensuring that these avoidable circumstances are never repeated which can only be in the best interest of football.
I believe that you Mr Lever (sic) come to this with clean hands and I do not doubt your integrity.