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Saturday, May 12, 2007

PREMIER REPORT

Gang of Four holding out hope courts will drop West Ham


LONDON — Celebratory glasses will be raised by those who escape relegation from the Premiership, but a nasty whiff of sour grapes surrounds the final round of fixtures tomorrow Sunday.

Christopher Davies

One from West Ham, which plays at Manchester United, Sheffield United and Wigan, which meet at Bramall Lane in the weekend's most intriguing match, will go down along with Charlton and Watford.

If the Gang of Four — Sheffield United, Wigan, Fulham and Charlton — have their way the relegation issue will be settled in the courts with West Ham docked 10 points for contract irregularities concerning Carlos Tevez. Whatever the moral rights of their argument they don't have a snowball in hell's chance of success with their crusade.

The Hammers were fined a record £5.5 million by the Premier League for breaking third-party regulations and allegedly lying about the contracts of Tevez and fellow Argentine Javier Mascherano (now Liverpool) when they signed from Brazilian club Corinthians last summer.

They were partly owned by a third party — Media Sports Investments — and the Premier League accused former West Ham chief executive Paul Aldridge of lying, which he denies.

While it is not explicitly against Premier League rules for a club to sign a player whose economic rights are owned by a third party, Rule U18 states: "No club shall enter into a contract which enables any other party to that contract to acquire the ability materially to influence its policies or the performance of its team."

When signing Tevez and Mascherano, West Ham entered into a private agreement with the companies who owned their economic rights. The contract stated that those companies had the right to terminate the players' contracts upon payment to West Ham of £2 million (Tevez) or £150,000 (Mascherano) in the January transfer window. By entering into that agreement, West Ham broke rule U18.

The Gang of Four believe a points deduction, normally imposed for such irregularities, rather than a fine should have been the appropriate punishment.

The Premier League decided against this as West Ham admitted guilt and the problems were caused by the previous Terrence Brown-led regime rather than new chairman Eggert Magnusson, who bought the club mid-season.

Dave Whelan, the Wigan chairman, is the prime mover behind the push to change West Ham's sanction and wants proof that Tevez was eligible to play when the Hammers won 3-0.

The Premier League's chief executive Richard Scudamore e-mailed clubs to say, "West Ham have assured us Tevez's contract has been terminated," and a new deal which does not breach any regulations signed.

Whelan wants "concrete evidence" the contract was canceled "by both parties" and this was completed before the teams met two weeks ago.

While the general feeling is that the £5.5 million fine is the best result West Ham has had this season, it is impossible to see how the Gang of Four can win this particular off-field battle.

Points-deduction punishments for contract irregularities are not set in tablets of stone, and the three-man disciplinary commission handed out what they thought was the appropriate punishment. The Gang of Four might not like it but they'll have to lump it.

By playing in the Premier League clubs agree to accept Premier League decisions in such matters and any legal case would fail.

End of story. Or it should be.

MICHAEL OWEN will play his third game for Newcastle against Watford this weekend since returning from a serious knee injury. Inevitably, the rumor mill is rife with whispers that the fit-again striker will be moving to new pastures this summer.

Newcastle doesn't have a manager — again — following Glenn Roeder's resignation earlier this month. In the last 10 years the Magpies have had six managers with Sam Allardyce, who quit Bolton recently, the favorite to be the next through the revolving door at St. James' Park.

The fan base is there and nowhere in England is there more passion than in Geordieland.

But it is 38 years since any silverware made its way into Newcastle's not exactly bulging trophy cabinet and the best it can hope for in the foreseeable future is to win the League Cup or F.A. Cup.

Owen returned from Real Madrid and signed for Newcastle in a £17 million transfer two years ago.

Why did he go to Newcastle?

Because his previous club Liverpool would not match the Magpies' offer, so Owen had little alternative than to join probably the most underachieving club in English football.

He played only 11 games in his first season before breaking a bone in his foot, recovering to play for England in the 2006 World Cup where he suffered a serious knee injury which ruled him out of most of this season.

It is understandable that Newcastle should expect loyalty from a player earning around £100,000 a week and who has played only 13 matches in two years.

Freddy Shepherd, the Newcastle chairman, said: "Michael has two choices: he can come out and tell our fans that he is happy here or I tell him none of the big four is interested because that's the case.

"The loyalty this club has shown him over the last two years, when he had injury problems in his first season and has missed virtually all of this season, deserves something in return. He has had a really serious injury and no one, least of all one of the biggest clubs, is likely to take a risk at this stage.

"He has to prove to everyone, himself and Newcastle United included, that he is fully recovered and not about to break down again."

Valid points but apparently Owen's contract allows him to leave for £10 million and it is a harsh fact of football life that the best players tend to play for the best clubs. Owen wants to play in the Champions League not the InterToto Cup, a backdoor entrance to the UEFA Cup.

Tottenham has a similar dilemma with Dimitar Berbatov, whose statistics of 11 goals in 28 Premiership starts do scant justice to the Bulgarian striker's talent.

Berbatov has been a revelation since signing from Bayer Leverkusen for £10.9 million last summer, rated by many observers as the best bit of business in the season just ending.

The striker's skill, technique, finishing, creativity and reading of the game make him an outstanding player, and to progress Berbatov needs to move to the next level.

Like Newcastle, Tottenham's only realistic hope of success is in the domestic cups next season and having proved himself in the Premiership, Manchester United particularly would be first in the queue if there is any chance of Berbatov leaving White Hart Lane.

Christopher Davies was a longtime soccer correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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