MARTIN SAMUEL: Middlesbrough and Wycombe's lawsuits of Derby are based on fantasy seasons


What stopped Middlesbrough becoming a Premier League club at the end of the 2018-19 season? Derby, apparently.

Not the six straight games they lost between March 9 and April 6. Not taking one point from a possible 21 at a crucial stage in the season. Not losing home and away to Nottingham Forest who finished ninth. Not losing at home to Bristol City (eighth), Sheffield Wednesday (12th) or Preston (14th).

No, it was all down to Derby, whose cheating of the EFL’s financial fair play rules — the ambition tax, as it should be known — meant that they claimed sixth place by one point from Middlesbrough, who came seventh, therefore missing out on the play-offs, which they no doubt would have won. 

Middlesbrough just missed out on a place in the Championship play-offs to Derby in 2019

Middlesbrough just missed out on a place in the Championship play-offs to Derby in 2019

Derby County are on the brink of falling into liquidation within the next few days

Derby County are on the brink of falling into liquidation within the next few days

Victory must be presumed if Middlesbrough’s case against them is to be worth anywhere near the £40million compensation widely reported. A failed play-off campaign accrues nowhere near that. Forbes do not breathlessly discuss the fortune from merely getting into the play-offs. 

It is winning that is football’s equivalent of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. For Derby to owe Middlesbrough any figure worth having, it is the Premier League they must have been denied, not the opportunity to slump forlornly on the Wembley pitch while another team gallivants with joy.

For Middlesbrough’s case to succeed, then, certain assumptions must be made. The first is that they would have done something over two legs that they hadn’t managed all season: namely beat Leeds. If Middlesbrough had taken Derby’s spot their play-off semi-final opponents would have been Leeds, who finished third, nine points ahead. And Middlesbrough’s results against Marcelo Bielsa’s side that season were a 0-0 draw at Elland Road, and 1-1 at home. So they didn’t lose, but nor did they win.

It is a leap of faith that they would have progressed in what is essentially a cup tie. The clubs who eliminated Middlesbrough from the domestic cups that season were Burton Albion and Newport County. Weakened teams, naturally, Middlesbrough made six changes for the Burton game, five for Newport, but we’re playing fantasy football here, remember. Everything counts, everything doesn’t. It’s all imagination.

So, having beaten Leeds — who, by the way, defeated Middlesbrough home and away the following season, 5-0 on aggregate — only Aston Villa stood between Middlesbrough and the Premier League. And it’s a good job these meetings are taking place in the realms of the unknown because here on earth when Villa played Middlesbrough that season they won 3-0, both home and away. 

The league table, and results, suggest Villa were a much better team than Middlesbrough at the time. We can never know what might have happened in a third meeting, which will be Middlesbrough’s case; but we could make a calculated guess; certainly if the very future of Derby depends on it. 

Leeds United defeated Middlesbrough home and away during the 2019-20 season

Leeds United defeated Middlesbrough home and away during the 2019-20 season

And it does. The club is looking at potential liquidation and any sale is being complicated by lawsuits from Middlesbrough and, incredibly, Wycombe Wanderers — the lucky losers of the pandemic. Wycombe also claim that their season, 2020-21, was the work of another club, and they would have maintained Championship status were it not for Derby’s cheating. This ignores their failure to win a match until October 31, or record more than two wins before December 29.

Equally, Wycombe only arrived in the Championship by an arbitrary calculation that defies all reason, the great beneficiaries of 3.7 points for a win.

In 2020, when the EFL curtailed the League One season due to the pandemic, they also decided to maintain promotion and relegation. But with no matches being played, they turned to the realms of fantasy. League positions would be settled on points per game. The total number of points for each club would be divided by the games they had played, and used to make a calculation across 46 matches.

Using PPG, Wycombe, who had a game in hand, jumped from eighth to third, based on 1.73 points per game. Yet their game in hand was away at top of the table Coventry, who were averaging 1.97 points per game. That made the imaginary Coventry versus Wycombe a 3.7-point match. Yet when Wycombe’s promotion rivals visited Coventry and played a real game with real footballers, they could only receive three points, maximum. 

Along with Middlesbrough, Wycombe Wanderers are filing lawsuits against Derby

Along with Middlesbrough, Wycombe Wanderers are filing lawsuits against Derby

One might think, then, that in the circumstances Wycombe would consider themselves lucky to get a crack at the Championship and accept their fate — just as the teams they leapfrogged in 2020 accepted theirs. But no. Wycombe have a grand sense of entitlement and think they went down because Derby cheated, not because they were over-promoted by an EFL whim, so want paying out, too.

Interestingly, if League One was curtailed now and PPG enforced, Wycombe, who are top, would be overtaken by second-placed Wigan and fourth-placed Rotherham and demoted to the play-offs. Fascinating to hear their thoughts if that happened.

These lawsuits matter because, as specious as they may appear, if successful they could count as football debts, requiring priority repayment. Quantuma, Derby’s administrators, fear if that were the case, the value of the settlement would be almost as big as the entire value of the club.

No buyer is prepared to move until this is resolved. And without a saviour Derby could be just a week from liquidation. Where are the EFL in this? Incredibly, their main involvement is alleged to be a deal with Middlesbrough to stop Steve Gibson suing them over failure to regulate Derby efficiently. This may actually have paved the way for Middlesbrough to sue Derby instead. 

Of course Middlesbrough and Wycombe are also emboldened in their mission to prove a football club is not responsible for its results or league position by the precedent set when Sheffield United sued West Ham. 

Derby County are just days away from potential liquidation as they seek a new buyer

Derby County are just days away from potential liquidation as they seek a new buyer

Lord Griffiths ruled that Sheffield United did not go down because they scored fewer goals away from home, or lost more away games than any other team in the Premier League in 2006-07, and they didn’t go down because they failed to avoid defeat by Wigan on the final day of the season.

Winning just two games before November 28 was incidental as was a run of two wins, two draws and seven defeats in their last 11 matches, eight points from 33. No, Griffiths decided, Sheffield United were relegated because West Ham hid paperwork regarding Carlos Tevez. West Ham paid compensation of £10m, which Sheffield United invested wisely on falling through another division.

So here we are. One imagines football knows Griffiths made a rogue decision because in 14 years nobody has sought to use its precedent. Until now. So this isn’t merely a little squabble between faraway clubs of which we know nothing. If Middlesbrough and Wycombe are allowed to replay entire seasons as fantasy, one day we could lose some of English football’s most iconic moments, such as Sergio Aguero’s title-winning goal. Bird & Bird, an international law firm, are currently revisiting all the historic FFP claims against Manchester City, at the request of the Premier League, under pressure from rival clubs.

We know the end game: to clip City’s wings, beneath the guise of preventing related-party sponsorships at Newcastle. In truth, few are greatly worried about Newcastle for now — they might not even be in the Premier League next season — but City are a proven threat. 

Middlesbrough owner Steve Gibson (centre) is taking legal action against Derby County

Middlesbrough owner Steve Gibson (centre) is taking legal action against Derby County

Now, if the Premier League can prove financial wrongdoing where UEFA failed, and if Derby end up responsible for Middlesbrough’s continued presence in the Championship, and Wycombe’s return to League One, who might come to claim Manchester City’s titles in 2011-12 or 2013-14? And won’t that be a delight; the same asterisk- ridden roll of honour that distinguishes Italian football?

Derby broke the rules, we know that. Yet nobody can argue they have not been punished. They have had 21 points deducted and stand on the brink of extinction. At what point is enough enough?

Earlier this week the EFL issued a statement explaining their stance on Derby. It ran to 2,058 words and included answers to such grave enquiries as: ‘Does the EFL have a vendetta against Derby County?’

‘The EFL has no vendetta against any of its member clubs,’ it was earnestly explained. To which it might be argued that if you’ve got to clarify, as a nurturing administrative body, that you are not engaged in what can be defined as anything from ‘a prolonged and bitter quarrel or campaign’ to ‘a blood feud’ with one of your founder member clubs, you might want to look at your own processes. Equally, nothing shrieks top governance like an important statement being released at 9.31pm on a Monday.

Maybe this is football’s future. Sue your way to success. Of course, the EFL should have addressed it long ago; but were too busy saving their own skin to save Derby.

Why don’t FIFA rate Salah?

Several years ago Yaya Toure was asked to name his best XI, picked from former team-mates. He didn’t do that. He named the best 11 players with whom he played. To accommodate them all, there were some unusual selections. Thierry Henry was left back; Sergio Aguero played midfield. Any mug can do that. It didn’t make him look the smartest.

This week, FIFA named their best XI from the last year. This was set out in a random 3-3-4 formation to give the illusion of possibility, but there all pretence ended. The three defenders were central but there were no full backs, wing-backs or wide players at all. 

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah was snubbed by FIFA in the governing body's team of the year

Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah was snubbed by FIFA in the governing body’s team of the year

On the flanks of the front four were Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi — because FIFA are nothing if not starstruck — who would be jostling for position with Robert Lewandowski and Erling Haaland.

It was a team picked by illiterates, by men so in awe of celebrity that they could not bear to put out a balanced, coherent XI rather than the world’s most famous footballers.

It was only a surprise David Beckham didn’t get in.

There was, however, one glaring omission — apparently FIFA don’t rate Mo Salah. What, not even at left back?

Thorpe had to go for batting woes, not booze shame 

Even before the debacle of the leaked video, in no circumstances could Graham Thorpe continue as England’s batting coach. 

Having presided over a tour in which, in 10 innings, England’s top score was 297, there is no evidence that his methods work, or are even considered. Indeed, England’s batting worsened — their highest score was made in the first Test — the longer they were under the supervision of Thorpe. 

Their Test average in Australia was a decimal place above 200. Cigars, boozing, videos aside, Thorpe’s position is untenable. 

England's batsman flopped at the Ashes in Australia under the coaching of Graham Thorpe

England’s batsman flopped at the Ashes in Australia under the coaching of Graham Thorpe

Don’t blame China, blame IOC

It is not China’s fault if athletes are intimidated or punished for speaking out against state brutality during the 2022 Beijing Games. China has repressive, totalitarian rulers who crush any dissenters and treat their people despicably. They’re just doing what they do. One might as well ask clouds not to rain as China not to behave abominably.

So the fault lies with the IOC for giving such a country the Olympics. And not once, but twice. The IOC are the oppressors’ enablers. Never forget that.

Doctors believed they had detected lesions on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s heart following his brush with covid and he underwent further tests and investigation. Aubameyang has received many thorough medical examinations at wealthy clubs such as Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal, and nothing has shown up before. It was a worry. Covid can do this.

It may be the worst of the pandemic is over in some countries, but this remains a vicious, random, disease that can rear up horribly against even fit and healthy individuals, for reasons we cannot fully explain. It moves in ways that don’t always make sense. Much like Aubameyang, who took a detour to Dubai for a night out, on his way to the Africa Cup of Nations with Gabon. He got the all-clear: but was it worth it?

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had health concerns with his heart prior to flying to AFCON

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had health concerns with his heart prior to flying to AFCON

Ollie Robinson is a good bowler who became little more than a trundler on Australian wickets. He was bowling at speeds England have long known rarely break through out there. Fitness was the issue, according to bowling coach Jon Lewis. And there really is no excuse for that. Jack Leach may be short of the skill to be a Test bowler, but basic fitness should come guaranteed.

The most worrying tale to emerge from this tour is of the player who refused to take a standard skin fold test and accused the coaches of ‘fat-shaming’ him. If you are a pro athlete, you’ve got to be fit. That’s not fat-shaming, that’s a fact. If you’re not happy about that, the world will always need van drivers.


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