Manchester City are facing the biggest financial scandal in the Premier League’s history after being hit with more than 100 alleged breaches of regulations.
Here are the key questions surrounding a bombshell case that threatens the sporting giant’s top tier future:
What punishments could City face?
Premier League rules effectively reserve the right to strip City of titles, hit them with points deductions and potentially even expel them from the competition.
Charges leveled at the club are unprecedented and the competition handbook gives the league enough wriggle room to decide on any proportionate punishment. Category W.51 in the league’s rules detail how breaches can lead to the commission making any “such other order as it thinks fit”.
Murray Rosen KC will now pick the independent panel hearing the claims, having been appointed chair of the Premier League’s first Judicial Panel in 2020.
The rest of the independent panel is yet to be decided on and the entire process is likely to take months. Uefa had pursued a narrower case against City before banning the club from the Champions League in February 2020. On that occasion, the club was able to overturn the ban via the sporting appeal courts.
This time, however, experts say the charges are more severe. Stefan Borson, a lawyer and former financial adviser to Man City, says the case includes the “strongest allegations imaginable” of financial doping. “Alarmist or not, the sheer extent of the PL charges are at a level that IF found proven, must lead to relegation,” he tweeted.
Expulsion rather than retrospectively taking trophies is seen as more likely because the latter would be an immensely challenging punishment to administer.
But as far as the Premier League is concerned, we are in uncharted territory. Points deductions have been few and far between since Middlesbrough became an early recipient, suffering a controversial relegation in 1996-97 with a three-point deduction for “illegally postponing” a fixture. The closest precedent to City’s case is perhaps Juventus, who were recently deducted 15 points following an investigation into their past transfer dealings.
Stephen Taylor Heath, head of sports law at JMW Solicitors, says, as it stands, that it is “impossible to predict the sanction but there may be an initial hearing on whether the charges are upheld and then a further hearing on a possible sanction.
“Any penalty must be within the panel’s powers set out in section W.51 but should also be proportionate, while any appeal may relate to findings in relation to the allegations and/or the punishment,” he added. “Equally the timing of any penalty – if there is one – would be crucial as a points deduction could have vastly different outcomes if retrospectively over the relevant period or future seasons.”
What have City been charged with by the Premier League and how does this differ with the Uefa investigation?
Both the Premier League and Uefa investigations into financial doping came after the Football Leaks scandal – but the English top tier’s probe is more extensive in its scope. The catalog of new charges covers 14 seasons from 2009-10 to the current campaign. It is a wider timescale to Der Spiegel’s claims in November 2018, partly due to City’s apparent lack of cooperation with the ensuing investigations. City violated rules requiring them to provide “accurate financial information that gives a true and fair view of the club’s financial position”, the league says in its charge sheet.
As well as breaching Uefa Financial Fair Play regulations from 2013-14 to 2017-18, the club is accused of breaking rules on Premier League profitability and sustainability from 2015-16 to 2017-18.
There is a clear crossover, however, with the allegations outlined by Der Spiegel five years ago, however. The documents, allegedly obtained by illegal email hacks, alleged £59.5 million that was supposed to have come from City’s principal sponsor, Etihad Airways, was paid directly to the club by the Abu Dhabi United Group. Der Spiegel also alleged that City set up a secret scheme called “Project Longbow”, which effectively hid about £40 million in payments to players, after the club had agreed a 20 million euro fine as a settlement for FFP breaches. Among other potential breaches of Uefa rules, Der Spiegel published emails from 2010, reportedly from board member Simon Pearce communicating with colleagues, in which it is claimed he discusses a £15 million deal with partner Aabar.
From the Premier League’s perspective, it is understood that intense attention has been paid to player and managerial contracts. Der Spiegel had alleged Roberto Mancini, the City manager between 2009 and 2013, received secret payments through a shadow contract via a consultancy arrangement with the Abu Dhabi-based club Al Jazira.
Is the timing of the investigation’s findings significant?
Both City and Kieran Maguire, a lecturer in football finance at Liverpool University, say there was a clear political advantage for the Premier League to announce the conclusion of the investigation in the same week that the Government was due to announce its white paper on football regulation . Whitehall sources confirmed to Telegraph Sport that the paper is now due to be published in a fortnight or so. But it had been previously expected this week.
“The Premier League is putting this out as part of their attempt to ensure that an independent regulator doesn’t go ahead,” Maguire told Telegraph Sport. “But in my view, the opposite is true. The fact that it’s taken them four years of investigation to make charges. That shows they don’t have the capacity, they don’t have the skill sets to regulate their own. And therefore it’d be better if there was an independent regulator.”
Insiders at the club also feel it is part of a strategy by the Premier League to show they are capable of adequate governance. “This is tactical,” one source said. Eyebrows were also raised at City that the club was not given any prior notification of the charges. It is understood that Ferran Soriano, the City chief executive, was first informed of the news as it was about to go live on the Premier League’s website.
“Manchester City FC is surprised by the issuing of these alleged breaches of the Premier League Rules, particularly given the extensive engagement and vast amount of detailed materials that the EPL has provided with,” City said in a statement.
Who is the Arsenal-supporting selector of the Premier League’s independent panel?
An independent panel assessing the Premier League’s 115 charges against Manchester City will be selected by an Arsenal season-ticket holder. Murray Rosen KC, who is also a keen cricket fan and MCC member, was appointed as chair of the English top tier’s first judicial panel in 2020. His role in the City case has yet to be confirmed but he will play a key role in the coming weeks in picking an independent commission assessing the biggest financial scandal in the league’s history.
A source insisted it has yet to be decided whether he could chair the panel, but he is one of the country’s leading figures in sports resolutions. He will play a crucial role in the process in the coming weeks, at least as the panel is finalized. A 2019 profile of Rosen by the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills details how he is a regular on the terraces of the Emirates watching City’s title rivals Arsenal. “When not working on sports, culture and commercial disputes, he likes little more than to watch (he is an Arsenal season ticket holder) – and occasionally to participate, real tennis and table tennis being particular favourites,” the article adds.
The rest of the independent panel is yet to be decided on and the entire process is likely to take months. Murray has had a lengthy career in sports resolutions as well as the courts, having become a QC aged 39 in 1993. In 2016, he began working “exclusively as an arbitrator and mediator, with a focus on resolving disputes rather than fighting them”, his profile adds.
“My reputation at the Bar was as a somewhat aggressive and certainly tenacious advocate,” he has previously said. “Now that I no longer have to represent disputants, I have tried to adapt those skills to a more obviously constructive end – finding solutions, preferably by agreement. It seems to be working and, frankly, it is what all disputes lawyers should be contributing that, at least later in their careers.”
His profile adds: “His arbitration work includes domestic disputes for Sport Resolutions, a body that he originally helped to set up, and numerous football cases, both disciplinary and commercial, as well as disputes in motorsport, cricket (he is a longstanding MCC member ) and almost all others, including even the martial arts.”
On Monday, the Premier League referred City to the independent commission which Rosen is expected to head. Alleged rule breaches stem back to 2009. City are also accused of not co-operating since the investigation started in December 2018.
City said they were “surprised” by the charges and are supported by a “body of irrefutable evidence”. The commission can impose punishments ranging from a fine and points deduction to expulsion from the Premier League.
Will City appeal again?
There is no mention of an appeal yet from City’s lawyers as the club is still hoping to escape any serious punishments. It is likely that the next process could take months to conclude as both the club and the league fight their case before a new panel. City previously fought their Champions League ban from Uefa via the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. Despite watering down the punishment in 2020, the appeal court concluded the club should be “severely reproached” for showing “blatant disregard” to financial fair play investigators.
However, under Premier League rules, the club will not be able to appeal any sanction via Cas as the European court is not recognized by the clubs. Instead, the club would have to pursue options via London law courts. For now, however, they are only commenting on their upcoming fight to clear their name via the independent panel. “The club welcomes the review of this matter by an independent Commission, to impartially consider the comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence that exists in support of its position,” City said. “As such we look forward to this matter being put to rest once and for all.”
Leading sports lawyers explained how the case against City cannot be appealed to Cas as “the rules of the Premier League constitute a contract between the Premier League and the clubs”. “This means that all clubs have accepted such rules, including Manchester City,” said Gregory Ioannidis. “Uefa rules allow for appeals to Cas against decisions rendered by Uefa. The PL rules do not allow for such appeals unless there is a specific agreement to the contrary between the parties. That’s the difference in procedure.”