Premier League has created the impression of a rigged game with PSR | Paul MacInnes

Estimated read time 6 min read

Everton FC, the grand old team, edged closer to a first relegation since 1951 on Monday. Pretty much. The whole business may not actually be resolved until after the season finishes or could bleed into next season. But put all that to one side and the picture is crystal clear. If you squint. From a certain angle.

The Premier League’s profitability and sustainability rules (PSR), rightly or otherwise, are turning into something of a laughing stock. Rules which had previously never led any club to receive a sporting sanction have seen two docked points this season. Everton have been punished on two occasions, in fact, although their first punishment was reduced on appeal and their second, a two-point deduction for a £16m overspend, could yet be shrunk too. Nottingham Forest are also appealing their own four-point sanction.

For any fan of either club, or of any other relegation-threatened side, or of any team who might play one of these sides, or the fans of those clubs hoping to get promoted from the Championship (including the league leaders, Leicester, themselves the subject of PSR charges), this is a non-ideal situation. What is the point of gnawing your finger nails to the quick if the outcome on the field can be second-guessed by the ruling of an independent commission? And why is it that some clubs face immediate sanctions while others can wait for a season (Leicester won’t be punished until next term), and some can apparently defer the day of judgment endlessly through enthusiastic engagement with the legal profession?

It’s a rum conundrum which does not reflect well on “the world’s most-watched competition”. It has embittered supporters without whom, lest we forget, the game is nothing. It has prompted unfounded claims of corruption and talk of asterisks hanging over the record books. It has, furthermore, deepened divides between the clubs which make up the league and between clubs and the league itself. This new focus on compliance with spending rules has cast a shadow over the competition.

And yet it was the clubs who voted for it. Last summer it was they who agreed to treat alleged PSR breaches with more urgency. A whole new appendix was added to the Premier League handbook to spell out the very specific times and dates by which any process must be undertaken and completed, with all complaints to be resolved and punishments administered within the current season. This was a move that said the Premier League was taking financial irregularities seriously, and at the very time that the government was threatening to introduce an independent regulator to the game. Phew.

But just as the Premier League likes to talk about the “unintended consequences” of statutory regulation, there have been unintended consequences of taking a harder line on cost controls. One such, the absence of an agreed tariff of sanctions, helped lead to an outcome where Everton were docked a hair-raising 10 points in the first instance only for the punishment then to be reduced to six on appeal. This created an impression of chaos and Andy Burnham, the Everton-supporting mayor of Greater Manchester, went so far as to claim that the Premier League had engaged in an “abuse of process” by recommending a punishment to the independent commission (something the Premier League insists it was expected to do because there was no tariff).

A Leicester corner flagView image in fullscreen

Latterly there has also been concern over the timings so meticulously laid out in the appendix. A second set of charges brought against Everton, for breaches during a partially different time period, were only heard after the first set of charges were resolved. That meant the result wasn’t published until this week, a little over a month before the end of the season. The appendix states any appeal must conclude “no later than and if possible some time before 24 May” leaving the possibility that the verdict might not come until a few days after the season finishes. Written reasons explaining the latest sanction also revealed a third, ‘bifurcated’ process, which will address a further £6.5m in spending and almost certainly not be heard until next term.

Would these issues have been avoided had the Premier League and its clubs taken more time to develop a tougher enforcement regime? Perhaps not, but the sense of things coming apart after being arranged in a rush is hard to resist. It’s a situation made darkly comic by the fact that Premier League clubs have since decided they want to create a whole new system of PSR rules anyway. This change of heart, coincidentally, has left the Premier League unable to fulfil the UK government’s request that it make an improved offer of financial redistribution to the EFL.

There is one final unintended consequence, one that should have been foreseen. For a competition that inspires so much joy among so many people, the Premier League should be more careful about creating cynicism among those who follow it. Just as with the video assistant referee system, itself the subject of botched implementation which has led fans sitting for minutes on end waiting for a crucial goal to be overturned for an impenetrable infraction, PSR is now an abbreviation known by many and commonly used as a swearword. It has become a byword for a game that people feel is rigged.

This is not a good place to be in and the identity of the people responsible is clear. It’s the clubs who voted for these rules but, more importantly, it’s the clubs who’ve been breaking them and who necessitated their creation in the first place because of a fundamental inability, or unwillingness, to run football teams in a sustainable fashion. Estimates of combined losses among the 17 clubs who have made financial information available for the season 2022-23 (some have not) are in excess of £600m. That’s the heart of the problem right there. These enormous and continuing losses determine much of the decision-making that goes on in football. They are likely to occasion a few more unintended consequences yet.

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