Wolves and McCarthy punished for pragmatism

The FA has decided to fine Wolverhampton Wanderers £25 000 for fielding a weakened team against Manchester United on the December 15, 2009. The FA has now set a precedent for any event that bears any relevance to this case and will have to continue to hand out similar punishments to other offending teams.

Wolves manager Mick McCarthy decided that his side would benefit from a rest before a game against Burnley as they would have a greater chance of beating Burnley than United. Wolves went on to beat Burnley and therefore McCarthy’s decision to effectively forfeit the United game was justified, however, the FA have reasoned that McCarthy’s choice was in violation of Rule B13, which stipulates that clubs should do their best to be faithful to other clubs, i.e. not hand United a victory by playing a team that were inevitably going to lose. Arsene Wenger was particularly irate at McCarthy’s decision as United winning directly affected his team.

However, would the FA’s decision been the same had Wolves won the game, theoretically, they would have had to hand out the same fine as a weakened team was fielded. But, of course, how can a team be fined for winning a game? It would be a completely ludicrous idea and it shows the frail nature of this fine that has been bestowed upon Wolves. The fine itself is insignificant, as £25 000 will be as much as some of their players earn weekly, but it is the decision and not the content that is so important and debatable. Have the FA picked on Wolves because they are a lesser club – a weaker team for Wolves is visibly weaker than a under-strength Chelsea or Liverpool side, so would the FA fine a bigger club for making this selection choice? On countless occasions, the ‘big four’ have fielded weaker sides before a big European game in order to protect their best players from injury but as of yet, none have gone unpunished. Of course, very rarely do they change the team to the same extent as the 10 changes that McCarthy made but the principal is still there.

The big teams usually rest players before an important Champions League game or domestic cup tie. Perhaps the FA doesn’t fine them for doing this because it is in their best interest for the bigger clubs to be promoting English football by succeeding in these competitions. Wolves may be the victim of being a small club – the FA do not particularly care about how Wolves do in the league this season and subsequently, fining them was easier. It is an indictment of the corruption that many fans believe is residing in English football’s governing body. Essentially, the team that Wolves put out each week is the decision of Mick McCarthy and should not be swayed by a worry of receiving the wrath of the FA. McCarthy’s decision upset Wolves fans that had travelled to the game but now in hindsight, it was the correct decision as three points followed against Burnley. McCarthy thought pragmatically about the two upcoming fixtures and decided that Burnley was the more winnable tie of the two and hence, put his best players to action in that game.

The FA’s decision will also upset the Wolves players that played against United. The FA are meant to be, or at least are thought to be, a distant spectator of football that deals with the logistics of English football, not a body that decides who the best players are. As far as they are concerned, all players should be equal and footballing ability should not come into their mind when making disciplinary decisions. What they are effectively saying is that Andrew Surman and George Friend are not as good as Jody Craddock and Karl Henry.

Mick McCarthy has said of the fine: “I accept the Premier League’s decision. It was never my intention to break any of the Premier League’s rules, only to pick a team that was in the best position to get a result. I’m pleased the matter is now closed.” He has said that the matter is now closed but discussion of this fine will rumble on until a similar case occurs. For instance, Aston Villa and Manchester United face each other in next week’s Carling Cup final but United have a midweek game against West Ham and Villa an FA Cup replay against Crystal Palace. Both Sir Alex Ferguson and Martin O’Neill will be thinking about resting players for the final but now, the FA have said: “The board also wants to put clubs on notice that any future rule breach of this nature would be subject to a disciplinary commission that would have available a full range of sanctions.” If either manager drops the likes of Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Young or Gabriel Agbonlahor for these midweek fixtures, the FA will be in a quandary as to whether they should be fined.

If such a situation should arise and neither side is fined, the FA would presumably point to the magnitude of McCarthy’s change in selection as a main difference, but essentially, any change is a change and should not be questioned by the FA if it is taken in the best interest of the club.

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