West Ham United co-owner David Sullivan confirmed that the club would be launching a complaint to the Premier League regarding Fulham’s team selection for the match against Hull City last Saturday.
Hull recorded only their fourth clean sheet at the KC Stadium on their way to a 2-0 victory that saw them move level on points with the Hammers with a game in hand.The controversy comes from the Cottagers’ decision to rest 6 players deemed to be first-choice in their respective positions ahead of their Europa League quarter-final clash against Wolfsburg. Despite their disappointment at losing the league fixture, with their Premiership survival seemingly assured and a host of teams separating them from the European places, the decision to prioritise the Europa League is understandable. Further than that, the decision was wholly vindicated by their 2-1 first-leg victory against the German champions.
Only two seasons ago Fulham were embroiled in a relegation scrap themselves and managed to survive on the last day at Reading’s expense courtesy of goal difference. Having followed up that narrow escape with European qualification, Fulham are well placed to appreciate the slender margins that exist in top-flight football. Instead of prioritising European competition, had the Londoners been relegated in the 2007/08 season, they could conceivably be fighting to remain in the Premiership after automatic promotion, or simply still trying to return – certainly Reading have struggled in the Championship since then. West Ham are understandably aggrieved as the result has increased pressure upon their already struggling side, yet it is arguable that the league as a whole is the acid test of a side’s quality and capabilities. Whilst every club experiences defining moments in its season, it is the cumulation of these moments that produces the final table. Had the Hammers secured more points up this stage, the debate is likely to become a non-event.
This is, of course, not the first time that the issue of weakened team selections has come into focus this season. Infamously, Wolverhampton Wanderers were handed a suspended fine of £25,000 when they changed all 10 outfield players for their league match against Manchester United last December. They lost the game 3-0 then, and the majority of the disquiet came from United’s rivals as they were deemed to have been gifted the three points. Since that match they have won four and drawn four of their last 15 games as they have put daylight between themselves and the relegation dog fight. At the time, the now former Hull City manager Phil Brown outlined the view of many, namely that each team has to focus on its own plight: “If Wolves are a Premier League team at the end of the season then Mick McCarthy was justified in his selection, end of story.”
What constitutes a ‘weakened side’ is key to deciding your stance on this issue. The Premier League’s decision to impose a fine on Wolves has created a potential minefield in terms of the current propensity for squad rotation, and has given West Ham the belief that they can succeed in their claim. Mick McCarthy has come out in support of Roy Hodgson and drew comparisons to his controversial selection policy: “It is just something that the high and mighty, who tend to look at their own teams, do not like when it is happening. It is about making the most of your squad and utilising your squad to the best of their abilities. That is what I did and that is what Roy did.” Despite the inevitable comparison being drawn, Fulham’s changes were not as wholesale as those implemented by McCarthy. Fulham’s extended campaign appears set to continue with their 2-1 win over Wolfsburg marking their 50th competitive game of the season. The January transfer window saw them make two additions to the first team squad in addition to the six that arrived over the summer, as Hodgson tried to bolster a squad that had largely over-achieved in qualifying for Europe. The added strain on the squad from European fixtures and an extended cup run go some way to justifying Hodgson’s selection and inhibit the FA from sanctioning a fine similar to that landed on Wolves.
It is also interesting to remember that West Ham were penalised heavily for non-compliance with the Premier League’s regulations on player registration after Sheffield United launched an appeal over the fielding of Carlos Tevez. The Argentine scored vital goals for the Hammers in the 2006/07 season as they narrowly avoided relegation at the expense of the Blades, and was a key factor in the arbitration panel adjudicating in their favour. The panel awarded a reported £30m as compensation for being relegated and with this kind of money at stake, especially in context of West Ham’s current financial predicament, it is easy to see why the Hammers feel aggrieved and are making their voice heard.