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From The Times
June 20, 2007
Moral ground crumbling under feet of McCabe
On April 26, 2007, two days before Sheffield United played Watford, the local paper, the Sheffield Star, quoted Neil Warnock, the manager, on the availability of Steve Kabba, a striker he had sold to the opposition for £500,000 in January.
“Steven can’t play,” he said. “I actually checked myself yesterday to make sure – you can’t afford to take any chances.”
The local paper was unequivocal in its interpretation of this information. “Sheffield United have confirmed that Steve Kabba, the striker they sold to Watford during the January transfer window, will not be permitted to feature for his new club during Saturday’s Premier League fixture at Bramall Lane,” the Star reported. “A clause inserted into the £500,000 deal which took the 26-year-old to Vicarage Road explicitly stated that Kabba would not be allowed to play against his former employers until the end of the season.”
Kabba completed a permanent move from Sheffield United to Watford on January 26, 2007. He played in every Barclays Premiership match for Watford immediately after that date, with the exception of a 2-2 draw against Charlton Athletic on March 3. And then, on April 28, he did not appear in the squad for a game away to Sheffield United, which Watford lost. This is how his former club carried the news on its official website: “Striker Steve Kabba is ineligible to play in this weekend’s fixture, due to a clause in his £500,000 move from Bramall Lane in January.”
The official Watford website was equally convinced of an agreement. “Ex-Sheffield United striker Steve Kabba is ruled out of the game – it was a feature in his contract when he signed for the ’Orns in the January transfer window,” it reported. The same information was contained in Sheffield United’s match-day programme.
The official nature of these pronouncements cannot be emphasised too strongly. These websites are where fans would go for club statements, to book tickets, for video highlights, live match commentaries, club shop purchases and televised news. At the bottom of each page on sufc.premiumtv.co.uk it states: “All materials on this website copyright Sheffield United Football Club and FLi. No editorial or photography may be reproduced elsewhere without prior permission from Sheffield United Football Club.” In other words, this is not a service that takes a wild punt on Sheffield United team news.
The Watford website, www.watfordfc.premiumtv.co.uk , is similarly unambiguous. “In association with EA Sports, our dedicated team of journalists brings you exclusive, official news from the heart of the club first!” it boasts. “All material on this website copyright Watford Football Club and FLPTV Ltd.”
And yet we are expected to take at face value the explanation of Kevin McCabe, the Sheffield United plc chairman, that this dedicated team of official club journalists would mistakenly invent an illegal arrangement between Watford and Sheffield United and send it into cyberspace where it could be read by anybody. And, coincidentally, Warnock would have the same brainstorm.
Welcome to the new morality, as perceived by Mohamed Al Fayed, the Fulham chairman, Dave Whelan, of Wigan Athletic, and McCabe, a man so addicted to his code of fairness he just had to tell everybody about it again, midway through this week’s arbitration hearing over the Carlos Tévez affair, when the opposing side had not even completed its evidence, in a manner that those not familiar with such high-minded principle might call prejudicial.
For those who enjoy irony in the raw, the man chosen to represent Sheffield United’s Campaign for a Good Old Carve-Up at this week’s arbitration hearing was David Pannick, who has already successfully argued for one of the greatest carve-ups in the history of sport, the right of a multimillionaire pop producer called Peter Winkelman to grab Wimbledon Football Club and transport it 80 miles to the city of Milton Keynes in 2002. Sir Philip Otton, chairman of the arbitration panel, was part of a three-man committee that agreed the move. It found that keeping Wimbledon at their home was “not in the wider interests of football” and accepted a set of estimated figures to justify the move that were later shown to have overstated Wimbledon’s impoverishment by £4.2 million.
Monday brought evidence on Sheffield United’s behalf from Rick Parry, chief executive of Liverpool, whose pursuit of a contracted West Ham United player, Yossi Benayoun, unfortunately leaked out this summer, causing him to stall on a new contract at Upton Park. Those smelling a rat, or a vested interest in West Ham’s demotion, would be wrong. Parry and Liverpool would never be involved in anything as underhand as “tapping up”; not since becoming the first club to be successfully charged with the practice, a fine of £20,000 imposed for the poaching of Christian Ziege, the Germany international, from Middlesbrough in 2002. Still, if West Ham were relegated and Benayoun was then to become available to Liverpool at a bargain price, what a happy coincidence.
The new morality has it that only one Premier League club has failed to act with honour in the transfer market in the past 12 months, and that is West Ham. Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington would no doubt beg to differ, as would anyone who has paid even passing attention to the transfers involving Kabba and Tim Howard, but if Sheffield United could have sat as high up the Premier League table as they have on the moral ground since May, the club would not be in limbo this morning.
Yet while demanding reinstatement and West Ham’s relegation over undisclosed agreements made with Kia Joorabchian, the agent, concerning the Tévez deal (which were never acted upon), Sheffield United are now under scrutiny over the allegation of a sneaky deal struck around Kabba, which was also undisclosed but, according to Warnock, was certainly acted upon, in one of only two Premiership matches that the club won after February 10. Isn’t it a shame when bad things happen to good campaigns?
If the Kabba transfer was corrupted, Watford would be in breach of Premier League rule U18, which governs third-party interference, but Sheffield United would have fallen foul of rules U3 and B13. The first states that: “. . . a club shall not either directly or indirectly be involved or have any power to determine or influence the management or administration of another Club or Football League club.” Which picking Watford’s forward line for a visit to Bramall Lane would certainly contravene. B13 states: “. . . in all matters and transactions relating to the league, each Club shall behave towards each other and the league with the utmost good faith.”
If any contract controlling Kabba’s appearances after he had signed for Watford had been placed before the Premier League it would have been instantly revised, so if there was an agreement in writing, it was withheld. Alternatively, Sheffield United and Watford utilised a gentleman’s agreement (translation: carve-up) in the manner of Everton and Manchester United over Howard.
The Howard deal, in which he signed for Everton on the condition he could not play against his former club, Manchester United, has been written off by the Premier League on the grounds that it was a gentleman’s agreement (translation: carve-up) and as nothing was written down, nothing could be proved (despite the admission by David Moyes, the Everton manager, that an arrangement existed and, according to Manchester United, the prior knowledge of Dave Richards, the Premier League chairman).
The investigation into Kabba’s transfer is continuing, however, making the present stance of McCabe and his various PR manipulators at least risible and, at best, brazenly hypocritical.
To believe the Kabba deal was fair, one must first be convinced that an official information outlet of Sheffield United would carry false information about the club and this would go uncorrected for almost two months. Next, one must believe the same could happen at Watford and the factual error, coincidentally, would concern the same issue, the same player and would also stand unchallenged.
Warnock would need to have been shown or informed of a false document or agreement, and his opposite number, Adrian Boothroyd, would need to have found it reasonable that, having played in a run of 14 out of 15 matches against the majority of Watford’s rivals near the bottom of the table (including a starting role in a win over West Ham), a player who was not injured and had been involved in the previous eight matches should disappear entirely from the Watford lineup against his former club. Accept this and you accept McCabe’s explanation that the transfer of Kabba was open and above board. Maybe I’m cynical, but I think it stinks.
More likely, the reports would have been the result of information provided by officials at the clubs, such as Warnock, who were unaware that rules may have been broken. In the same way, Moyes and his head of media, Ian Ross, talked quite openly ...