Football’s E20 ruling brings with it a lorry load of trouble

Around 18 months ago, Wolverhampton Wanderers played a weakened team against Manchester United in a league match.

I was furious. Well, quite miffed anyway. I thought it disgraceful that they would throw in the towel for a football match, and thought it unfair on United’s competitors that they chose to do this once against United. It’s not as if a full-strength team couldn’t possibly have got a result at Old Trafford, however unlikely it may have been.

In the end, Wolves got a suspended fine. And since then, it not surprisingly happened again, and resulted in a £25,000 fine handed out to Blackpool for fielding a “weakened team” against Aston Villa in November – when they faced four games in 12 days (and narrowly lost 3-2). Ian Holloway threatened to resign if they were fined, but not surprisingly, didn’t.

The Premier League said this at the time: “In reaching a decision the Board took into account the team fielded by Blackpool in its match against West Ham United, and in subsequent league matches.”

It was slightly different with Wolves, as McCarthy had also spoken about how he saw no chance of getting a result – so was basically admitting that he had thrown the towel in (yet his fine was suspended!). Holloway on the other hand was adamant that he was simply using his 25-man squad as he saw fit, claiming that all teams have to submit squads, and that he should be allowed to use them.

What is clear is that both played weakened teams. The opinion a few journalists have put forward (and Holloway too) that a 25 man squad is there to be used and all players are equal is utter hogwash. Clearly any manager has a preferred 11, or close to it, and has other players there as back up and nothing more. If Holloway really thinks all of his squad to be equals he needs to explain why most of the team that faced Aston Villa that day have barely featured since.

Playing weakened teams in cup competitions is a different argument, and I wrote recently how I would have been disgusted as an Aston Villa fan at the weakened team Houllier put out against Manchester City as it was throwing away the chance of a trophy, and was deeply unfair for the fans that travelled down to watch their team limp to a 3-0 defeat. Likewise, the Wolves fans that travelled to Old Trafford that day may have preferred to have saved their money if they had know the team that was being put out.

This debate once more came to a head again at the weekend, when it was widely reported, and came to pass, that Manchester United would make wholesale changes to their team for the visit of Blackpool, with the impending Champions’ League Final in mind.

The Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore, confirmed no action would be taken over United’s selection. “As far as weakened teams are concerned, the Premier League has only ever applied the rule twice when it’s been an extreme case and somebody has changed all 10 outfield players and then the week after gone back and changed the 10 back again. That’s not going to happen.”

So it seems you have to change your whole outfield team to get in trouble. Yet as I will mention below, the rule does not state that at all, merely that every team picked should be full strength.

All things considered, I think the theory of fining a club for playing a weakened team is fine. However, the practice of fining a team is different, and bordering on farcical. This is because it is a rule that is simply unworkable.

The controversy revolves around E20 – no, not the fictional nightclub in Eastenders, but the Premier League’s rule E20, which states “In every league match each participating club shall field a full-strength team”.

A simple enough ruling, but in that one short sentence is a lorry-load of trouble.

One of the problems with enforcing the rule is the double standards. If United or Arsenal or Chelsea etc dropped 10 players for a league match, they could still put out a team that stands a good chance of getting a result. The smaller teams cannot. And if the likes of United did that and won the game, it’s hard to fine them when they picked up the points anyway. In fact, it’s nigh on impossible. And yet if the Premier League wants the ruling to work then it must be applied consistently, and thus, in theory, the big teams should be fined too. But that can’t really happen can it? And thus the ruling becomes little more than a punishment for smaller teams for not having the squad depth of the big boys.

It should also be noted that it’s harder with the bigger teams to know what a weakened team is. Their squads are of course deeper, due to extra resources obviously, and due to fighting the season on more fronts they often rely less on a set starting eleven, but use the squad to fuller effect.The odd change or two would be commonplace week by week even with a fully-fit squad, so the lines are blurred on just how weakened a team would be when wholesale changes are suddenly made.

The Premier League has partly brought this on itself by implementing 25 man squads, thus giving the managers the excuse of simply utilising their resources. And you cannot blame the big teams for resting players when they have a big game coming up and if that particular league game isn’t as important to them. And you can’t really blame the smaller teams for utilising their more meagre resources and targeting some games more than others in their quest to reach that magical 40 point mark.

All of which leaves a huge mess that is difficult to sort out. The rule really can’t be left as it is, and perhaps it would be best to accept that teams will use their squad as they see fit, however much you may disagree with that, and let them get on with it.

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