The Premier League's ill-conceived rule about 'full-strength' teams is in urgent need of rewording and reform
Manchester United's season finale against Blackpool isn't scheduled to kick off until Sunday, but already murmurings of discontent can be heard on the subject of what, if any, punishment the Premier League will mete out when Sir Alex Ferguson sends out his reserves. With the league title won and the small matter of a Champions League final against Barcelona very much ahoy, it will beggar belief if the United manager risks injuries to any of the squad likely to face the Spanish champions.
The powers-that-be at the Premier League have stated that they are ready to fine United should they field their stiffs against Blackpool, even if those stiffs were good enough to close out a Champions League semi-final against Schalke at their leisure. Although far from being United's strongest possible starting XI, between them the "weakened" side who took to the field that night have notched 217 Premier League appearances this season, and 1,342 during their combined time at Old Trafford. One of them, the third-choice striker Dimitar Berbatov, remains the top flight's joint-leading scorer this campaign with 20 goals.
With the title already secured, Sunday's match is little more than an unwelcome distraction for Ferguson. For the Old Trafford faithful, it's party time – a chance to hail their team of record-breakers as they get presented with the holy grail that is league trophy No19. But for Blackpool, this is anything but a nothing match – depending on results elsewhere, they could lose to United's second string and stay up, or win and go down.
With so much at stake for Blackpool and those clubs with them down among the dead men, United's likely decision to field a second-string side would clearly be in direct contravention of both Premier League rules B13: "In all matters and transactions relating to the League, each club shall behave towards each other club and the League with the utmost good faith"; and E20: "In every league match each participating club shall field a full-strength team." Of course while there's every chance that a Manchester United reserve team could comfortably beat Blackpool's best XI, there is nothing in the Premier League charter to state these rules are only enforced if the team judged to be below-strength loses.
Of course there's well-documented precedent. No shortage of it. There's a whiff of deja vu about this weekend. On the final day of the 2009 season with a Champions League final against Barcelona looming, United fielded a reserve team that beat Hull City, with the Tigers only managing to secure their top-flight status because results elsewhere went their way. As controversy raged over United's team selection in the run-up to that match, the Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore, opined on the record that "You have to be realistic: they've got a squad, and therefore you can't argue that they [can't] deploy the benefit of that squad in a game on Sunday."
Having deployed the benefit of that squad, United escaped censure, only for Wolves and Blackpool to incur the Premier League's wrath in high-profile cases since for committing the exact same offence. Admittedly, the fines handed down (£25,000 each, suspended in the case of Wolves) amounted to no more than a slap on the wrist, but it seems ridiculous that any team should be punished for breaking a Premier League rule the organisation's chief executive clearly considers a nonsense.
The question of quite who a bunch of London-based Premier League panjandrums think they are to decide which 11 players of a club's 25-strong senior squad constitute its strongest side for any given match is an entirely different can of worms we'll leave unopened for another day. Of more immediate concern is the need to reword and reform a brace of ill-conceived rules the Premier League appears to enforce arbitrarily depending on the stature of the club before the beak. If they are to practise what they preach "in all matters and transactions relating to the League", it's time they started behaving towards each club "with the utmost good faith".