The season of asterisks – PSR rulings have created a Premier League campaign like no other – The Athletic

By Daniel Taylor37m ago

And so, another plot twist beckons in this season of asterisks. Today, the verdict on Nottingham Forest. After that, a new hearing for Everton. And then the potential for all sorts of afters: the appeals, the recriminations, the possibility of lawsuits flying around. Roll up, roll up, for a Premier League season quite like no other.

The television companies prefer to call it the Greatest Show on Earth and, in a strange way, maybe it adds to the drama that the league table is going to have to be reconfigured, potentially several times, to take into account the two clubs who have breached the profitability and sustainability rules (PSR).

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Already, it has been modified twice to reflect, first, Everton’s 10-point deduction and then the reduction of that punishment, on appeal, by four points. In theory, it could happen four more times, depending on what Forest are punished, what Everton receive for their latest breach, and whether the two clubs lodge (and win) appeals. More and more, it feels like organised chaos.

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Amid all this uncertainty, a game of football broke out on Saturday. Forest, 17th in the table, drew 1-1 at 18th-placed Luton Town in a contest that finished with the home crowd chanting at their opponents: “Points deduction, it’s coming for you.” Luton, plainly, have the most to gain if the two clubs directly above them lose points, but their manager, Rob Edwards, was struggling afterwards when he was asked what those punishments might be, and what they might mean. For now, he is guessing, the same as all of us.

Even if Forest replace Luton in the bottom three, there is the strong possibility of an appeal, another hearing, a new verdict and, ultimately, another revision of the league table, lifting Nuno Espirito Santo’s side above the jagged line again. And then, the same again with Everton. Confused? We all are.

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“The first one has (happened) with Everton,” said Edwards, referring to the Merseyside club getting four points back. “We had to deal with that. It is quite chaotic, and it could be (again). It’s new for us all. I don’t feel comfortable, though, talking about what may or may not happen. Not yet, anyway.”

Vincent Kompany, manager of 19th-placed Burnley, said something similar before their 2-1 win against Brentford, in 15th position, on Saturday. He and Thomas Frank, the Brentford manager, will have a vested interest in the announcement about Forest’s punishment, expected at some point today (Monday). Crystal Palace, in 14th, will, too.

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Nobody can even be certain, though, that the legalities with Forest and Everton will be resolved before the end of the season. It may go longer. And you can imagine the uproar if we are still none the wiser at the 38-game mark. Who can argue with Keith Wyness, the former Everton chief executive, when he says the Premier League would be “a laughing stock”?

* Everton deducted six points following a breach of PSR

Matt Oldroyd, co-founder of Forza Garibaldi, the Forest supporters group, summed it up neatly when he described the club as having had “a grey cloud” above its head since the PSR breach was made public.

No football fan follows their club around the country expecting the team’s fate to be decided, to a large degree, by an independent commission. Nobody falls in love with the sport to learn about “super silks”, which barrister is representing which club, or to guess what may or may not have been said in some courtroom or arbitration centre.

“We have admitted our guilt, so this is more about presenting mitigating circumstances and attempts to keep the sanction as harmless as possible,” said Oldroyd. “Though I freely admit not really being up to speed with all of this. Rooting for my club in a court case is not something I ever envisaged happening.”

For the Greatest Show on Earth, this increasingly feels like the new norm.

Leicester City seem certain to become Leicester City* in next season’s league table, assuming they are promoted from the Championship. They, too, have allegedly overspent, making it likely they will be welcomed back to England’s top division with a PSR-related points deduction and an asterisk of their own.

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By that stage, we will know if Forest and/or Everton have managed to avoid being the first Premier League team to be relegated after receiving a points deduction since Portsmouth lost nine points in 2010 for going into administration.

What does it say about Everton, for example, that a book will be published in May about Farhad Moshiri’s tenure, written by the Merseyside football writer Richard Buxton, with the title of: “The Worst-Run Club in the Country”?

Forest have some extra mitigation, since they are being judged on lower spending limits after they came up from the Championship two seasons ago.

They are entitled, therefore, to feel they are being punished for their ambitions.

There is, however, an irony that they seem increasingly reliant on Chris Wood, their scorer against Luton at the weekend, whose arrival from Newcastle United for £15million ($19m at today’s rates), on reported £100,000-a-week wages, was a factor in Forest going over their limitations.

Wood (left) scored in the 1-1 draw with Luton on Saturday (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

There is another irony, too. Last season, Forest were among the clubs who wanted Everton’s punishment to be fast-tracked. It didn’t happen that way. But the rules were amended to ensure that it would in the future.

“Now it’s us on the other end of it,” said Oldroyd. “To use a line from Only Fools and Horses, we feel like a turkey that has caught Bernard Matthews grinning at it. Knowing towards the end of last season that we were edging beyond our PSR limits, it seems a little mad that we pursued such a course of action. Now it’s us with a knife at our throats.”

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A three-point deduction would put Forest level on points with Luton but with a marginally better goal difference. If the punishment is any heavier, Forest will spend the international break in the relegation zone.

“Our position in the top flight could effectively be decided by lawyers and officials rather than on the pitch,” said Oldroyd.

These are strange times. In another era, PSR sounds like a coaching drill to teach kids about passing, shooting and running. In today’s sport, it means months and months of legal work and, in Forest’s case, pinning their hopes on Nick De Marco, the King’s Counsel (KC) lawyer who has been defending the club. De Marco, a Queens Park Rangers fan, has been described as “the Lionel Messi of sports law”, which is probably another sign of the evolving landscape of top-division football.

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Whatever happens next, it is certainly difficult to remember any other season when a relegation battle has had so much uncertainty and guesswork involved. While all this slowly takes shape, there is also the rather unsatisfactory situation whereby the issues in the bottom third of the table are being heavily influenced by the legalities, but not the battle at the top.

There are glaciers in the Arctic, it seems, that move quicker than the legal process into the 115 charges for Manchester City led to a banner being unfurled at their stadium — “Pannick on the streets of London” — after Lord Pannick KC’s appointment last year to defend the club.

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Strange times, indeed. Has a legal man ever been lauded this way in professional football? Would anyone even recognise Pannick if he walked the length of Joe Mercer Way in his wig and gown? 

The song in question, an old classic by The Smiths, is called Panic. But another of Morrissey’s lyrics feels quite apt. “I wonder to myself,” he sings, “could life ever be sane again?”

(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

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Daniel Taylor is a senior writer for The Athletic and a four-time Football Journalist of the Year, as well as being named Sports Feature Writer of the Year in 2022. He was previously the chief football writer for The Guardian and The Observer and spent nearly 20 years working for the two titles. Daniel has written five books on the sport. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DTathletic

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