Ben Gray: The Premier League’s year of the asterisk had a fitting champions, but this isn’t sustainable

There’s always something that makes each and every Premier League season unique.

In recent times, campaigns have been affected and overshadowed by the pandemic, while the 2022/23 season had the small matter of a World Cup squished right in the middle of it.

The theme of this season however, was one tiny little symbol: *.

If you look closely enough, any league table you’ll find, including the one from the Premier League’s own Twitter account, will feature an asterisk or two, footnoting to the points deductions handed out to Everton and Nottingham Forest for breaching Profitability and Sustainability rules.

The Toffees were initially docked 10 points in November, before this was reduced to six on appeal in February, although they then had a further two points taken away in April for a second breach.

As for Forest, they were handed a four-point deduction in March, which was upheld following an appeal.

Thankfully from the Premier League’s point of view, this had no meaningful impact on the table; Everton finished 15th instead of 12th, while Nottingham Forest would’ve ended up 17th either way.

Crucially, no team was relegated as a result of a point deduction.

The three promoted clubs struggled to compete, an issue we examined in depth last week, and, as much as all neutrals got behind the Luton fairytale, their tally of 26 points was a pretty feeble effort, with this the lowest by any side finishing third-bottom in a top division campaign since West Brom in 1891/91, (24 points in three-points-for-a-win terms) but they played only 26 games and won the FA Cup.

To give you some idea of how unprecedented this year is, this was the 125th edition of the English top-flight and, in the previous 124 campaigns, just five clubs had ever received points deductions:

  • Sunderland 1890/91: Deducted 2 points- fielding an unregistered player.
  • Arsenal 1990/91: Deduced 2 points- brawl following match vs Manchester United.
  • Manchester United 1990/91: Deduced 1 point- brawl following match vs Arsenal.
  • Middlesbrough 1996/97: Deduced 3 points- failing to fulfill fixture against Blackburn Rovers.
  • Portsmouth 2009/10: Deducted 9 points: entering administration.

Profitability and Sustainability and independent commission are amongst the phrases that have entered the footballing lexicon this season, but this simply cannot continue, so much so that the Premier League clubs will vote on the issue of getting rid of PSR at their AGM this summer, looking to replace them with ‘anchoring’.

However, every time there was any news regarding Everton or Forest’s point deductions, the same question was asked, “what about Manchester City” with this phrase hovering over the Premier League like a dark cloud.

So let’s lay down some facts.

On 6 February 2023, the Premier League confirmed that, following a four-year investigation, they had charged Manchester City with an alleged 115 breaches of Profitability and Sustainability rules made between 2009 and 2018.

The charges are:

  • 54: Failure to provide accurate financial information, 2009/10 to 2017/18.
  • 14: Failure to provide accurate details for player and manager payments, 2009/10 to 2017/18.
  • 5: Failure to comply with UEFA’s rules including Financial Fair Play (FFP), 2013/14 to 2017/18.
  • 7: Breaching Premier League’s Profitability and Sustainability rules, 2015/16 to 2017/18.
  • 35: Failure to co-operate with Premier League investigations, December 2018 - February 2023.

In a statement released that day, Manchester City deny all 115 charges, claiming to have a ‘comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence that exists in support of its position’.

The club hired Lord Pannick KC to lead their array of lawyers, he reportedly earns more an hour than Kevin De Bruyne, leading to the bleak sight of supporters unveiling a banner to welcome their new arrival prior to a game against Aston Villa, signifying everything that is wrong with modern football.

So what do we know so far?

Well, this is not the first time Manchester City have been under investigation for financial irregularities.

On Valentine’s Day 2020, shortly before the world went into lockdown, UEFA banned Man City from competing in their competitions for two seasons having allegedly broken Financial Fair Play rules.

However, in July 2020, the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned this ban, ordering Man City to pay a €10 million fine instead, a decision Pep Guardiola and his coaching staff celebrated; another bleak image.

Now here’s the key distinction: CAS did not find Manchester City not guilty, rather they did not find them guilty.

That came about because of two issues; firstly, lots of the charges were time-barred, and secondly, CAS decided a large amount of the evidence could not be used as it had been hacked.

This related to the football leaks scandal of 2018, that ultimately saw Portuguese activist and whistleblower Rui Pinto arrested, published by German outlet Der Spiegel.

The following is pulled from an excellent Twitter thread by @santismagic outlining some of the alleged leaked emails relating to Manchester City, there are quite a few so we’ve chosen to include two, just to give you a flavour:

From September 2012: An email from Graham Wallace (Chief Operating Officer of Man City) to Simon Pearce (a Director of Man City’s board, a senior figure in the UAE Govt and a key advisor to both the ruler of the UAE and Man City’s Chairman). It also CC’s Ferran Soriano (Man City’s CEO).

“W𝘦 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘢𝘯 𝘰𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘢𝘭 𝘣𝘶𝘴𝘪𝘯𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦 𝘢𝘣𝘭𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘸 𝘴𝘦𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘭𝘺 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘤𝘢𝘴𝘩 𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘦𝘪𝘱𝘵𝘴 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘰 𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘣𝘢𝘯𝘬 𝘢𝘤𝘤𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘳𝘦𝘭𝘢𝘵𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘯𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘩𝘪𝘱 𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦 𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘶𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘰𝘴𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘳𝘦𝘭𝘢𝘵𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘥𝘪𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘵 𝘦𝘲𝘶𝘪𝘵𝘺 𝘧𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘪𝘯𝘨.... W𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘯𝘦𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘰𝘯𝘪𝘦𝘴 𝘸𝘦 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘢𝘵𝘵𝘳𝘪𝘣𝘶𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘰 𝘌𝘵𝘪𝘴𝘪𝘭𝘢𝘵, 𝘈𝘋𝘛𝘈, 𝘈𝘢𝘣𝘢𝘳 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘌𝘵𝘪𝘩𝘢𝘥 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘱𝘩𝘺𝘴𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘺 𝘳𝘦𝘮𝘪𝘵𝘵𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘰 𝘶𝘴 𝘣𝘺 𝘵𝘩𝘰𝘴𝘦 𝘣𝘶𝘴𝘪𝘯𝘦𝘴𝘴𝘦𝘴, 𝘢𝘴 𝘰𝘱𝘱𝘰𝘴𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘰 𝘢 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘣𝘪𝘯𝘦𝘥 𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘦𝘪𝘱𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘯𝘦𝘳/𝘦𝘲𝘶𝘪𝘵𝘺 𝘧𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘢𝘭𝘭 𝘳𝘦𝘮𝘪𝘵𝘵𝘦𝘥 𝘪𝘯 𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘭𝘶𝘮𝘱”

From December 2012: Email from Andrew Widdowson (Man City’s Head of Finance) to Simon Pearce (a Director of Man City’s board, a senior figure in the UAE Govt and a key advisor to both the ruler of the UAE and Man City’s Chairman).

𝘐 𝘢𝘵𝘵𝘢𝘤𝘩 𝘢 𝘴𝘭𝘪𝘥𝘦 𝘦𝘹𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘦𝘥 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘉𝘰𝘢𝘳𝘥 𝘣𝘰𝘰𝘬 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘪𝘯𝘥𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘢𝘮𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘤𝘢𝘴𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘸𝘦 𝘯𝘦𝘦𝘥 𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘦𝘥 𝘶𝘱 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘪𝘯 𝘑𝘢𝘯𝘶𝘢𝘳𝘺 𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦 𝘱𝘢𝘪𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘳𝘦𝘭𝘦𝘷𝘢𝘯𝘵 𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘯𝘦𝘳𝘴. £27𝘮 𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦 𝘧𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘥 𝘷𝘪𝘢 𝘌𝘵𝘪𝘩𝘢𝘥. £15𝘮 𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦 𝘧𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘥 𝘷𝘪𝘢 𝘌𝘵𝘪𝘴𝘢𝘭𝘢𝘵. 𝘊𝘢𝘯 𝘐 𝘢𝘴𝘬 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘳𝘦𝘭𝘦𝘷𝘢𝘯𝘵 𝘢𝘮𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘵𝘴 𝘣𝘦 𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘵𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘯𝘦𝘳𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘸𝘢𝘳𝘥 𝘰𝘯𝘵𝘰 𝘶𝘴 𝘢𝘴 𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘭𝘭 𝘧𝘦𝘦𝘴 𝘰𝘸𝘪𝘯𝘨 (£35𝘮 𝘌𝘵𝘪𝘩𝘢𝘥 𝘢𝘯𝘥 £16.5𝘮 𝘌𝘵𝘪𝘴𝘢𝘭𝘢𝘵) - 𝘤𝘦𝘳𝘵𝘢𝘪𝘯𝘭𝘺 𝘌𝘵𝘪𝘩𝘢𝘥 𝘥𝘪𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘶𝘴 𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘵 𝘺𝘦𝘢𝘳”

There are plenty more examples like this from football leaks, as well as potentially many more the public have never seen.

So how should this make us, the general footballing public, feel?

Any team winning any title is an achievement, let alone four-in-a-row, dominance of which English football has never seen the like.

Victory in Saturday’s FA Cup Final, which seems a formality, would take the Sky Blues’ tally to 24 major honours in the Abu Dhabi-era, featuring seven league titles, nine domestic cups, so far, the Champions League and a treble last season.

Whenever a club is this dominant, there is some level of resentment from both rival fans and neutrals alike, as experienced by PSG in France, Juventus in Italy, Bayern Munich in Germany and Celtic north of the border.

But with Manchester City, where there should be animosity and hatred, there is a void of apathy and indifference, with everyone just sighing and enduring the Lance Armstrong era in which we reside.

If you google “List of Tour de France winners”, click on the Wikipedia link and scroll down to the period between 1999 and 2005, it simply says ‘no winner’, despite the fact those tours all took place, more than 20 riders competed and people remember watching them, either in person or on TV; sound familiar?

One wonders if the link to “List of English football champions” will look similar in the not too distant future.

The final day of the season did have a title race, but Phil Foden’s strike after just 78 seconds shattered Arsenal’s illusion that there was ever even a title race to be apart of.

The Citizens concluded the campaign with nine successive wins, all by 2+ goals, opening the scoring after 17 minutes on average, a microcosm of how there is no jeopardy with Man City matches, seasons or within the organisation in general.

£50 million on Kalvin Phillips? He’s not as good as we thought! Don’t worry about it, here’s £53 million for Matheus Nunes and £30 million for Mateo Kovačić, you know just for when Rodri needs the odd rest.

Barney Ronay in the Guardian described this season’s title as “a shadow-asterisk, a league title awarded pending resolution”, having been won by two points when others had been handed far more severe deductions for far less significant offences.

The Premier League, the league where anyone can beat anyone, well not really, so long as you are owned by a nation state, but not you Newcastle. Your takeover happened too recently... sorry!

How long will fans of the self-proclaimed ‘best league in the world’ put up with a competition where we already know the outcome and we already know why it’s happened, and not all of the reasons relate to sporting matters?

Ben Gray

Ben Gray

Arsenal fan – follow them over land and sea (and Leicester); sofa Celtic supporter; a bit of a football '"encyclopedia".