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STEFAN BORSON: Manchester City’s never-ending legal battle puts Premier League in unenviable spot

Manchester City’s seemingly never-ending battle with the football authorities over matters of accounting are so esoteric you wonder who’s interested. 

Yet many rival fans are, and keen to see ‘justice’ meted out to a club that has won five of the past 10 Premier League titles.

As a lawyer myself, and with experience of complex and controversial litigation, even after years of City being under investigation we shouldn’t assume a swift outcome. 

Manchester City look set to be locked in legal disputes over their finances for a long time 

Pep Guardiola's squad is alleged to have been built outside of FFP, with new emails leaked

Pep Guardiola’s squad is alleged to have been built outside of FFP, with new emails leaked

Likewise, it would be wrong to assume that the type of emails shown in these pages last weekend will provide the PL with a ‘smoking gun’ that previous investigations did not have.

The Court of Appeal recently ruled that the existence of City’s secret 2-year-plus legal battle with the PL over alleged breaches of PL rules should be published ‘in order to ensure public scrutiny and the transparent administration of justice.’

In doing so, it also ruled that it was ‘not impressed’ by some of the arguments made by City’s leading QC, Lord Pannick, saying that it was ‘entirely fanciful’ that mere knowledge of the battle would harm City’s chances of a fair hearing. 

The judgments also made plain that the judges think City have been fighting with weak and tenuous tactical arguments for many months.

Litigation is heavy going and parties, by default, fight hard. The idea that City should throw open their books and worldwide documents to scrutiny by UEFA, the PL or whoever else is unrealistic. 

Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak has his club taking a belligerent approach

Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak has his club taking a belligerent approach 

Battles around the disclosure of documents are routinely arduous; the League is not entitled to go on a fishing expedition, even less to demand documents from the palaces of Abu Dhabi.

Rightly, City will feel the burden is for others to prove a case against them. They have more than 10 years of clean audited accounts under the current owners. Which is why City’s approach – obfuscatory as it may seem – is consistent with a leaked email from 2013 published by German magazine Der Spiegel in 2018. 

It featured City lawyer Simon Cliff explaining that rather than settle with UEFA in the then ongoing tussle over FFP, the club’s chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak ‘would rather spend £30m on the best 50 lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years.’

Consistent with the club’s approach in the UEFA investigation, City have clearly instructed lawyers to fight every point, to resist every step of the process, to appeal every judgment. 

This belligerent approach to litigation is not uncommon although I would suggest that Lord Pannick QC would have advised City that they were unlikely to ultimately prevail on these recent skirmishes. However, with just Lord Pannick’s ego and City’s bank balance bruised, the fight goes on.

While we still don’t know what the PL alleges City have done wrong, the underlying allegations made against City are not ‘rap on the knuckle’ matters. 

The legal battles look set to rumble on with even new evidence unlikely to be a smoking gun

The legal battles look set to rumble on with even new evidence unlikely to be a smoking gun

In essence, the latest allegations outlined in last weekend’s Mail on Sunday, as I perceive them, are that City’s financial accounts over a prolonged period are inaccurate and exaggerated.

City will point to CAS’s findings which were made having heard submissions from an army of lawyers and witnesses over a three-day hearing. In overturning City’s original two-year ban from the Champions League, CAS’s judgment stated that there was ‘no evidence’ of wrongdoing, 11 times. 

It also reaffirmed the veracity of the contractual relationships between City and its Abu Dhabi based sponsors and stated that the arrangements were entered into for ‘fair value’. 

However, controversially, UEFA were said to have undermined their own case by formally dropping their entitlement to a batch of documents just days before the CAS hearing.

City’s opponents will say that the club was not exonerated. CAS ruled City should be fined €10m for not co-operating with UEFA and it would not be a surprise if such an outcome was also deemed an elegant solution to a tricky situation this time too.

However, it is apparent the PL are not yet minded to give up and are likely being heavily pressurised by the 19 other clubs to prosecute City to the full force of their powers, no matter how difficult. 

City have won five of the last 10 Premier Leagues and a major punishment could rock the game

City have won five of the last 10 Premier Leagues and a major punishment could rock the game

This is an unenviable position for the PL which both needs to protect the integrity of its rules whilst being cognisant of the legal and commercial power of City.

A worry for the PL will be how its arbitration and disciplinary procedures could cope with such serious allegations against a leading member if it did choose to pursue them. 

Properly undertaken, an objective assessment of the facts would take months of evidence, cross examination, oral and written submission and legal argument in a formal trial. Similar cases in the High Court could take three years from initiation to judgement.

So, if despite all the resistance, difficulties and hurdles, the PL decide to lay serious charges against City, this could yet move glacially on for many more years with the only real winners being those 50 lawyers that Al Mubarak promised to make rich.

Stefan Borson is CEO and General Counsel of Watchstone Group plc having previously advised Manchester City whilst a banker with Investec between 2002 and 2007. A City fan, he has donated his fee for this article to charity.

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