The day England’s most senior judges dismantled Man City’s plea to hide Premier League investigation

The doors to Court 73 stand at the end of a short, sparsely furnished corridor. A wooden bench stretches down one wall, signs remind visitors to keep a social distance. Staff need not have worried.

It is mid-morning after the night before — English football is still nursing sore heads and hoarse voices after a 2-0 victory over Germany at Wembley.

This corridor is deserted, even as the country’s leading club prepares to flex its muscles and clear its throat. Indeed, there is nothing to indicate the bitter fight bubbling behind those double doors. And that is exactly how the two sides want it to remain.

This corner of the Royal Courts of Justice lies beyond a layer of security and a warren of darkened passageways. Round blind corners, up flights of stairs, down more identi-corridors. Until you reach East Block. Even then, Court 73 remains shut. No access to the public or press, it warns. No fanfare either.

It is an unremarkable, rather eerie setting for a battle involving two of this country’s sporting behemoths.

Manchester City have been investigated over whether they broke the Premier League’s financial fair plays rules over the past two years

The Mail on Sunday had exclusive access to City's appeal into the public release of a judge's findings in the investigation into the club

The Mail on Sunday had exclusive access to City’s appeal into the public release of a judge’s findings in the investigation into the club

For years, only a few crumbs of detail emerged about the secret battle between Manchester City and the Premier League. Behind closed doors, the club are still being investigated for violating financial fair play rules more than two years after the league began their probe.

The investigation was launched in December 2018 on the back of ‘Football Leaks’ claims published by the German magazine, Der Spiegel, which alleged a swathe of irregularities by City. They included disguising direct investment by owner Sheik Mansour as sponsorship income.

The club always insisted that the material was taken ‘out of context’ and were ‘purportedly hacked or stolen’, adding that ‘the attempt to damage the club’s reputation is organised and clear’.

They nevertheless refused to hand over certain documents, prompting the Premier League to begin arbitration in an attempt to force their hand.

England's top-flight have been investigating Sheikh Mansour's City since a major leak in 2018

England’s top-flight have been investigating Sheikh Mansour’s City since a major leak in 2018

City have been fighting the courts over whether the public should know the judge's findings

City have been fighting the courts over whether the public should know the judge’s findings

Since then, in the secrecy of Britain’s High Court, City have been fighting that process, too. They disputed whether the arbitrators had jurisdiction to hear the Premier League’s claim. They even suggested ‘apparent bias’, claiming they would be denied a fair hearing because the arbitrators lacked impartiality.

They lost but, by late June, the two sides shared common ground: both wanted to keep more information from prying eyes and ears. They had largely succeeded until March, when the judge who dismissed City’s case ruled that the public ought to know her findings. Details of the arbitration dispute had hitherto remained hidden.

That is why City ended up here on the Strand, pleading with Britain’s top legal brains to change tack.


May 16, 2014: Manchester City are found guilty of breaching UEFA rules around Financial Fair Play (FFP). They are fined €60m (later reduced to €20m) and given short-term caps on squad size and spending.

November 5, 2018: ‘Football Leaks’ documents, published by German magazine Der Spiegel, allege that City have committed further FFP rules violations.

November 23, 2018: UEFA begin to examine the allegations in Der Spiegel. December 2018: The Premier League write to the club requesting certain information and documents in relation to potential breaches of their rules — known as the information claim. City object to the request.

March 7/8, 2019: UEFA and then the Premier League announce formal investigations into City’s alleged FFP breaches.

August 21, 2019: PL issue a complaint against City, seeking disclosure of the documents and information. The club challenges the PL’s disciplinary system, claiming the commission set up is not sufficiently independent or impartial.

October 22, 2019: With the documents and information not forthcoming, the PL begin arbitration against the club seeking a declaration that they are contractually obliged to provide them. The club try to stop the arbitration by arguing to the tribunal involved that the PL had no power to start it. They also claim that the tribunal does not appear impartial.

February 14, 2020: UEFA ban City from the Champions League for two seasons and fine them €30m for FFP violations.

June 2, 2020: The tribunal rejects the challenge to its jurisdiction and impartiality. 

June 26, 2020: City issue an application in the Commercial Court repeating their argument that the tribunal lacks jurisdiction on the information claim and is tainted with apparent bias.

July 13, 2020: The Champions League ban is overturned on appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The UEFA fine is reduced to €10m for non-cooperation with the ruling body’s investigation.

November 2, 2020: Meanwhile, the arbitration continues and the club’s argument for not having to pass on the requested information and documents are rejected. The order to provide them is postponed pending the outcome of the Commercial Court case.

March 17, 2021: In the Commercial Court, Mrs Justice Moulder dismisses the club’s challenge to the jurisdiction and impartiality of the tribunal. She refuses permission to appeal her judgment.

March 24, 2021: The judge says her judgment should be published, which would reveal the lengths to which City have attempted to resist passing on information to the PL. City successfully seek permission to appeal that decision in the Court of Appeal.

May 12, 2021: The Mail on Sunday writes to City and the Premier League asking to be shown details of the the Mrs Justice Moulder’s judgment, including both sides’ arguments, in the interests of open justice and to determine whether the newspaper should intervene on the club’s appeal. The newspaper is prepared to guarantee nothing is published, but the requests are refused.

June 30, 2021: The Court of Appeal opens its hearing into the club’s appeal against publication. The Mail on Sunday sends a barrister to court and is given last-minute permission to attend.

July 20, 2021: The Court of Appeal hands down its decision dismissing the appeal.

That is why The Mail on Sunday are here, too. After our own lengthy battle, this newspaper won the exclusive right to hear City’s appeal.

Back in April, our reporter Nick Harris discovered this twist in the club’s clandestine battle with the league. And so began our burrowing down legal rabbit holes in search of open justice.

It began with attempts to persuade the judiciary to allow us to write what we knew. Then went letters to City and the Premier League with a simple request: let us see the details of this case and the arguments on either side — even on the promise they will not be published. That would allow us to decide whether to intervene and fight for transparency.

Unsurprisingly, those requests were refused. But then, with barely a day’s notice, The Mail on Sunday got wind of this latest hearing. Off went an 11th-hour application to send a barrister who could fight our corner to allow a reporter to listen in.

That sparked another anxious wait. This time on the East Block bench — no other journalists, no more information while legal arguments continued inside the locked courtroom.

Eventually, though, a glint of light. The door to Court 73 swings open. A clerk of the court emerges, to serve a reminder that nothing seen or heard can be published. Not yet, anyway.

He leads the way into a courtroom glaringly lopsided. In this fight for a last-minute reprieve, City have wheeled out the heavy artillery: the left side of the benches is awash with gowns and sharp suits — half a dozen barristers working under the same shade of sky blue. The right flank is virtually deserted, save for our barrister and solicitors on a watching brief from the Premier League.

Behind them, a deserted gallery of taped-off seats. This is our vantage point as Lord Pannick QC, one of the most brilliant advocates of his generation, leads the City attack. 

The Premier League giants turned to the 65-year-old last year, when they fought a £26million fine and two-year ban from the Champions League all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. At a cost of £20,000 a day, it is said. Over two and a half decades, Pannick has acted in many of this country’s most high-profile cases. In recent years, he twice defeated the Government over Brexit on behalf of Gina Miller.

Today he is flanked by Paul Harris QC, who also led City’s appeal to CAS and who has worked with Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal, Saracens and the RFU.

Already, they are one down, having lost the argument to keep The Mail on Sunday locked out. Now comes the crucial second leg: to overturn the decision to publish details of this case.

City insist their appeal has no effect on the Premier League’s investigation, or any possible punishment. It concerns only the privacy of the case and, Pannick claims, there is ‘no suggestion to the contrary’ by the league itself.

If the presence of Pannick, flanked by a small legion of silk, illustrated City’s financial might — and their hunger to keep a lid on this affair — the three judges staring him down told their own tale.

Traditionally, only the most complex cases come before the Master of the Rolls, the second most senior figure in the British justice system. Here, Sir Geoffrey Vos sits in the middle of three red chairs. On his right, Sir Julian Flaux, the chancellor of the High Court. On the other side, Lord Justice Males, an arbitration expert who spent more than 30 years at the bar.

For nearly two hours, they listen as Pannick’s round glasses and sharp mind tried to bend this case back in City’s favour. The QC entwines authority with deference as he politely argues that Mrs Justice Moulder ‘erred’ by ordering the publication of her judgments.

With no one in the opposite corner, only the judges can challenge Pannick over nuances of law and legal precedent. The sparring remains cordial enough, even as City’s case comes to the boil. Even as Vos appears particularly unsympathetic to the club’s plea for privacy.

‘You are bemoaning reality,’ he tells Pannick. ‘This is a matter of the greatest public interest.’

City had launched several challenges to the Premier League’s attempt to obtain documents and information. They lost on all counts and now the club want to keep that secret too. ‘What the court is saying,’ Pannick argues, ‘is that the price [of bringing the challenges] might be publication.’

Moreover, publication would spark extensive press coverage of what has happened — and any possible sanctions — in ‘[what] would ordinarily be a private process.’

That, City claim, will make it more difficult to reach a resolution without more arbitration. They point out that the Premier League would also prefer details are kept under wraps, even if they want the power to refer to this judgment in any disputes with other clubs. Or, as Flaux puts it: ‘They are trying to have their cake and eat it.’

The general public have been aware of the investigation into Manchester City for several years

The general public have been aware of the investigation into Manchester City for several years

‘Absolute privacy’ in a field like football is almost impossible, City are told. Particularly when the public have known about this investigation for years. Flaux argues they are in fact ‘lucky’ there hasn’t been more press coverage.

But Pannick strikes back. In cases like these, he argues, the scales of open justice must tip in favour of confidentiality over public interest. A judge has to consider ‘primarily the interests of parties involved’ over third parties. ‘Businesses have to be confident their privacy will be respected,’ he tells the court.

Eventually, Pannick says City want publication to be stayed until the end of the investigation and any disciplinary process.

Before long, the three judges climb out of their seats and exit stage right. After the doors close, City wigs began to shake. They sense their fate is sealed.

When the court rises again a few minutes later, however, Vos delivers only a stay of execution. Instead, he says, the judges will retire to consider their verdict.

The Premier League club have won two league titles since the investigation began

The Premier League club have won two league titles since the investigation began

When that comes nine days later, the judgment of City is damning.

The final paragraph, written by Lord Justice Males, delivers a stiletto to the heart of City’s case. ‘The club has been anxious to emphasise before us that ‘the arbitral proceedings relate to an ongoing and confidential investigatory and disciplinary process which is still in its early stages’, and that it may be that no charges will ever be brought against it,’ he writes.

‘While that may be true, it seems to me that this is, if anything, a factor which tells in favour of publication. This is an investigation which commenced in December 2018.

‘It is surprising, and a matter of legitimate public concern, that so little progress has been made after two and a half years — during which, it may be noted, the club has twice been crowned as Premier League champions.’