In what may be seen as slightly surprising news, the FA Premier League fined Blackpool £25,000 for fielding an under-strength side. The slight surprise was that, in fining the Seasiders, the punishment was harsher than the suspended fine handed down to Wolverhampton Wanderers in similar circumstances last season. Considering the similarities in the two situations, a punishment of some sort was always expected, and while Blackpool, and manager Ian Holloway are yet to pass official comment on the situation, although there are claims that Holloway has not tendered his resignation, as he claimed he would do. Would Blackpool be right to be aggrieved at the decision?

First of all, let’s be clear – unlike certain other Premier League clubs – Blackpool are not extravagant spenders, nor are they one of the richer clubs in the league. The fine is the equivalent of three weeks wages for most (if not all) of the Seasiders’ higher paid players, so it’s not the toothless punishment that certain other clubs. Notwithstanding the fine, prize money in the Premier League is based on the position the club finishes in the table, and had a full-strength Blackpool beaten Aston Villa that night, they would currently be sitting in eighth – worth approximately £3m more than the 12th position that they currently occupy.

The Premier League have explained their decision by taking into account the team fielded by Blackpool in the games after the game at Villa Park, firstly the away game at West Ham, where Blackpool fielded eleven changes from the side that had played at Aston Villa three nights before, and in subsequent games where fewer unenforced changes had been made. It is presumably the fact that all eleven players were swapped for the West Ham game that caused the fine to be immediate, rather than suspended, as Wolves did not change their entire team in between games before or after their visit to Old Trafford. Another aspect that has added to the punishment are the comments that Holloway made in fielding an under-strength side (containing seven of the starters on duty at Villa Park) in their recent FA Cup defeat to Southampton. Comments made by Holloway in relation to that game are implicity stated as being considered by the board when reaching it’s decision.

Ian Holloway attempted to defend his decision to change the team at the time, by referring to the Premier League’s new 25 man squad rule, of which ten out of the eleven starters at Villa Park are listed (Matthew Phillips being one of the club’s Under 21 players). However, the Premier League pointed out that “The [The Premier League Board] was also mindful of the fact that as recently as 10th June 2010, following the introduction of the League’s new Home Grown Player and Squad Rules, the Clubs considered but ruled out removing Rule E.20 and the Board is therefore committed to applying it in such extreme cases”. This refers to the Premier League AGM, where the clubs can discuss, propose, amend and remove any rule they wish, with each club – including Blackpool – represented and given an equal vote. In other words, the clubs decided that just because they had imposed a 25 man squad on themselves as of this season, that should a case arise where all – or almost all – of the team were changed. Of course, the 25 man squads are there are as a limit (to stop the so-called larger clubs hoarding players), rather than a suggestion that every one of the 25 men is of equal ability. Ian Holloway hasn’t made 11 changes between games, when he was allowed an unlimited number of players, so any suggestion that because there is now a limit clubs should be able to effectively cheat their fans (none of whom paid reserve team prices that night) and their rivals, is just trying to distract from the matter than Holloway fielded a reserve side.

The only area in which Blackpool have cause for complaint is in rule E.20 itself. The rule states “In every League Match each participating Club shall field a full strength team.” This is clearly a rule broken by at least one Premier League club every week, with numerous sides utilising a squad system, rather than fielding their best XI in every week. And it is in this area that the rule needs changing. Some commentators suggested last season that Wolves’ punishment for making ten changes against Manchester United at Old Trafford was more because they had lost – after all, Manchester United escaped any sort of punishment, despite making five unenforced changes of their own), but there have been countless examples of some of the so-called bigger clubs making numerous changes, only to subsequently lose. Perhaps the Premier League should adapt the recent change taken on by the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, and that clubs aren’t allowed to make more than a specific number of changes between games.

Above all, the rules are there to give a level playing field to all clubs. Holloway has an opinion on every subject, and it would have been interesting to have noted his reaction, had one of his closest rivals made such changes. The rules are also there to protect the integrity of the sport. There have been occasions in the sport (and other sports, such as snooker) where betting scams have occurred, and have also been prevented. There is no suggestion at all that there have been betting irregularities around the game, and it is clear that that is not the reason why Holloway made those changes. However, had it subsequently come to light that there had been suspicious betting patterns around the Aston Villa fixture before the team sheet had been announced, then suspicion is likely to have fallen over everyone at the club – and given football a much bigger and unwanted scandal than a Premier League fielding a reserve team in a match should warrant. And that is why the punishment, and hopeful deterrent to stop clubs doing this in future is fair.

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