Crystal Palace & Tony Pulis’s Payback Time
Another production at football’s theatre of the absurd. Tony Pulis, an ex-manager of about 47 clubs (for the purposes of this story, Crystal Palace), loses a huge legal battle because his chairman was seen at a hairdressers. And Pulis himself with little more than one hair for each club he’s managed. Not even Pulis could make it up, And he’s done a fair bit of that this year, according to rulings made against him by a Premier League managers’ arbitration tribunal in March. These were released on November 28th in a 32-page judgment by Sir Michael Burton (“sitting as a Judge of the Commercial Court”) on Pulis’s appeal against said rulings, on the grounds of “serious irregularity” with the tribunal.
We’ve been here before…legal action involving Pulis that is, not the hairdressers. Last week’s judgment reaffirmed the tribunal’s view that Pulis left Crystal Palace in August 2014, with a fraudulently-induced early bonus payment of £2m in his voluminous back pocket. And Pulis also left the employ of Gillingham in June 1999 and Portsmouth in October 2000 with financial disputes requiring court involvement. Indeed, Pulis was sacked by Pompey, having been granted four months “gardening leave” to…pursue his Gillingham claims. Not even Pulis could make that up…and he’s done a fair bit etc… Previously, however, Pulis was in dispute/battle with, ahem, ‘controversial’ football character chairmen such as Gillingham’s Paul Scally (by name and nature) and Portsmouth’s Milan Mandaric. For all his faults, Palace’s part-owner, co-chairman and past saviour Steve Parish is neither a Scally/scally nor a Mandaric.
The tribunal was set-up in accordance with the FA’s “Rule K.” And, as commercial disputes legislation expert and Palace fan Andrew Street told the Five Year Plan (FYP) Palace fanzine in March: “Parties to a Rule K are supposed to keep schtum.” This would have saved Pulis’s reputation, which could, and perhaps should, now be in tatters. In the Premier League’s (EPL’s) crazy financial context, Pulis earned the £2m from Palace for keeping them in the EPL in 2013/14. They needed snookers when long-time friend Ian Holloway resigned in November. They finished in an 11th-place worth £12.4m, (£11.2m more than bottom-club Cardiff City). And he was a rare non-title-winning EPL “manager of the year.” Again, earned. However, the money wasn’t due until 31st August 2014. And Pulis wanted away from Palace, reportedly because of his fractious professional relationship with Parish. On 14th August, two days before the 2014/15 season began, Pulis got away. As Daniel Taylor wrote in the Guardian newspaper that evening: “Pulis’s departure…was described as ‘mutual consent’ but well-placed sources confirmed that mutual contempt (was) a more fitting term.”
Pulis didn’t rock up at West Bromwich Albion for another four-and-a-half months (where he divides opinion in trademark fashion to this day), despite the tribunal “Panel” suggesting he had engineered his Palace departure to “seek more lucrative employment with another club.” But leaving Palace in an immediate pre-season lurch attracted appropriate opprobrium. And the bonus became an issue of dismal deceit. Pulis claimed he wanted to leave Palace as a direct consequence of a “heated players’ meeting” (HPM) on August 12th. This, Burton noted with a touch of suspicion, “co-incidentally took place on the very same day as the payment of the bonus.” Four days previously, Pulis had told Parish he was “committed” to Palace and “would consequently be remaining until at least 31st August.” Burton labelled this “the first fraudulent misrepresentation.”
The second “fraudulent misrepresentation” was Pulis’s claim “that he urgently needed the money early (to) buy some land for his children.” As Burton added, in cute legalese, Palace “paid the bonus to him so induced.” However, the Panel were given “forensic evidence” and “hard-edged contemporaneous documentation” which was “inexplicable if the HPM did not take place on 8th August.” This included evidence that Parish was getting his hair done on 12th August, when he was supposedly at the training ground, dealing with the HPM, and seemingly “bang-to-rights” evidence that the “bonus schedule (the HPM’s subject) was marked as agreed on the afternoon of 8th August.” This was “crucial in determining whether (Pulis) had acted dishonestly in…procuring early payment of his bonus, to which, of course, he would not have otherwise been entitled.” And once Pulis’s claim about the HPM date was dismantled, his case dissolved.
The land for Pulis juniors was a figment of Pulis senior’s imagination. And when, on August 13th, Pulis “made it clear… that he was refusing to take” the season’s opening game on August 16th, it was “a sufficiently unequivocal statement that he was not prepared to perform an obviously fundamental part of his contract as manager.” Legalese is usually varying degrees of incomprehensible to laypeople. Here, its readability made Pulis’s hopeless position entertainingly clear. A 32-page judgment is usually “short-shrift” in legal context, especially when including extensive references to the initial ruling. And its tone suggested a repeated weariness with Pulis and his lawyers’ arguments throughout.
The Panel labelled it “simply not credible that (Pulis) could honestly say he was happy and committed to the Club on 8 August and have changed his mind so completely by 13 August, when nothing had happened other than him having received £2m from the Club.” They “inextricably linked” the “early payment of the bonus” to Pulis’s “decision to leave the Club, adding derisively that “In the absence of any other explanation from Mr Pulis” (other than the dismantled HPM date claim), “this is plainly the most logical inference. Indeed, it is the only inference.” And they were “also unimpressed with Mr Pulis’s evidence concerning the land transaction.” Pulis “sought to play on Mr Parish’s goodwill by referring to the land as being for his family (Mr Parish having recently attended the wedding of one of his daughters.” Yet “at no time” was there “a plot of land on the market which Mr Pulis was remotely close to purchasing.” It was “clear beyond doubt” that Pulis’s tale was “completely untrue.”
Burton was as dismissive. “Ground One” of Pulis’s appeal was “that the Arbitrators completely ignored the evidence of two witnesses’ oral evidence…that the HPM was on 12 August…evidence…described by (Pulis’s representative) Mr Harris QC as ‘fatal’ to (Palace’s) case.” Burton said the Panel “addressed the question of oral evidence at the following paragraphs.” Four pages of “following paragraphs” later, “Ground One’s” ground had crumbled beneath its feet. Burton added that the Panel didn’t need “to explain why they preferred other evidence provided they had, and they plainly had (my emphasis), carefully considered their evidence, not least because they make express reference to (it).” It was suggested that the Panel they might have “reached a different conclusion” about Pulis’s “credibility” if they “had taken a different view about the (oral) evidence.” Burton gloriously dismissed this as “hopelessly speculative.” And it was ruled “appropriate to make an award of indemnity costs because of (the Panel’s) conclusions” as to Pulis’s conduct.” These were most damning: “By any standards, his conduct (prior to and including the litigation) has been shown to be disgraceful.”
No wonder, then, that Burton “enforced” the tribunal award “both as to the liquidated damages for £1.5m in respect of the repudiation (of Pulis’s Palace contract) and…the £2.276m damages for deceit plus the interest and costs awarded.” To be fair, Pulis’s legal team also come out of the ruling dismally, especially in the one remotely grey area of the case, which was “Ground Two” of his appeal. Pulis “personally received…£959,000 net of tax” while Palace “paid the tax and National Insurance…to HMRC.” Yet Palace were able to claim the whole £2m back from Pulis. The appeal was based upon an alleged failure “to consider…the tax consequences of the payment.” The Panel had “failed to engage with/ignored” the argument that Palace had not suffered a loss because “it was open to (them) to reclaim those sums from HMRC” and that they had “failed to mitigate” that loss by “not pursuing HMRC.”
Yet the Panel’s findings included three long paragraphs directly dealing with precisely that issue and systematically dismantling the very argument with which they supposedly “failed to engage.” They noted that “since Mr Pulis was denying any wrongdoing or that the money had not been properly paid to him it is difficult to see what effective steps to recover the tax element of the payment that the Club could have taken.” And they included the gem that Palace “offered to seek repayment…from HMRC and only if it could not…(would it) claim the tax element from Mr Pulis.” But “for a reason that the panel found difficult to follow Mr Pulis resisted this course” (my emphasis). “In closing submissions…the Club withdrew the offer…”
Burton referenced Harris’s “colourful closing submissions” and the tribunal’s transcript, where Harris suggested Palace “should adjourn or park” the tax issue “until…it could be further progressed by (them) with the Revenue.” Palace’s counsel Ian Mill QC reminded everyone that “(this) was offered at the outset and rejected thunderously” and “offered in closing and again rejected thunderously.” This hinted at Harris employing “style” over “substance” at key moments in the tribunal. The effect of this on the rulings is impossible to gauge accurately. You suspect it might not have helped. Palace certainly wanted to help Pulis avoid a “double recovery” of tax. As Burton noted, Palace “would, on such recovery, pay those sums over to (Pulis). That seems to me to resolve any injustice that might have resulted from that not being spelled out” at the tribunal.
Burton also squashed suggestions that Palace had benefitted from corporation tax deductions: “It is not clear there was any corporation tax deduction, even now…It is not surprising that the (Panel) did not deal with it in the absence of investigation, disclosure or any reliance on the point in argument.” Still…apart from that… (Ground Two of the appeal, crumbling beneath its feet). “I’ve got to bite my tongue,” Pulis said this week, which must have made his subsequent 232 words sound weird. Especially as he’d “been advised by lawyers not to say too much at this present moment.” Yet, having said “I/we have to move on” three times, he added: “One day hopefully I’ll get the chance to actually pick this through with everybody.” Alas, he had the chance to “pick this through” in tribunal and court. And in both arenas, “this” was “picked” apart.
The implications for Pulis’s status and (decent) reputation in the game are unknown, especially as domestic football currently has far more damning conduct concerns than financial deceit, however much money is involved. But he would never have smelt any of the money he has made over the years, an uncertain portion of which has been flushed down proverbial legal toilets by these rulings, if his footballing decisions were as bad as his legal ones. There have been dismal chapters in Pulis’s football career. But surely none as dismal as this.
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