Will football’s richest club escape punishment again?

The news was found on the official website, beneath a video of the former Everton midfielder Leon Osman talking about the difference Sean Dyche has made at Goodison Park, above the story about the fantasy league points the Nottingham Forest forward Brennan Johnson accrued this weekend. “Premier League statement” is a dry headline, offering little clue what it leads to.

A more newsworthy headline might have included mention of the reigning champions being charged with more than 100 breaches of financial regulations over a nine-year period, the allegation Manchester City had not been honest in disclosing how much they paid former manager Roberto Mancini, the architect of their dramatic and historic 2012 title win, or some unnamed players. It amounted to the longest charge sheet in the Premier League’s history. The consequences, if found guilty, could involve points deductions or even expulsion from the division.

It transpires City’s problems extend beyond Sunday’s 1-0 defeat against Tottenham or the suspicion their current manager, Pep Guardiola, picked the wrong team then. City have suspicions about the timing of their charges, believing the Premier League was trying to prove its toughness to show that, as the government prepares to publish a white paper, football does not need an independent regulator and that the world’s richest league can keep their own house in order.

City have maintained their innocence. “The club welcomes the review of this matter by an independent commission, to impartially consider the comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence that exists in support of its position,” they said. “As such we look forward to this matter being put to rest once and for all.”

That feels unlikely. Questions about City’s funding and the validity of it have formed the backdrop for a decade, and not merely among those who believe that as their owner, Sheikh Mansour, is the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, they are state-owned. City have been investigated before, been charged and, at times, been found guilty. For some, they illustrate that super-rich clubs with hugely expensive lawyers can usually find a way to get away with it. Uefa, European football’s governing body, gave them a two-year ban but that was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2020 and City duly reached the following year’s Champions League final.

So far the most serious punishment they have actually suffered was a £49m fine from Uefa in 2014 – much of which was later returned – and being allowed to register fewer players for their Champions League campaign. It irritated the Montenegrin forward Stevan Jovetic, who was cut from the squad as a result, but it was scarcely a swingeing punishment.

So while it is easy – and, for fans of many another club, desirable – to imagine City being relegated and enough points being retrospectively deducted that their six Premier League titles are reallocated to the respective runners-up (Manchester United and Liverpool, three times each), that seems implausible, and not least because of the damage it would do to the division’s credibility. And because, while a four-year investigation feels comprehensive, the case will be dragged out. City have shown a willingness to fight; the eventual sanction may be a fine or a points deduction for a future campaign. Perhaps charges relating to 2009 will not take effect until 2025 or 2026.

The litany of charges nevertheless rendered it the greatest off-field shock in the Premier League since Roman Abramovich’s assets were frozen by the British government after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both under the oligarch and his successors, the American hedge fund Clearlake Capital, Chelsea have shown a propensity to do what they want.

They have exploited the loophole of amortising transfer fees over the longest contracts in history to commit around £600m in transfer fees in under a year while insisting they will pass Financial Fair Play. Perhaps the widespread bemusement about how they have paid so much to get worse has spared them more criticism about the legality of their expenditure.

City reached the Champions League final the year after CAS overturned their European ban (Getty Images)
City reached the Champions League final the year after CAS overturned their European ban (Getty Images)

But such financial regulations were introduced to try and bring some laws to the wild west of football finance. In turn, that brought some byzantine attempts to comply with them.

The Premier League’s statement, besides referencing rules such as B.13, C.71 and E.4, none of which would mean much to the average fan, cited the need for “a fair and true view of the club’s financial position, including sponsorship revenue”.

It reflects questions about the legitimacy of commercial deals, often with UAE companies with links to their owners, that inflated City’s income, in turn allowing them to invest huge amounts in wages and transfer fees while apparently observing the division’s profit and sustainability rules. There is no doubt they have assembled a hugely talented, well coached and very successful team. The issues relate to how.

As City have dominated the Premier League, winning four of the last five titles, the sense is they have wanted two more things: the Champions League crown that has eluded them and the respect that comes if there is an acceptance they have done it fair and square. And an unprecedented case indicates that the Premier League does not think they have.