Phil Hay Column - Spygate, Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa; a saga ended by the EFL taking a sledgehammer to a nut

Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa during the club's 4-1 win over Derby County earlier this season.
Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa during the club's 4-1 win over Derby County earlier this season.
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Without a rule to lean on and with no perfect precedent, the ‘Spygate’ fine imposed on Leeds United was set at the whim of the EFL. Does the punishment fit the crime? The club have their own view on that but the price of killing a meandering investigation was £200,000 and Leeds were willing to pay it. A six-figure outlay in return for some peace. Easy money if it’s coming your way.

The outcome was agreed in advance and the advantage of a negotiated settlement with the EFL, as opposed to a hearing in front of an independent panel, was that it gave Leeds the assurance of knowing the verdict. No-one in a position of influence ever spoke about a points deduction - Bristol City’s Steve Lansdown was a lone, howling voice in the end - but the unspecified standards of ‘the utmost good faith’ left all avenues of punishment open to the EFL. In the hands of a panel, a club never can be sure.

It should not be assumed that Leeds thought a £200,000 fine was reasonable or that they were as full of remorse as the EFL’s statement on Monday made them out to be. There are effusive apologies and there are others like Monday’s which said sorry for something which, in United’s words, had been “judged culturally unacceptable in the English game”. In plain text, Marcelo Bielsa should have known better (or as a coach who was new to the Championship, somebody more in tune with English sensibilities should have warned against his covert scouting trips) but worse things happen at sea and in timely fashion, worse things are happening on the seaside at Blackpool, under the gaze of the same governing body.

The scale of Leeds’ fine is intriguing, in part because it is unexplained but also because it is based on regulation 3.4, a black hole for disciplinary proceedings running to infinity. A new rule is in the pipeline and will be discussed by EFL clubs later this month, effectively banning scouts from watching other teams train in the 72 hours before a fixture. Shape and line-ups are always easiest to gauge the day before kick-off but if the sanctity of training grounds is so precious then you might wonder why observing sessions is not about to be banned full stop. No matter. Just be sure to take secateurs to Derby County on Monday instead of Thursday, and be conscious of getting your timings right.

This £200,000 fine, though. The only comparable scenario anyone can find is the argument which broke out between Crystal Palace and Cardiff City in 2014, when Palace were alleged to have procured Cardiff’s line-up before the teams played each other. There was a certain amount of politics involved since Palace’s director of football, Iain Moody, had worked for Cardiff earlier in the season but it boiled down to good faith. Moody claimed the allegation that he had pilfered inside information was “incredibly, extraordinarily untrue”. The Premier League fined Palace £25,000. For all that it matters now, Cardiff lost the game 3-0.

Bielsa, despite his extraordinary mea culpa, did not successfully spy on every Championship club this season. His staff are thought to have watched 11 and the fine imposed by the EFL is not far off 10 times the sum Palace coughed up five years ago. Whether the EFL used Palace’s penalty as some sort of benchmark or wanted to make an example of Leeds is not clear but a £200,000 hit is extremely high up the punitive scale. Some would say excessively so for an offence which was covered by no specific rule and could still be categorised as the actions of a coach whose methods were lost in translation.

This is, when it comes to it, a very English scandal; a country struggling to comprehend Bielsa’s actions and a coach struggling to comprehend why watching opposition training sessions causes so much upset here when other countries and cultures almost encourage it. Bielsa was doing what he has done for years without a murmur of complaint elsewhere and monitoring other teams was his idea of professionalism. To doubt his integrity is to misunderstand the man and misunderstand how much he hates his integrity being questioned, hence the personal phone call to Frank Lampard on the day when police were called to Derby’s training ground. The Argentinian, despite his man in the bushes, had nothing to hide.

Bielsa has taken some punches but he emerges from this mess with his integrity intact and his club lighter in the pocket. The case has distracted and bothered United’s hierarchy more than their head coach or his players and the club are leaving it behind at the cost of an expensive slap on the wrist. The EFL, for its part, succeeded in being seen to act and appeasing the clubs who ranked together to turn up the heat on Leeds. The governing body might think that the game and its membership are more protected because of this dispute but it is delusional if it believes that targeting one minor aspect of Bielsa’s coaching strategy will somehow create a fairer playing field. Bielsa and Leeds are where they are on merit, and the EFL has taken a sledgehammer to a nut.