Three years ago, League One found itself at the mercy of disciplinary proceedings conducted behind closed doors in the final hours of the season.
This week, the Championship faces a similar scenario, awaiting a judgement which threatens to rupture a watertight and settled division.
On paper, the Championship title, its second automatic promotion position and all four play-offs places have been all but confirmed with a match to spare.
In practice, the verdict of an independent panel on disciplinary charges brought by the Football Association against Queens Park Rangers might yet disrupt the status quo. Only on Friday evening will the Championship’s members know how the land lies, subject to appeal.
QPR made mathematically certain of the Championship title on Saturday but the club’s celebrations were restrained by the prospect of a hearing into allegations that their signing of Argentinian midfielder Alejandro Faurlin in 2009 broke rules on third-party ownership and the use of unlicensed agents. QPR are also accused of supplying false information to the FA when Faurlin signed an extension to his contract in October of last year.
The board at Loftus Road have denied all charges and began stating their case to a four-man panel yesterday. The FA confirmed last month that a decision would be announced on Friday, 24 hours before the season is due to finish and by which time Leeds United are likely to be in London awaiting a meeting with QPR.
There is a wide consensus that a points deduction will be imminent if QPR are found guilty on some or all of seven charges levelled against them. It is a remarkable repeat of the 2007-08 League One season, when Leeds’ persistent attempt to overturn a 15-point penalty relating to their insolvency was finally rejected two days before their final league game.
On that occasion, an automatic promotion position was at stake and United’s failed appeal consigned them to the play-offs.
As QPR’s case continues, Leeds are unable to say with any certainty how the judgement of the FA’s regulatory commission will impact on them. Their season appeared to be over on Saturday afternoon but reports last week spoke of a possible 15-point sanction awaiting QPR. A penalty of 17 would give United an improbable sight of the play-off place which effectively slipped beyond them last weekend.
Officials at Elland Road are privately sceptical of seeing a punishment severe enough to make sixth position attainable, but QPR are themselves uncertain about how the FA will seek to punish them if the charges stick.
The likelihood of a points deduction was made clear by the revelation that Swansea City had received contact from the Football League warning them that the play-off semi-finals could be delayed by any appeal from QPR against FA sanctions. The first leg of the semi-finals are due to be played on May 11 and 12 but might now be staged during the following week.
Swansea manager Brendan Rodgers said: “We’ve been given an indication if there was the possibility of an appeal if something happens that... you know. I think it’s only moved a few days pending the appeal.” Leeds, as the only team beneath the play-off zone with a mathematical chance of finishing sixth, have not commented on whether the also received the Football League directive, but the Elland Road club are likely to have done so.
The controversy relates to the signing of Faurlin in 2009, a transfer which QPR’s official website claims to have cost them up to £3.5million. Other sources claim that the Argentianian club he left, Instituto de Córdoba, earned nothing from the deal. Faurlin has made 84 appearances for QPR, 40 of them this season, and the FA did not move to bring charges against Rangers until March of this year. They confirmed on April 5 that an independent regulatory commission would begin hearing the case yesterday. A statement from QPR in response said: “QPR and Mr Paladini are confident that there has been no deliberate wrongdoing involved.”
The subject of third-party ownership arose in 2007 amid much confusion following the transfer of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano from Argentian to West Ham United. West Ham were fined heavily as a result of the transfers but the FA introduced new regulations in the aftermath of that case.
The governing body’s rules make no reference to likely punishment but warn that “any breach of these regulations shall be misconduct and shall be dealt with in accordance with the rules of the Association.”
An FA statement published on April 5 said: “The club charges relate to the player Alejandro Faurlin and concern the alleged existence of an agreement between the club and a third party in respect of the player’s economic rights, and the alleged failure by the club to notify the FA of that agreement before the player was registered to play in England in July 2009.
“The club is also charged with allegedly using or seeking to pay an unauthorised agent in relation to the player’s registration in July 2009.
“The club and club official Gianni Paladini are also charged in respect of allegedly false information contained in documents submitted to the FA in relation to the same player signing an extension to his playing contract with the club in October 2010.”
As coincidence has it, Leeds are due to complete their Championship schedule at Loftus Road on Saturday lunchtime, a match which the BBC plan to televise. It is not clear whether QPR will receive the Championship trophy after the game or whether the fixture might offer United a sudden and unexpected chance of creeping into the play-offs. Rangers, however, are highly likely to appeal if the FA’s decision deprives them of first place or automatic promotion.
QPR captain and former Leeds midfielder Shaun Derry said: “It would be disastrous. We’ve been the best team this year and we’re up there on merit. What a hammer blow it would be to everybody connected with QPR – the players, the staff, the fans especially.”
However the FA procedes, it is alreadu facing criticism about the timing of a hearing which began less than a week before the season was due to end. Rodgers hit out at the delay, saying: “I think it’s ridiculous that it’s dragged on so long.
“Surely if you’ve got a rule in place then there’s a sanction alongside that whatever happens so you should know near enough straight away. But to drag on and then be brought up the day before the end of the season is incredible.”