Things that need to change in football: the E20 Rule.

The 19th season of the English Premier League, arguably the world’s finest football competition, came to a close this May with Manchester United coincidentally winning their 19th English League title, eclipsing Liverpool’s 18 championships in the process. Living on the other-side of the world is not seen as a valid excuse by my fellow expats to lose touch with English football. “Get Foxtel (satellite television),” they say, “Get up at 2am to watch the games live.” Becoming a ‘Sydney-sider’ has meant my grip on the “EPL” has loosened slightly and I rely heavily on particular websites like Football Rascal and 100% legal (fingers crossed) internet to keep in the loop.

A couple of weeks ago, as I sat at my desk at 7am and read an article, I could not quite believe what was before me. No, Jesus had not risen. Elton John had not renounced his sexuality as a phase and jacked in his career to become a brickie. Bin Laden had not reappeared off the coast of Britain in Speedos and a snorkel.

Inexplicably, back in February this year Wolves were fined £25,000 for fielding an “under-strength team” against Man United. Imagine my horror as I scrolled down and read that Blackpool had also suffered the same fate in January after making ten changes to a line-up against Aston Villa in November.

Firstly this angered me because this precedent had passed me by. Secondly, and more importantly, I could not believe the dictator-like approach of the Premier League. Which overpaid podgy toff had executed these fines? New Premier League rules, mainly E20, (which sounds strangely like a trendy Essex nightclub) states that a club must select a team from a 25-man squad but it also must be the ‘strongest’. Wolves and Blackpool selected a team that suited their needs.

With United’s title wrapped up, the focus in the week before the final round was on the relegation dog-fight between five teams scrambling to finish above the final two relegation slots. The afore-mentioned article focused on United’s potential team selection, with a Premiership trophy already in the cabinet and a Champions League Final against Barcelona the week after.

Leaders of the battling clubs were interviewed exhaustively with comments raised by Wolves Chairman Steve Morgan that it would be “hypocritical” if United were not fined by the PL for fielding a weakened team against Blackpool. With Wolves needing a United win to keep them above Blackpool, ‘The Seasiders’ boss Ian Holloway did not even entertain the idea and snapped that Alex Ferguson would want nothing more than to end the season with a win.

Surely all five clubs involved in the relegation duel could or would not blame a one-off game having not performed well enough for 37 previous fixtures? And what exactly is defined as a “weakened team”? United tore apart Germany’s Schalke 04 in the Champions League semi-final over two legs with a second string eleven. Such a valiant season surely earned United the right to field any combination of 11 men out of the 25-man registered squad. Yes, it may affect a result. Yes, it may affect the relegation fight. In this case United still ran out 4-2 victors and Blackpool were relegated. But doesn’t every single match of the 38 game season affect a team’s fate?

Fielding a weakened team has been a regular and necessary tactic in a sport where top teams can play over 60 competitive games in a season, not including internationals when players pull on their country’s colours. This “resting” or rotating of squads gives regular players that extra few days of recovery and young unproven players a chance to shine. Rafa Benitez was the King of Rotation during his Liverpool heyday and they won a Champions League in a Gladiator-like contest against AC Milan after going 3-0 down.

But who really loses out? After I had calmed down, released the corporate stress ball I had choked and considered some of the implications it got me thinking. In the broader context there is only one loser when teams dampen a world-class, respected competition or an eagerly anticipated match-up: the fans. Manchester United and Arsenal cheapened the already suffering English League Cup continuously over the last 15 years by fielding their third or almost youth teams in every round including the semi-final, knowing that if they made the final they would wheel out the big-guns.

Sven Goran-Erikson was single-handedly responsible for the introduction of limited substitutions in international fixtures after changing his whole team regularly midway through a game; the final straw for FIFA a friendly defeat against Australia at Upton Park in which Erikson fielded a completely different team for the second half.

Ultimately when it comes to England’s Championship there are huge arguments for the Premier League’s Rule E20 to be abolished: “In every league match each participating club shall field a full-strength team.” This is not sustainable in such a grueling competition and may give FIFA’s insanely lazy and incompetent Sepp Blatter some ideas. What’s next? Spain being penalised for fielding a reserve team if they go through the first couple of World Cup group games comfortably?

Surely it is time for this rule to be reviewed and if common-sense prevails (which is rare!) it will be scrapped.

All I know is this. I have hit my revenue targets at work with a week to spare. Do you think I am going to take my foot of the pedal and set a bad example to my peers? Of course not … What’s that you say Greg? Lunchtime beers in the sun at Ryan’s Bar? Mine’s a Cider.

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