West Ham could be set for another legal battle involving Sheffield United and Premier League relegation thirteen years after Carlos Tevez made sure that the Irons would survive at the expense of the Blades.
This time, however, they could end up being on the same side.
Sheffield United finally got back to winning ways, and in spectacular fashion, as they beat Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 at Bramall Lane to keep their hopes of Europa League qualification alive on the evening of Thursday July 2.
Chris Wilder’s men had been on a winless run of four games prior to their victory over Spurs, with the Blades suffering a reversal of their form prior to the break in Premier League action upon its return.
They had won 10 out of a possible 12 points in February and March before football was paused, and were denied three points in their first game back in action on June 17, away against Aston Villa.
Goalkeeper Orjan Nyland appeared to fall behind his own goal-line while holding the ball only for Hawk-Eye’s goal-line technology to fail at recognising what had happened. That meant that referee Michael Oliver did not award Sheffield United a goal, despite replays and player reactions on both sides suggesting that a goal had been scored.
The match ended 0-0 to deny the Blades two points in their pursuit of a Europa League spot while also gifting Villa an extra point that could yet count against the likes of Bournemouth, Brighton and Hove Albion, Watford and West Ham in the relegation battle.
At the time of writing, only a point separates Villa from Watford in the race for survival, although West Ham were able to add three points to their tally with their surprise 3-2 win over Chelsea.
Following the incident at Villa Park, Hawk-Eye released a statement: “The seven cameras located in the stands around the goal area were significantly occluded by the goalkeeper, defender, and goalpost. This level of occlusion has never been seen before in over 9,000 matches that the Hawk-Eye Goal Line Technology system has been in operation.
“The system was tested and proved functional prior to the start of the match in accordance with the IFAB Laws of The Game and confirmed as working by the match officials.
“The system has remained functional throughout. Hawk-Eye unreservedly apologises to the Premier League, Sheffield United, and everyone affected by this incident.”
But what would happen if at the end of the season one of the clubs affected found themselves short on points to achieve European qualification or Premier League survival?
football.london spoke to football legal expert, Thomas Horton of Football Law, to find out.
Could Sheffield United or West Ham have a case?
It all boils down to what the position is at the end of the season. It’s a bit of a wait and see in any event.
In order for it to even be considered, it would have to come to a point where Sheffield United have missed out on a UEFA club competition position in the league, or even that they have not finished as high up the league as they could have done because of the two points they’ve missed out on had they won 1-0 against Aston Villa.
The factors to consider are that Sheffield United would earn more revenue from qualifying for a UEFA club competition, and secondly, because the higher up the league you finish, the more revenue you get from the Premier League as well.
At the other end of the table, if it comes to the end of the season and Aston Villa avoid relegation, and the reason they avoid relegation is because they got one point more than the team below them, then that team that’s been hard done by is going to feel like they have a claim.
It’s similar to when Sheffield United brought a claim against West Ham United for the whole Carlos Tevez situation, that winning goal from Tevez being the whole reason why Sheffield United got relegated. So, that factual scenario would have to come around first for this even to be considered, in my opinion.
You’d have to wait for that to happen but then the league will test on whether or not that could be satisfied.
My opinion is if any type of claim was brought by Sheffield United, or a team that’s affected in the relegation scenario, the claim would be in negligence, either against the Premier League or Hawk-Eye.
But then when you look at the tests applicable for whether there has been negligence to give rise to a claim, I think there are going to be difficulties in Sheffield United, or anyone else, having a successful claim.
How would a club pursue such a case?
This wouldn’t go to a court of law, it would go to arbitration, either pursuant to the Premier League’s own rules, or pursuant to the FA’s rules.
Both of them provide for dispute between clubs and participants, and in some situations, it would go to arbitration. If it was to be in a court of law, it would be very much a confidential process. Nonetheless, English law would be the applicable law.
The Case Law from the Court of Arbitration for Sport would be something considered in the whole process as well. Going back to the test of negligence, it’s a test to have a successful claim, the first one being whether or not there is a duty of care.
So could Sheffield United or another club establish that the Premier League or Hawk-Eye owes Sheffield United, or one of those other clubs, a duty of care?
What that looks at is whether or not the damage that occurred is foreseeable, whether there’s a particularly proximate relationship between those parties and whether it’s fair to impose a duty of care.
For me, personally, I don’t think there will be that much difficulty in establishing whether or not there’s a duty of care. There’s quite a clear proximate relationship between both the clubs, or club, the Premier League and Hawk-Eye.
If not, it’s just down to the rules and the regulations they all work with. For example, the benefit of what Hawk-Eye seeks to provide to the clubs by the use of goal-line technology.
I appreciate that there’s probably some more points to make about whether or not there’s a duty of care, but looking at it a bit holistically, I don’t think there’s going to be too much difficulty in establishing a duty of care.
The real difficulty would arise in establishing whether or not the Premier League or Hawk-Eye breached that duty of care, and to establish whether there has been a breach of duty.
For me, the factors that would be of greatest consideration here would be the Premier League rules that refer to the use of goal-line technology, the International Football Association board and the laws of the game that would refer to the use of goal-line technology as well and also, what Hawk-Eye have said after the events.
Hawk-Eye released a statement after the game, and I know some jibes were given for their use of the word ‘occlusion’, but I think the statement is quite helpful because what it explains is that the goal-line technology system is in place.
Could there be a problem with goal-line technology?
Firstly, it’s a FIFA-licensed and FIFA-certified system, so it ticks that industry requirement and standard there.
Then, going back to that statement from Hawk-Eye, in particular the part that said that the goal-line technology had been checked before the match, which also confirmed it to be working by the referee and the officials before the match started as well, that’s in accordance with the laws of the game.
So I don’t think there’s been any lack of standard of care when you consider those factors. And above that, the statement from Hawk-Eye highlighted there wasn’t actually a fault with the goal-line technology system.
What occurred, and it seems to be a purely freak occurrence, is that the goalkeeper, the defender and the goalpost were significantly blocking the seven cameras used by the goal-line technology to prevent the system from working. They refer to that as a one in over 9,000 match occurrence.
In those circumstances, where the laws of the game have been applied, and as far as I can tell, the Premier League laws have been applied, and it’s a freak occurrence where there’s no sort of fault that can be attached to somebody, it would be difficult to convert into an argument.
For me, I wouldn’t see any claim or this sort getting past the breach of duty stage.
Could a club challenge the accuracy of Hawk-Eye?
Certainly, if Sheffield United, or another club, were considering bringing a claim, they would write to the Premier League and/or Hawk-Eye and ask for disclosure of any relevant documents or checklist system in place to take note of the pre-match checks, either by individuals put at the stadium by the Premier League, or the referees themselves.
If those sort documents do exist then of course you’d expect those to be disclosed. It would be a very clear indication on whether or not those checks were done. It doesn’t have to be justified by a checklist, evidence can be given by those who did the checks.
They could give a witness statement, saying, ‘Yes, we did carry out these procedures and checks, and everything was working fine’. But from what I’ve read, there is nothing to contradict Hawk-Eye’s statement whatsoever.
In terms of the Hawk-Eye system, it does comply with the FIFA standards. If this is not a fault with the system but something that needs to be considered in the future, or worked around, I can certainly see FIFA looking at whether the system can be changed in any way to prevent such blocking or occlusion affecting the system in future.
One of the things I noticed about the use of the goal-line technology and how it works alongside VAR is that even though the goal-line technology is implicitly trusted by the referees and the officials present on the day, there was nothing stopping Michael Oliver seeking the assistance of VAR.
Whilst it could be remedied by perhaps FIFA looking to change the way they use the goal-line technology system used in football, I think it’s also important to note that VAR is available to still review the goal or no goal decision.
Why wasn’t VAR used instead?
For me, I really don’t know why Michael Oliver didn’t use VAR. There was a comment from the Video Assistant Referee on the day who explained the reason why he hadn’t recommended a VAR review to Michael Oliver was because the on-field match officials had not received a signal. That means that VAR would never be used for goal situations where there’s a potential block to the goal-line technology system.
I wasn’t really sure how that was very helpful, but I think it goes back to that point of the implicit trust in the use of goal-line technology.
But considering the player reactions and the visible hesitation from everybody after the incident, I don’t see why Michael Oliver himself didn’t seek VAR’s assistance. There’s nothing in the laws of the game to suggest because goal-line technology is being used, that VAR cannot also check what the situation is.
Could a club sue Michael Oliver in that case?
This goes onto the next level of considerations and it’s something I’ve been looking at.
Whilst there have been law cases before where a referee in a rugby match has been deemed to have a duty of care to the players in a personal injury context, whether the same would apply here, it’s arguable, I think.
Again, you’re going to have difficulties saying whether or not there’s been a breach of that duty of care. Also, the Court of Arbitration for Sport essentially states that the referee’s decision should be respected and it’s not a place for the court to interfere with that.
I was looking at the laws of the game and there’s two rules in particular: Rule C.8 from the Premier League’s rules and Law 5, paragraph two from the laws of the game.
Premier League Rule C.8 states that: ‘Goal-line technology shall be utilised in League Matches, (save that, for the avoidance of doubt, a League Match shall proceed even if goal-line technology is unavailable for part or all of it).’
There’s already that consideration that the goal-line technology isn’t always going to be in use, or available, for either the entirety of the match or part of it. That rule also goes on to say that the referee’s decision on whether or not a goal has been scored shall be final. That’s on the referee’s side, as well.
In the laws of the game, as well, Law 5, paragraph two says: ‘Decisions shall be made to the best of the referee’s ability, in accordance to the laws of the game, and the spirit of the game, and shall be based on the opinion of the referee, who has the discretion to take appropriate action within the framework of the laws of the game. The decisions of the referee regarding facts connected with play, including whether or not a goal is scored and the result of the match, are final. The decisions of the referee and all of the match officials must always be respected.’
The possibility of arguing against any in-play decision from the referee would be, in my opinion, insurmountable. I don’t see how you’d get around that, particularly considering the difficulties with any claim of negligence.
Would you expect clubs to take legal action despite the problems?
If clubs are in that position at the end of the season, for instance, that one point or two point-scenario, I would certainly expect them to look into it.
Whether or not that would result in a claim being made I don’t think it would be a case with the best prospects of success. But I would certainly anticipate there being some investigations into those clubs getting to that position as well, with them doing their own investigations to get the facts then seeking the legal advice.
I just think there’s too many obstacles to overcome for there to be a successful claim.