Monday, July 30, 2007


It's German, dontcha know. Roughly translated it means "shameful joy", and its primary English use is as a term to describe finding fun in the misfortune of others.

Very popular around the north of England (and south of France for that matter) at the moment, thanks to the defeat of Wigan Warriors by Catalan Dragons in the Challenge Cup semi final this Sunday.

It's fair to say Wigan weren't the public favourites going into the game, for a variety of reasons. For a large chunk of the last decade of the 20th century, they swept all before them in both League and Cup, signing all the best players and paying them wages that no other team could compete with as they went on an unprecedented winning spree. Call it jealousy if you like, but the arrogance shown by the club and its fans over that period made them less than popular.

While success has been less easy to come by during the summer era, they've still found ways to make themselves unpopular. Running up a massive debt, the club was forced to sell its traditional Central Park home and move into the JJB Stadium with the local football club. There still lingers the perception that there is one rule for Wigan and one for everyone else, whether it's when their players visit the disciplinary panel for on-field indiscretions or the club itself being hauled over the coals for a flagrant breach of the salary cap in 2006, a year in which they narrowly avoided relegation by spending significantly more than they were allowed on wages.

When you're unpopular, it helps to have someone fronting the club to the media and general public who is likeable enough to deflect some of the flak. Unfortunately for Wigan, lately that job has fallen to Dave Whelan and Maurice Lindsay. The bluff, uncompromising (until it suits his principles) owner and his chairman - who possesses all the personal charm you'd get in the camp offspring of Joyce Grenfell and Baron Greenback from Dangermouse - aren't going to do Max Clifford out of a job when it comes to generating positive PR. It should come as no surprise then that the rugby league public have taken great delight in kicking the club while it's down.

It seems that this may have been the final straw, as Lindsay has announced today that he is stepping down as chairman at the end of the season and Whelan is considering a serious offer for the club. There's no doubt Lindsay played a significant part in making Wigan the club it is now - whether you consider that to be a good or a bad thing depends on how you look at it. There will be no shortage of people prepared to slam the door after the pair of them however, and it remains to be seen how long it will take to remove the taint off the image of the club that their era will be predominantly remembered for.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Making opportunities out of problems

Unless you've been living in a cave on Mars with your fingers in your ears lately, you'll have heard the saga about Sheffield United, West Ham and the FA Premier League. Basically, West Ham bought an excellent player, but in buying him breached a number of Premier League rules about registration. The Premier League found them guilty in April this year, but refused to take any points away from them as it was too close to the end of the season and would have been unfair given West Ham were embroiled in a relegation scrap. Instead they fined them £5m, and it was Sheffield United and Wigan who ended up being relegated as that player scored a vital goal on the final day to keep West Ham up.

Needless to say much has been made of it since, and Sheffield United recently appealed the punishment on the grounds it was too lenient and that many other teams in lower leagues have previously suffered points deductions for playing unregistered or incorrectly registered players. That appeal was dismissed this week, and West Ham remain in the Premier League for next season picking up around £20m in potential income as a result. Not a bad piece of work, take a £5m hit on the basis it could generate you £20m in the following year.

Also this week, news broke that three of rugby league's top clubs - Bradford, Wigan and St Helens - will be called before the Rugby Football League to discuss potential breaches of the salary cap in 2006. The clubs have previous form for infringing cap rules, either accidentally or deliberately, and the eyes of the rugby league community will be trained on the RFL over the next week or so awaiting the results of their findings - in much the same way the eyes of the football world were on the FA when they were deciding the punishment for West Ham.

The link between the two cases grows stronger, given Wigan narrowly avoiding relegation in 2006 after a mid-season recruiting drive, including the world record fee paid for Stuart Fielden from Bradford. If they have been shown to have overspent in the pursuit of retaining their Super League place, and given the club received a points deduction in the past for overspending the cap, perhaps the RFL can expect a challenge from Castleford who were the team relegated last season. Fortunately the RFL have an operational rules framework which covers the salary cap and the punishments for breaches are already set out depending on the nature and size of the offence, so there is little room for arbitrary judgements as in the West Ham case.

What this does represent however is an opportunity for the RFL to put a marker down prior to the cap becoming "live" in 2008. Next year all teams must receive clearance from the RFL that any new playing contracts will not push them over the salary cap before that player can be registered, rather than the current system of retrospective audits. The hearings coming up give the RFL the chance to both show that those who infringe the rules don't prosper (Wigan avoiding relegation, St Helens winning the Grand Final) by setting down meaningful punishments, while also providing some good publicity for the sport by showing off the innovative cap management method for next year.

Unlike the FA, who have emerged from the West Ham affair with very little credit whatsoever, it is to be hoped the RFL grasp the nettle on both counts.