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Paranoid state A progressively vocal element believe their clubs are being targeted for punitive treatment by the Premier League

Every type of conspiracy theory now has a place on social media. Some seem plausible, others less so, however much you might enjoy the suggestion that Queen Elizabeth II controlled an international drug cartel.

A similar range of beliefs are entertained by football fans. The more durable ones scarcely count as conspiracies at all. The most popular teams in any country tend to get more debatable refereeing decisions in their favour than against them. This is partly a cumulative effect of success. A team able to dominate most opponents will make more claims for penalties, for instance, than one that spends most of a match in defence. Which may mean that the underdogs then lack the belief to take opportunities when they arise. In the ten years and four months that Manchester United didn’t concede from a penalty at home in the league, a run that began in December 1993, their opponents were given three, all of which were missed.

Alex Ferguson conceded that he sought to pressurise referees at Old Trafford and others followed in his wake, with José Mourinho and Jürgen Klopp among those who have cultivated an intimidating presence on the touchline. Their regular meltdowns, which can sometimes serve a double purpose in distracting from a disappointing result, are appreciated by those fans who like to see gamesmanship employed on their team’s behalf. But all those involved would recognise that it is a performance in the hope of marginal gains, not a sign of general collusion with the match officials. In recent times, however, some fans have come to believe that their clubs are being singled out for mistreatment, to the benefit of the powerful minority.

The Premier League’s decision to investigate financial irregularities at Everton over three seasons up to 2021-22 (which led to a ten-point deduction, cut to six on appeal in February) seemed to be a shock for the club’s blundering owners. Given their punishment, they will have been less surprised by the launch of a second inquiry, currently underway, involving


Everton supporters protest against perceived unfair treatment by the Premier League

2022-23 plus the two preceding seasons. Nottingham Forest are also being investigated for financial breaches in the same period, although only one of their seasons was in the Premier League.

The consensus seems to be that both will have points deducted, which may prove to be enough to relegate one of them. Some have contrasted Everton’s punishment with the action taken against

In recent times, however, some fans have come to believe that their clubs are being singled out for mistreatment, to the benefit of the powerful minority the six clubs who signed up to the breakaway European Super League which lasted for a couple of days in 2021. The six were fined £22 million each, a trifling amount for clubs run by billionaires, and escaped a points deduction while being warned that they would lose 30 points if they endorsed another such competition.

Everton are seen by this reasoning as a useful scapegoat for the PL. The clubs who promote the PL’s brand through their global following have to be protected. But the newly promoted teams and one whose only Champions League experience was a play-off tie in 2005 are expendable, especially at a time when the PL needs to show that it can enforce financial discipline without the independent regulator that the government wants to impose.

Everton fans inclined to sense a plot noted at the end of February they were the only club not to get a penalty this season (one was then awarded and missed in the next match, a defeat to West Ham). Fans of numerous clubs including Burnley and Sheffield United have been heard singing “Premier League, corrupt as fuck” when refereeing decisions go against them, while their counterparts at Forest have amassed a series of grievances, some of which the club have tried to act upon.

Controversial defeats at Bournemouth and Manchester United prompted official complaints to the referees’ body PGMOL about Robert Jones, who took charge of both games. On March 3, a contested injury-time goal in their 1-0 defeat to Liverpool led to an escalation, with coach Steven Reid being sent off after the match and club chairman Evangelos Marinakis pursuing referee Paul Tulley down the tunnel. Former referee Mark Clattenburg, recently appointed by Forest as the first “refereeing analyst” with a PL club, also tried to speak to Tulley and told the press that another complaint to PGMOL was being considered.

If other former referees take such roles – and you can imagine which club owners will be considering it – some of the wilder conspiracies are going to be amplified in ways that can only damage football.


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