Sunderland have escaped a points deduction after admitting breaching Premier League rules by fielding striker Ji Dong-Won for five games when he was ineligible.
The Premier League slapped Sunderland with a heavy fine for the administrative error but stopped short of docking the club points, which would have plunged them deeper into relegation trouble.
The Black Cats are understood to be confident that the matter will not be re-opened and the Premier League has said it will not revisit the decision. But it remains to be seen how the club’s relegation rivals react to the latest twist in a remarkable season on Wearside. Controversially the sanction has only just emerged – even though Sunderland fielded the forward in four Premier League games beginning in August and the Capital One Cup defeat of MK Dons.
The Premier League and the Black Cats dealt with the matter “under the radar”, which is understood to have angered many within football who are calling for greater transparency from the authorities. There will also be questions about why they were not thrown out of the Capital One Cup, which is a competition that they eventually reached the final of – losing to Manchester City at the start of last month.
Sunderland’s mitigation is that the oversight was not spotted by the Premier League and that as soon as the mistake became obvious, they confessed and sought the advice of the authorities.
A club statement read: “There was an administrative issue regarding the registration of the player. The club was fined by the Premier League and the matter was dealt with at the time.”
Although other clubs have been thrown out of knockout competitions in the past, Sunderland escaped the fate doled out to other Football League clubs. In 2010, Hartlepool were docked three points and fined £10,000 for fielding Gary Liddle – and Pool stalwart Sam Collins branded the decision “double standards” on Twitter last night.
The crucial point in Sunderland’s favour is that Ji was already registered as a Black Cats player and was only missing international clearance, having spent the end of the previous campaign with Bundesliga club Augsburg.
The German FA had to provide written assurances that he had permission to play, which wasn’t forthcoming.
Although Sunderland accepted a fine – having brought it to the Premier League’s attention – it is an embarrassing development at a time when the club needs to concentrate on the battle for the top flight lives.
In a separate development club secretary Liz Coley left the club in December and has subsequently been replaced by Ryan Sachs, a close ally of owner Ellis Short. Despite claims to the contrary, she was not sacked by Short.
The error leaves them open to criticism and it is unclear how their relegation rivals will react in the event that Sunderland stay up. Although there are significant differences to the case of Carlos Tevez’s third party registration, which ended up with a legal battle between West Ham and Sheffield United, the reaction of their relegation rivals will be interesting.
Gus Poyet will address the media today – while John O’Shea insists the club can get themselves out of a “tricky situation” by beating Spurs and replicating the sort of ‘never-say-die’ spirit that helped the club last season. “People were saying last season we had a tough run of fixtures and yet we managed to pull out two wins from somewhere and that helped us massively,” the Black Cats skipper said.
“We’re going to have to do the same again. Last season we were in a tricky situation and got out of it.”