There's only one word to describe Ian Holloway's reaction to the suggestion that he might be fined for making 10 changes to his team against Aston Villa this week: apoplexy.
"How dare some person from the Premier League tell me who I can pick?" the Blackpool manager raged in a news conference, threatening to resign if the club was punished. "They do not know what they're talking about. I believe in the people I've bought. I train my players to play in the first team."
You really can't argue with that logic (how, exactly, would an outsider best pick the side?), and anyone who tried could be confronted with the fact that Holloway's XI included a smattering of internationals (including veteran Ghanaian keeper Richard Kingson) and seasoned campaigners like Brett Ormerod, Jason Euell and Marlon Harewood. Between them, they already had 35 appearances in Blackpool's 11 previous league matches.
Such justifications shouldn't be necessary, but the whole brouhaha erupted because Wolves manager Mick McCarthy received a suspended $40,000 fine for making the same number of changes for a trip to Manchester United last season. Officially, he had broken rule E20, which dictates that clubs must name a full-strength side for Premier League matches. The precedent, apparently, has been set.
But has it? Though McCarthy was similarly upset at having his managerial autonomy impeded, he admitted that he had fielded a weakened side against United, preserving his key players for a more winnable encounter with Burnley, five days later.
Holloway insists he chose a side to win, and only an 89th-minute goal cost his side a deserved point. Blackpool has played to win at the Emirates, Stamford Bridge and Anfield; there's little to suggest he should suddenly adopt a conservative approach to fixtures against Aston Villa and West Ham this week. Would his selection be under scrutiny if Villa hadn't won? As Holloway asked: "How can I be fined for picking a team that nearly beat Aston Villa?" If the threat of punishment depends on the result, we're in very shady territory.
The possible precedent is also debatable because of the recent introduction of new Premier League squad rules: If nothing else, this draws a line between this season and those before it. Why should clubs name a 25-man squad if they are to be penalized for utilizing it? Blackpool has fielded 22 players in the league so far -- comparable to Villa (21), West Ham (23, Saturday's opponent), Manchester City (22) and Chelsea (21), and fewer than Arsenal (25) and Manchester United (27 -- clubs may use unlimited U-21 players).
Holloway justified the changes on the basis that Blackpool has four matches in 12 days, and he could not realistically field the same XI in all; he's used 21 players so far, with one game to go. Last season, when Chelsea faced Portsmouth, West Ham, Birmingham and Fulham in the same period of time, Carlo Ancelotti started 19 different players, making an average of four changes per game. If Holloway had ended up with the same team by progressively making smaller scale changes, would he have escaped the possibility of censure? Wasn't it the team that was the problem for Wolves? Who decides how gradually rotations ought to take place?
"Rotation" is a very different way of packaging this managerial maneuver. The likes of Alex Ferguson, Ancelotti (and Jose Mourinho before him) and Rafael Benitez have been renowned for it. There was a spell, between 2008 and 2010, where Ferguson made an average of five changes per game. That figure will be skewed somewhat by competitions like the Champions League, but he still hasn't named an unchanged team in 143 consecutive matches.
Even before that, in May 2007, he chopped and changed United's lineup after securing the title with two matches to spare. In the first, Chelsea formed a guard of honor for the new champions, only to see players like Keiran Lee and Dong Fangzhuo (making their first and only league appearance) pass before them. West Ham stayed up in the league after a win in the second game against a team without Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs (combined 161 league appearances before then; all restored for the FA Cup final versus Chelsea later that month). At the same time, Benitez made nine changes when Liverpool played Fulham shortly before the Champions League final, without recrimination -- even though Fulham's 1-0 win also helped it hop out of relegation bother.
The Premier League could surely consider such instances to set a precedent, if this case cannot simply be judged on its own merits. Ferguson himself has said: "The days when Liverpool won the league using 14 players are no longer possible -- nobody even thinks about that now. The modern-day game is all about the squad." Holloway was passionate in his defense of his players, offended on their behalf that he should be accused of fielding a weakened team. "This team and my team were
It's become a cliché to mutter, "This wouldn't happen to the Big Four," but that doesn't mean we should resist it where it may be relevant. It's easy to consider "rotation" a matter of fact when it applies to Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool because we're so much better acquainted with their squads. They've consistently received the most exposure in recent years.
The Premier League must not fall into the trap of denying clubs like Blackpool (which has leapt from the fourth to the first tier inside a decade, and was a surprise playoff victor) the same freedoms simply because their squads are less familiar and less expensively assembled. If it fines Holloway -- which would cost Blackpool and the league an excellent manager -- clubs with less prolific squad players are essentially being doubly penalized.
Newcastle manager Chris Hughton is understandably disappointed by Joey Barton's three-match ban, resulting from an FA charge of violent conduct brought after he punched Morten Gamst Pedersen in the ribs during Wednesday's 2-1 loss to Blackburn. He'll now be missing a key player against Fulham, Bolton and Chelsea.
It's also disappointing for those of us who have been vocal in appreciating the huge part Barton has played in Newcastle's form this season. At his best, there's something so upright, so composed, so unfussily
His reaction to the charge at least matches his (until this week) rehabilitated on-field persona.
"I fully accept that I was wrong," he said. "I would like to apologize to Chris Hughton, my teammates, our supporters and of course to Morten Gamst Pedersen and Blackburn Rovers. I hold my hands up, I reacted badly and I deeply regret it."
But with a rap sheet as long as your arm, it's still back to square one on the reputation front -- just when it had become permissible to say that you admired him without it sounding like a tacit admission that you like to use people's eye sockets as ashtrays.