Sheffield United: The previously untold story of secret meeting in Brussels and how it shaped the Carlos Tevez Affair
Ten years ago, two men from London stepped-off the early morning flight to Brussels and, after collecting their luggage from the airport carousel, ordered a taxi which would take them to Bastion Tower.
The landmark building, located in one of the Belgain capital's most desirable districts, housed Kevin McCabe's office on the continent. And it was there, on the 20th floor of this imposing looking structure which overlooks the Place du Champ de Mars, where West Ham's Scott Duxbury and Nick Igoe had travelled at the then Sheffield United owner's invitation to thrash out a deal which would shape both club's futures.
A couple of days earlier, when an independent tribunal had ruled United were entitled to compensation following the Carlos Tevez Affair, officials at Upton Park were nervous. Very nervous indeed. A figure north of £30m was being mooted which, given the controversy had effectively sealed their rivals' relegation to the Championship, seemed perfectly justifiable. But fortunately for them, and West Ham's bottom line, McCabe was in generous mood.
"We set the amount," the Scarborough based property developer reveals, explaining how, despite being informed they were entitled to more, United eventually settled on a sum of £20m. "We sorted it out rather than letting the panel decide. I wanted to do that because, even though we'd been wronged, I really did feel it was the right thing to do."
As the two teams prepare to meet in the capital this weekend - the first league game between them since United's promotion back to the highest level - McCabe's account of events in 2008 sheds new light on an episode which still causes friction even now. Tevez, whose transfer to West Ham breached legislation outlawing third party ownership, had played a crucial role in preserving top-flight status. But, to United's disbelief, the governing body decided he could feature during the remainder of the season; choosing to fine his employers rather than deduct them points. Even though his presence swung the battle for survival in their favour.
To understand McCabe's show of compassion, it is necessary to consider West Ham's circumstances at the time. Then owned by a consortium of Icelandic businessmen, the collapse of the Nordic island's financial system would eventually render its principal partner bankrupt and, United suspected, tip his club over the precipice unless they offered a compromise. President Björgólfur Guðmundsson and his chairman Eggert Magnússon had enjoyed the boom. Now they were effectively bust.
"They were really challenging moments, peculiar times" McCabe says. "Iceland's monetary system had effectively gone and, if we'd have really pushed, there was a feeling there was a feeling the same thing might happen to West Ham as well.
"So we came to an arrangement in good spirit. We didn't let the arbitration panel decide. We did it for the right reasons."
Those reasons, together with McCabe's respect for Duxbury, then West Ham's chief executive, and their financial director Igoe, will surprise many of those in the capital who accused United of acting out of spite.
"I always enjoyed going to West Ham," McCabe admits. "I felt they were like the Sheffield United of London, a working class club with no airs or graces who were a huge part of the community in their area and, like us, had a tradition for producing players. Also, despite what had gone on, I had a good relationship with Scott and Nick. So I asked them to come over to Belgium, where I was based at the time, to try and sort something out which we did."
"I had no interest in seeing a club potentially go out of business," he continues. "I don't think that's what football should be about. Yes, we felt we were entitled to something because we'd suffered and didn't agree with how things had been handled. But people should always remember how important football clubs are to them communities they represent. What we've seen happen at Bury recently, with them going out of business, should never have been allowed to come to pass. I also remember being at Portsmouth, the day they were saved by a supporters' led consortium, and saying a few words before our game there to that effect, congratulating them on coming through their own crisis and reminding how important they were to the region."
The major players in the Tevez saga have since experienced major change themselves. Duxbury is now chief executive at Watford, Igoe runs a football consultancy and Lord Pannick QC, who represented United at one of their first hearings, acted for Gina Miller at the Supreme Court earlier this year when it unanimously ruled the prime Minister had unlawfully prorogued Parliament during the Brexit negotiations. McCabe, who would later hand half his stake in United to HRH Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, last month lost his power struggle with the Saudi Arabian royal following a protracted battle. But McCabe's memory of his pursuit of justice, when it emerged Tevez and his fellow Argentine Javier Mascherano had been illegally acquired, remains as a sharp as the rancour it still provokes between supporters of the two sides.
"When Mascherano and Tevez first came in, there was a lot of talk about it in football at the time," he says. "With respect, given the stature both had, it was amazing. To put it into perspective, it would have been like us signing Cristiano Ronaldo or another player who usually would have been the preserve of a top four club. Then, in the January when Mascherano went to Liverpool, it all came out and everyone knew how they'd been brought in.
"The Premier League started looking into it, any more information was scarce because of that, and right at the last minute West Ham pleased guilty so they got a fine. Then, late one Friday night, we were all advised that West Ham had been given permission to carry on playing Tevez."
Now of Boca Juniors, Tevez subsequently featured in West Ham's remaining five matches of the campaign; scoring more than 40 per cent of their goals during that period including the one, at Manchester United, which ensured their safety. United, meanwhile, slid into the second tier after losing their shoot-out with Wigan Athletic on the final day of the season. McCabe responded by arguing they should be reprieved and then, when that argument fell on deaf ears, launching what eventually proved a successful bid for compensation. The sum he settled on, after discussing the matter with Duxbury and Igoe, was paid in installments.
"We, my family, remember it better than anyone because we lived it," McCabe continues. "It took a lot out of us personally but we felt it had to be done because it was in the best interests of United. Even early doors, other Premier League owners were wondering how West Ham could have got their hands on two world class players."
Chris Wilder, the manager responsible for leading United from the third to the first tier of English football, used his pre-match media conference to try and take some of the sting out of Saturday's encounter; insisting it had not been mentioned during his squad's preparations. United travel south in ninth while West Ham, whose supporters remain angered by the Tevez Affair's outcome, are 11th.
Like Wilder, McCabe is keen to draw a line under the matter as he considers an appeal against Mr Justice Fancourt's ruling that Prince Abdullah should take charge of United. Resentment, however, still festers. Tevez, and the authorities handling of the situation his presence caused, remains an incendiary issue.
"We're playing each other in a new stadium," he says. "I know David Gold and David Sullivan, who own West Ham now, personally from their days at Birmingham and I respect them. Any differences between the two clubs are now a thing of the past. And, as I said, I see similarities between our two clubs."
THE TEVEZ AFFAIR TIMELINE:
2006: West Ham sign Javier Macherano and his fellow Argentine Carlos Tevez on transfer deadline day.
2007: Masherano joins Liverpool, when it emerges the deal which took him and his compatriot to east London breached Premier League rules B13 and U18.
2007: B13 states all PL clubs should act in good faith.
2007: U18 relates to third party influences.
2007: West Ham are fined £5.5m after being found guilty of breaking both.
2007: Tevez receives permission to continue playing for West Ham.
2007: He scores seven times in the final 10 matches of the season.
2007: Tevez's strike at Manchester United secures West Ham's survival, while United are relegated.
2007: United, led by McCabe, fail to persuade an independent PL commission to overturn that decision.
2007: Claiming over £30m in compensation after being told they will not be reinstated, United take the matter to an FA arbitration procedure.
2008: That rules in the South Yorkshire club's favour.
2009: United settle for a figure of £20, payable in installments.
2019: West Ham prepare to host Chris Wilder's side in the Premier League for the first time since.