The biggest legal case in Premier League history - with huge consequences for Manchester City and for English football - will be fought out by the two sides' respective legal counsels and at least one KC who can command hourly rates comparable with the best-paid footballers.
Not quite the glamour or the theatre of Pep Guardiola v Jurgen Klopp or Erling Haaland v Virgil Van Dijk but Kevin Plumb v Simon Cliff, with some big-name KCs involved on both sides, is shaping up to be the clash that could define the Premier League's future, as well as its past.
Plumb is the Premier League's general counsel and has been at the head of the legal operation that worked intensively for almost four years before announcing its 115 charges against City on Monday. Cliff advised Sheikh Mansour's Abu Dhabi United Group on its acquisition of City in 2008 and has fought other financial fair play legal cases involving the club since then.
At stake is the integrity of the Premier League's rules on how much owner wealth clubs can spend, the sanctity of sponsorship contracts and compliance by clubs with rules of disclosure when it is suspected that those laws have been broken. For City, who deny any wrongdoing, it is the battle to preserve their Premier League status and possibly the six titles they have won since 2012.
Plumb, who has been at the Premier League since Sept 2015, has been served more than one legal crisis since the investigation into City began. First there was the unprecedented Premier League shutdown over Covid during 2020 which meant the negotiation of rebates for broadcasters and amending the profit and sustainability rules for clubs. In April 2021, the Premier League faced the breakaway of six of its members, including City, with the European Super League.
In that time, the City investigation has come under scrutiny from the Premier League's board. It began when Claudia Arney was the interim chair of the Premier League, through Gary Hoffman's tenure and now into the early months of new chair Alison Brittain. The progress of the investigation has been discussed among the directors for its duration. The 19 clubs other than City in the league in any one season have been told that any lobbying on their part is unwelcome.
The case against City was built by Plumb and the Premier League's external legal firm Bird & Bird, for whom they are long-term clients. The battle the Premier League has been through to gain full disclosure was reflected in the 115 charges brought by Plumb's legal team against City.
The Premier League has charged City under the current handbook's B.15 rule which obliges all clubs to act "with the utmost good faith". The Premier League rules state that, by way of example, that breaking that can mean for a club to "act dishonestly towards the league or another club" or "engage in conduct that is intended to circumvent these rules or obstruct the board's investigation of compliance with them."
Plumb, originally from Cumbria, has already had to fight Cliff and City's legal team in court in July 2021 to get the case to this point. That was when City tried to challenge the jurisdiction of the Premier League rules themselves.
Cliff himself featured prominently in the allegations made by the German magazine Der Spiegel in its original revelations about City's finances in November 2018 that prompted the Premier League investigation. It was alleged that in seeking to find ways that City could keep pumping Sheikh Mansour's wealth into the club without attracting sanctions from Uefa under its financial fair play regulations, Cliff invoked the Battle of Agincourt.
The Uefa FFP revolution had been driven by the former France international and then Uefa president Michel Platini, prompting Cliff to call City's attempts to circumvent it "Project Longbow", Der Spiegel alleged. In an internal email Cliff said it was appropriate because the longbow was "the weapon the English used to beat the French at Crecy and Agincourt."
Cliff and Plumb have, in the tradition of English football's current transfer frenzy, recruited some very expensive team-mates. The Lawyer magazine has reported that Lord Pannick KC will represent City. Pannick can earn up to £80,000 a day, which would be equal - pro rata - to Haaland's City deal, believed to make him the highest-earning player at the club. City will hope that Pannick will not have to be contracted for a similar five-year deal.
Pannick, The Lawyer reports, will face Blackstone Chambers colleague for the Premier League, Adam Lewis KC. Blackstone's Andrew Hunter KC and Jason Pobjoy will appear alongside Lewis. On Pannick's side for City will be Monckton Chambers' Paul Harris KC.
Cliff and the City legal team rolled back the Uefa sanctions that originally flowed from the Der Spiegel revelations. Uefa banned City from its competitions for two years and fined the club €30 million for alleged FFP breaches. In 2020 the Court of Arbitration for Sport annulled the ban and reduced the fine to €10 million for not cooperating with Uefa's investigation. For City that represented a major victory, and they will go into battle once again this time - with even more at stake.