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Lincoln FC wins Rock Cup Final after intense legal wrangle

Photo by Johnny Bugeja

by Priya Gulraj and Stephen Ignacio

Lincoln FC won the Rock Cup Final last night, after an intense 24 hours which saw rival team Europa FC file an emergency injunction in the Supreme Court in an unsuccessful bid to stop the Gibraltar FA from holding the match.

Although the match was allowed to go ahead, Chief Justice Anthony Dudley said in a judgement that the case highlighted the need for the GFA to clarify its rules and have in place “an effective disciplinary process allowing for timely appeals”.

Moments after the final whistle, Lincoln Red Imps FC celebrated the win and cup double becoming Rock Cup winners in a 2-0 victory against Glacis United FC, marking the end of the 2020/2021 season.

Lincoln Red Imps’ triumph in the Rock Cup means fourth placed Mons Calpe qualify for the Europa Conference League.

But off the pitch and just hours prior to kick-off, lawyers were embroiled in a legal wrangle stemming from events in the run-up to the final.

Europa FC brought the case before the court after the GFA found the club had breached substitution rules on homegrown players under the age of 23.

The club was then served with a sanction by the GFA.

Europa FC had to forfeit its win against Lincoln Red Imps FC in the Rock Cup semi-final on April 22, which in turn meant that Lincoln Red Imps would play against Glacis United FC in the final.

In seeking an injunction, Europa FC had sought to have the match postponed in a bid to reverse that decision through arbitration.

Europa claimed the sanction was wrong because the National League rules on homegrown players were not incorporated into the Rock Cup rules.

Keith Azopardi, QC, who appeared for Europa FC, said the club hoped to postpone the Rock Cup final until after an arbitration was held.

But yesterday the Chief Justice ruled that the match should go ahead.

“The submission is essentially that a substitution consisting of such a player must mean that either such a player is removed from the pitch or entered into the pitch,” he said.

“In my exchanges with counsel as to the underlying policy of promoting young local talent, it became apparent to me that the interpretation which Europa puts on the provision is at least equally capable of achieving the objective of having young Gibraltar players on the field as that advanced by the GFA.”

“Indeed, on one view it could even encourage clubs to have under-23 home grown players in the starting line up rather than have them as reserves.”

“Mr Azopardi very cogently submits that the new provisions cannot be interpreted in a way that ignores the rule change, that the GFA’s position appears to be to want the rule to be applied as it was in the previous incarnation, in circumstances that ignores the rule-change and the effect of it which removed the prescriptive ‘entering’ requirement.”

The Chief Justice said that in his judgement, Mr Azopardi had the “better part” of the argument and Europa would succeed if this matter proceeded to arbitration.

However, there was no guarantee that the arbitration process would take place in time for UEFA’s June 1 deadline or that it would succeed.

The Chief Justice said both Lincoln and Europa had already qualified for the European competition, but Glacis United FC needed to win last night in order to compete in Europe.

He said he was particularly “mindful” of the likelihood that Europa’s interpretation of the rule would likely be preferred, but also that there was “no certainty” that the arbitration process would take place before May 31 or that the match could be held at the Europa Point Sports Complex given planned works at the Victoria Stadium.

“The risk that would flow from the grant of the injunction would in the very largest measure affect Glacis, whose rightful place in the final is beyond question, who will have been preparing for a match tonight and for whom a victory will pave access to European competition,” the Chief Justice said.

“In all the circumstances it would be grossly unfair to deprive Glacis and its players from that opportunity.”

“In the circumstances the application for injunctive relief is dismissed.”

He said that before yesterday’s proceedings he received an email exchange on the GFA’s rule changes between the GFA and the clubs.

Mr Justice Dudley said the intention was to include “entering the field of play” in the rules which would have made the position “wholly unambiguous”.

But he added that parties who are subject to regulation must be “entitled” to rely upon rules as they appear in any final document without having to question what the rule is “supposed to mean”.

There was controversy too on the issue of who should pay for the costs of the legal action.

The GFA’s legal counsel, Gilbert Licudi, QC, said the general rule is that the successful party should have costs awarded in its favour, meaning his client the GFA.

By Mr Justice Dudley adopted a more nuanced approach despite the outcome of his decision.

“It seems to me that there is merit in the submission that an application for an injunction was brought about because the GFA has not been able to conduct its business properly,” the Chief Justice said.

“Had the GFA conducted its business properly, and had there been a disciplinary process that was an effective disciplinary process which allowed a final outcome by way of arbitration before the Rock Cup Final, we would not have been here.”

“I am not here to tell the GFA how to conduct its business, but one would think that if you have a disciplinary process clubs must be given an opportunity for that disciplinary process to be completed in a timely fashion so that they can compete, otherwise any disciplinary process is nugatory.”

“So, in those circumstances what has Europa supposed to do?”

“In my judgment the GFA’s failure to have an effective disciplinary process allowing for timely appeals has in effect forced Europa to bring these proceedings, [and] but for the impact the injunction would have had on the innocent third party, the injunction would have been granted.”

“Unusually therefore, and counter to the starting position that costs follow the event, Europa are to have the costs of the application, to be assessed if not agreed.”

Following the ruling on Wednesday, the GFA said in a statement: “Europa FC applied to the Supreme Court, on an urgent basis, for an injunction to prevent the Rock Cup Final from going ahead tonight.”

“That application was not granted and the Rock Cup Final will therefore proceed as planned.”

“The Gibraltar FA respects the comments of the Chief Justice in his ruling.”

“That ruling was made in the context of an application for an injunction which came before the court at short notice.”

“This was not a full hearing of the issue which Europa FC has raised.”

“The Gibraltar FA stands by the decision taken concerning a breach by Europa FC of the rules which govern the Rock Cup competition.”

“A breach of the rule carries a mandatory forfeiture of the match.”

As a consequence, the two teams which played the Rock Cup Final are Lincoln FC and Glacis United FC, the GFA said.

For its part, Europa FC described the GFA’s statement as “deeply disappointing”.

“We agreed with the judge’s decision to allow the Rock Cup final to take place last night because not doing so would be harmful to Glacis United as many of their players were leaving after this match,” Europa FC said.

“We asked the GFA to do the right thing and let Europa FC play in the Rock Cup Final given that the Chief Justice stated that ‘if the matter proceeds to arbitration… Europa will succeed.”

“For the GFA to issue a statement that they stand by a decision on the breach that they charged us with is staggering given that the Chief Justice stated we would show in the arbitration that there was no breach.”

Europa said the case had not been dealt with “fairly” by the GFA and the latest statement was “confirmation of their blinkered attitude” when they should have done the “right thing”.

“Europa FC reserves the right to take further action against the GFA in this matter,” the club added.

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