One of the great things about football is its ability to throw up scenarios which, stripped of context and viewed in isolation, seem completely absurd.
A case in point: the biggest star of the Chinese Super League and the highest-paid player in world football is despised by supporters of a club in England’s third tier.
That the opposing forces even came into contact seems bizarre. That we are approaching a decade of bad blood between the two even more so.
On April 14, 2007, Carlos Tevez was kept at bay by Sheffield United centre-backs Phil Jagielka and Claude Davis as the Blades cruised to a 3-0 victory over relegation rivals West Ham United. Tevez being involved alongside the likes of George McCartney and Matty Etherington is the sort of thing that might need an entire article of explanation for those unfamiliar with the Premier League back then, but we’ll come to that later.
The result left Neil Warnock’s team five points clear of West Ham with just five games remaining, and West Ham’s home defeat at the hands of Chelsea four days later would leave the gap the same with four to play. But Warnock’s men were unable to stay afloat, with Tevez’s winner at Old Trafford on the final day keeping the London club up at their expense.
Now, while Tevez may have scored the goal to keep the Hammers in the top flight, his input wasn’t the be all and end all. Alan Curbishley’s team ended the season with seven wins from nine, two of them 1-0 victories courtesy of Bobby Zamora. But there was logic behind Blades fans turning on the Argentine rather than on Zamora, or on goalkeeper Rob Green, whose saves handed West Ham a miracle 1-0 victory at the Emirates Stadium that kept them in touching distance even before that defeat at Bramall Lane.
In August 2006, with Curbishley’s predecessor Alan Pardew still at the helm, West Ham brought in Tevez and his compatriot Javier Mascherano from Corinthians. If Tevez’s move to Shanghai was improbable, the idea of two stars of the game rocking up at a club in only its second year back in the Premier League was even harder for people to get their heads around.
But due to the Premier League’s rules on third-party ownership, the deal shouldn’t have happened. Fans of both West Ham and Sheffield United came to appreciate this to differing degrees. The grey area was whether the extent to which it shouldn’t have happened was enough to warrant a points deduction – which plenty called for, and which would have almost certainly seen the Hammers relegated.
“Everyone strongly believed West Ham should have been deducted points and Tevez continuing to play was ridiculous,” says Nathan Kearsley, a Sheffield United fan who remembers where the acrimony began.
“I and others, I’m sure, feel the Premier League bottled truly sanctioning West Ham and maybe if it was a smaller team or even a side outside of London such as Wigan or Blackburn say, then the Premier League may have sanctioned tougher. “
West Ham were ultimately ordered to pay a £5.5m fine and substantially more in compensation to the Blades over the subsequent years. However, as Kearsley notes, “The damage had already been done as we’d lost our Premier League status and West Ham stayed there.”
There is something of a sliding doors situation about it all. By the time he took to the field at Old Trafford on the final day of the season, few expected Tevez to still be a West Ham player the following campaign. And while the London club have been relegated and promoted in the intervening period, the Blades have struggled since, finding themselves two divisions below the Hammers when they finally met again in a League Cup tie in August 2014.
Ahead of that game, Sheffield United blog A United View reflected on the situation, directing anger towards the Premier League more than towards West Ham or indeed Tevez and arguing: “They were, in the words of the commission, dishonest and deceitful, but it was the Premier League commission’s failure to adequately penalise them that still rankles.”
Ultimately, the 38 points accrued by Sheffield United that season would have been enough to stay up the season before or after, and just two teams since (Birmingham City and Blackpool in 2011) have been relegated with a higher tally.
But the disparity between the two clubs on either side of the Tevez debate, both in terms of Premier League history and their standing in the years that followed, has seen both sets of fans nail their colours to the mast.
“It seemed ridiculous holding a hatred towards Tevez when he was playing in the Champions league for Juventus and we were losing to Yeovil,” Kearsley adds.
“When we played West Ham a few years ago in the cup I went down. And it was funny because there were Argentina flags in the home end and even people with Tevez masks. To win there on penalties was absolutely brilliant.
“Of course it doesn’t make up for everything, but to go as a League One side and win at an almost full Upton Park was tremendous. Most Blades I’d say still hold a grudge against West Ham and I don’t think that will go away. I personally felt we got our little piece of revenge that night in the cup.”