In an unprecedented wave of cross-Channel raids and arrests, at least two of the country’s biggest clubs were engulfed by a criminal inquiry into a suspected £5 million fraud.
Officers from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs swooped on Newcastle United and West Ham United on Wednesday morning in a coordinated operation with authorities in France.
They also visited Chelsea to gather information – although there was no similar raid at Stamford Bridge.
Mike Ashley’s right-hand man at Newcastle, Lee Charnley, was among “several” people arrested by HMRC, which deployed 180 officers across both countries to search premises and seize documents, computers and mobile phones. Charnley was later released without charge.
Organised crime was described as being at the centre of a suspected scam the French financial prosecutors’ office (PNF) confirmed related to suspected “tax fraud committed during several transfers of players between French clubs and in the Premier League”.
It said four people had been arrested and 10 searches carried out across France, with 32 investigators mobilised to work with what was believed to be a task force dedicated to Corsican gangs.
The quartet detained were described as agents for Premier League players by police sources, who also confirmed former European champions Marseille were the focus of ongoing inquiries, having already been the subject of a long-running probe.
“Organised criminal gangs are suspected of targeting senior club officials, agents and other parties,” said a source close to the investigation. “Marseille has done a lot of high-profile business with West Ham and Newcastle.”
Wednesday's action kicked off a day of shame for English football, in which Joey Barton was hit with what could be a career-ending 18-month ban for breaking gambling rules – including betting on his own team to lose – and David Moyes facing suspension after being charged by the Football Association with threatening a female BBC reporter.
The fraud probe threatened far more serious consequences for anyone found guilty amid what has been a recent crackdown on tax avoidance in the game.
HMRC is understood to be examining transfer deals dating back seven years, with payments both to players and agents under scrutiny.
After nearly a whole day of silence, Newcastle issued a statement on the arrest and subsequent release of managing director Charnley, one of billionaire owner Ashley’s key lieutenants.
It read: “Newcastle United can confirm that a member of its staff has this morning been assisting HMRC with their inquiries. The club will be making no further comment at this time.”
As well as raiding the club’s stadium just two days after they secured promotion back to the Premier League, officers swooped on their Darsley Park training ground while players and staff were present.
West Ham employees were also left in shock following the 8am operation at their London Stadium offices and Rush Green training ground.
Around 40 officers arrived in unmarked white vans at the former Olympic Stadium and seized dozens of documents.
No one was arrested and the club said in a statement that they were “cooperating fully with HMC to assist their inquiries”.
The HMRC visit to Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge saw no documentation or equipment taken and the club were adamant neither they nor their employees were under investigation.
A spokesman said: “In connection with is wider investigation, HMRC has requested certain information, which the club will provide.”
Other clubs in the UK could be visited as part of the probe, which involves suspected income tax and National Insurance fraud, with 16 known to have done business with Marseille since 2009.
HMRC said in a statement: “HMRC has arrested several men working within the professional football industry for a suspected £5 million income tax and National Insurance fraud. One hundred and eighty HMRC officers have been deployed across the UK and France today.
“Investigators have searched a number of premises in the north east and south east of England and arrested the men and also seized business records, financial records, computers and mobile phones.
“The French authorities are assisting the UK investigation, have made several arrests and several locations have been searched in France.
“This criminal investigation sends a clear message that, whoever you are, if you commit tax fraud you can expect to face the consequences.
“As this is an ongoing investigation, HMRC is unable to provide further detail at this time.”
HMRC revealed in a parliamentary hearing in January that 43 players, 12 teams and eight agents were being investigated over “the potential abuse of the rules relating to image rights, which it described as the most significant tax risk amongst footballers”.
Yesterday’s criminal action was the biggest involving Premier League clubs since the arrests a decade ago of several high-profile figures in a corruption investigation into the game.
Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke, a member of the Public Accounts Committee and a tax lawyer, said: “Football fans have long been angry that the beautiful game has been dirtied by a culture of greed and tax avoidance.
“Today’s action by HMRC is welcome – it’s clear from the number of officers involved and the international involvement that they are rightly treating this very seriously.”
More from HMRC
The raids relate to "a suspected £5m Income Tax & National Insurance fraud."
The training ground, too
Darsley Park, Newcastle's training ground, has also been raided as part of the investigation.
Going round in circles?
Yes, the London Stadium is tax payer funded, so with today's big HMRC raid on West Ham we've kind of raided ourselves.— Paul Hayward (@_PaulHayward) April 26, 2017
West Ham respond
A West Ham United spokesperson said “The Club is cooperating fully with HMRC to assist their enquiries. No further comment will be made at this time.”
The earlier HMRC statement
"180 HMRC officers have been deployed across the UK and France today. Investigators have searched a number of premises in the North East and South East of England and arrested the men and also seized business records, financial records, computers and mobile phones.
"The French authorities are assisting the UK investigation, have made arrests and several locations have been searched in France.
"This criminal investigation sends a clear message that, whoever you are, if you commit tax fraud you can expect to face the consequences. As this is an ongoing investigation HMRC is unable to provide any further detail at this time."
No news from France, as yet
No further details have been released as to which French clubs are involved in the investigation, but given the scale of the operation there is sure to be news from across the Channel before long.
Nasty shock for entreprenurial role model Baroness (Karren) Brady of Knightsbridge when the club she runs - West Ham- was raided by HMRC.— Paul Hayward (@_PaulHayward) April 26, 2017
A quick note from our man Ben Rumsby
HMRC is refusing to provide any more detail about its investigation beyond its statement, including over what timescale any alleged offences took place.
Who is Lee Charnley?
The Newcastle managing director Lee Charnley is one of those arrested in the Wednesday morning raids, but who is he?
He was appointed in 2014 aged just 36 to help chairman Mike Ashley with recruitment in their efforts to reestablish the club as a Premier League force. He played a key role in the appointment of Rafa Benitez as manager last year.
He has been Ashley's closest aide in his time at the club, quickly rising up the ranks, and is said to prefer being "in the background", according to a source close to the club.