Exposed: the murky dealings of Manchester United

World's richest club in crisis over agent payments. Sir Alex Ferguson's son paid massive commission. Manager's future in doubt after damning report
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The Independent Online

Football's secret financial dealings were laid bare yesterday when Manchester United, the world's richest club, was forced to publish embarrassing details surrounding players' transfers and massive payments to agents.

Football's secret financial dealings were laid bare yesterday when Manchester United, the world's richest club, was forced to publish embarrassing details surrounding players' transfers and massive payments to agents.

United, admitting they have paid more than £13m to agents during the past three years, pledged to sever all ties with Elite Sports, an agency part-owned by Jason Ferguson, son of the club's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Its lucrative dealings with the club had been questioned, amid claims of nepotism.

The report, released to the Stock Exchange, details several other staggering payments involving the signing of 21 players. The total transfer fees involved were £158m.

The Irish tycoons John Magnier and J P McManus, who are major shareholders, forced the club, a listed company, to institute the inquiry during their acrimonious legal battle with Sir Alex over the stud rights of the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar. Although that dispute has now been settled, the outcome of the investigation will cast further doubt over Sir Alex's position, after a season in which the team won only the FA Cup ­ seen as a failure by many.

A United source admitted last night: "This is not just about United. The whole business of appointing agents and the amount they get paid needs to be more transparent."

United acknowledged that it needed to introduce greater transparency to safeguard the club's reputation. It feared a backlash from shareholders.

The report reveals that, in 21 transfers during three years totalling £158m, the club paid 8.5 per cent to agents ­ equal to £13.4m ­ compared to a commission charged by the Professional Footballers' Association when it acts for players of 4 to 5 per cent. The report gives details of one deal involving Elite which saw Jason Ferguson's company pick up a surprising £300,000 for its role in the signing of Roy Carroll, a relative unknown, signed from Wigan Athletic as United's reserve goalkeeper.

It also outlines how Elite acts for 13 Manchester United players, and the Old Trafford club paid £237,000 in fees when Elite represented those players in negotiations with the club.

In response to allegations that Elite had pocketed £700,000 from the sale of the Dutch international Jaap Stam to Lazio after he fell out with Sir Alex, United said it had been assured that the agent Mike Morris ­ whom it paid ­ was not involved in "either the management or the ownership" of Jason Ferguson's agency. That is contrary to press speculation, and there are suggestions Elite was paid by Lazio in the deal.

The club admitted that a fee of £700,000 to the agent Gaetano Marotta to secure the purchase of the American goalkeeper Tim Howard was "large" but insisted that it was still good value for money. It represented almost one-third of the £2.3m transfer fee. The club said that its inquiries led it to believe that the agent's fee had been shared with others. But it had no proof.

It added: "The review has not identified the redistribution of any payment to anyone employed or connected with the club. However, in the future, to ensure we protect the club from such allegations, we will ask for a declaration from the agent that they have no direct or indirect relationship with anyone at the club.

"Based on this review, the board is satisfied there are no untoward issues between Elite and the club. Nevertheless, the board recognises the concerns over the connection between Elite and the club manager Sir Alex Ferguson. In future, Manchester United will not employ Elite Sports to act for the club and, to the extent Elite acts for a player or another club in negotiation with the club, will publish full details of its role in any such transaction."

The club also pledged to reveal to the City the amount paid in commission to agents, a practice it started with the purchase from Fulham of the striker Louis Saha. There would be new restrictions on unsolicited approaches from agents, improved record keeping and tighter rules on the appointment and remuneration of agents.

Sir Roy Gardner, the chairman of Manchester United plc, said: "This has been a far-reaching and thorough review of transfers over the past three years. I am satisfied we have complied with the relevant regulations but accept there are things we could do better. With that in mind, we have introduced improved internal controls and are confirming our commitment to greater transparency."

Controversy over the club's transfer dealings was fuelled by the purchase in August 2003 of the Brazilian player Kleberson. The club admitted the player was approached on its behalf by an agent, Ian Hetherington, despite the fact he was not registered by Fifa, the world's governing body.

Yesterday's report had been due for publication at the end of this week but it is believed to have released early because of an investigation to be broadcast on BBC3 tomorrow. The programme, Fergie and Son, is believed to look at at least one other controversial transfer.

Shareholders in Manchester United took heart from the club's assurances. One said: "It appears that due process has been carried out and they are taking the right steps to address the issues raised in the report."

But Sean Bones, of Shareholders United, an independent organisation representing supporters who are shareholders, said there was a wider problem. The UK had 234 registered football agents, compared to 111 in Germany and 46 in Italy.

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