Sport's hottest property, a collapsed trial, and the seedy world of football

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The Independent Online

When the football agent Paul Stretford hid a camera behind a hotel coffee-machine before a business meeting last year, he planned to reveal a campaign of bullying and blackmail that was denying him a share in the huge earnings commanded by the England prodigy Wayne Rooney.

But after a five-day trial which has exposed a seedy world of gangsters, crooked solicitors, sham contracts and £250,000 cash payoffs, the agent's strategy left him facing a threat of perjury charges and the removal of his Fifa licence. The trial of three men accused of blackmailing Mr Stretford collapsed yesterday when it became clear that the agent had made false statements and misled a jury while giving evidence against his rival John Hyland.

Mr Stretford told the Warrington Crown Court jury that he had not represented Rooney before December 2002, when the player's contract with his original agent expired. But two documents disclosed over the weekend showed that he had poached him by September 2002. It was a fatal blow to a prosecution case built around Mr Stretford's insistence that he had not poached the young striker and owed nothing to Mr Hyland, an associate of the original agent Peter McIntosh.

Cheshire Police confirmed yesterday it was examining the evidence given by Mr Stretford. If charged and convicted of perjury, Mr Stretford could find his Fifa licence suspended, which means he could not continue to work as an agent.

Mr Stretford's secret video, which formed the basis of the prosecution, shows Mr Hyland storming in to a meeting, flanked by a former Australian SAS soldier Anthony Bacon and his brother Christopher who ­ in Christopher's taped words ­ were "the muscle" brought in to force Mr Stretford to sign over a share of the cash he made representing Rooney. All three denied blackmail.

But the video was the sub-plot to a story which frequently made it seem that Mr Stretford, founder of the Proactive agency, was the man on trial.

One of the trial's more comical moments showed how desperately Mr Hyland and his associates appeared to need the Rooney money. Mr Hyland's associate Dave Lockwood was filmed telling Mr Stretford about the frustrations of having only fading players on their books. Sunderland seemed so hard up they refused to pay the bill when Jason McAteer pranged his Aston Martin into a training-ground gate ­ claiming it was his fault. "How can you possibly drive a 90-grand motor into a post?" Mr Lockwood groaned.

In Mr Stretford, he and Mr Hyland found an adversary with 270 players on his books and intent on using a web of contacts, including the major shareholder Kenny Dalglish, to make Rooney the next.

A crucial tactic, Hyland's defence team alleged, was deploying Everton players to apply pressure on Rooney. Everton FC's youth recruitment officer was also recruited, it is claimed, to work at Proactive as he had the trust and friendship of the Rooney family. Stretford denied these allegations.

Another key link in the chain was the late Kevin Dooley ­ a friend of Dalglish, a solicitor to Liverpool FC, brother-in-law to the club's former manager Roy Evans and connected to some of the city's major criminals including the drug baron Curtis Warren. Dooley was probably the link between two of Stretford's more improbable associates ­ Dalglish and the London gangster Tommy Adams, who also has ties with Curtis Warren and is part of a family described as "worse than the Krays". Adams is believed to have first pursued Dooley and Mr Dalglish when the Liverpool team ran up a huge bill at a London establishment he controlled after they lost to Manchester United at Wembley in the 1995 FA Cup Final. The court heard last week how Mr Dalglish enlisted Adams to help Mr Stretford in his dealings with Mr McIntosh.

Mr Stretford denied any wrongdoing in telling Rooney's family to seek out Mr Dooley, who was under investigation at the time for defrauding clients, or using Adams. He also denied engineering the Rooney transfer by asking the Newcastle United chairman Freddy Shepherd, whose son works for Proactive, to start a bidding war.

Mr Stretford also claimed Mr Hyland ­ known as an affable man, but one who demands "respect" ­ had no claim on Rooney. He insisted he had only agreed to an image rights deal before 11 December 2002 ­ the day Rooney's contract with McIntosh expired. But last Friday, following a subpoena from the court, Proactive documents were released which showed a full representation contract was in place by 19 September 2002.

Outside court yesterday, Mr Hyland called for an FA inquiry into how agents operate. Mr Stretford's spokesman was not available for comment.