Fact: `there are no bungs in football. I deal with most clubs and have never been offered one'

The agent/ enter Eric Hall
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"THERE are no bungs in football," said Eric Hall, lighting a huge Havana cigar. "With my so-called reputation, I would be the one they approached. I deal with most clubs, most managers, and I've never been asked for a bung or offered one. A fact."

This is the face and voice of British football in the 1990s. Mr Hall is a fast-talking former music-business hustler who now acts as agent to some of the country's top players. He was "well busy" last week, negotiating deals and standing by his client and friend Dennis Wise after the England and Chelsea star was sentenced to three months' jail for assaulting a taxi driver.

Mr Hall was "monster stunned" by the verdict. It was just one of a series of scandals that have put football on the front pages this season, but he still seemed to think sleaze and the national game were total strangers: he was sure that Wise had been wronged, he had never known a manager take a cash backhander (or bung), and he believed the three players arrested on suspicion of match-rigging this week were innocent.

"I was John Fashanu's agent for seven or eight years," he said. "We are still monster mates, I can't deny that. I love him and he loves me. I would be totally stunned if there was anything dodgy proved against John Fashanu. That's hand on my monster heart."

He described it as "a monster amazing coincidence" that the flat above his in Star Street, Paddington, was, according to some press reports, the London address of the Malaysian businessman who was also arrested this week

Mr Hall is the most flamboyant of a new breed of agents who negotiate sponsorship, boot deals, press appearances and even new contracts and transfer terms for clients. Critics say they are pests and parasites who make players greedy and destroy club loyalty. Football's international ruling body, Fifa, plans to license them, and the English Football Association was interviewing applicants this week. Mr Hall said he did not intend to apply. "The only qualification you need in showbusiness is talk," he said.

Fifa has said it will take action against clubs and players if unlicensed agents are allowed into transfer negotiations. Mr Hall was unimpressed. "If they enforce this schtick, that's restraint of trade," he said. "If I arrive at a club and they say `Eric, we can't deal with you because you haven't got a licence', I will go to the European Courts, if I have to."

East End Jewish patter and a taste for loud jackets have helped to make Mr Hall a celebrity, with his own tabloid column in the People. But he is far from universally popular. "Eric Hall is the one behind all the problems we've had, with his snide little whispers to this player and that player, saying they should get away," said the Wimbledon captain, Vinny Jones, when his club was subject to a burst of transfer speculation. "All that weasel sees is pound signs." Mr Hall said Jones rang him to apologise after those remarks appeared in print, and denied he had been barred from Selhurst Park, where Wimbledon play.

His trade has also been criticised by the Professional Footballers' Association, which believes young players can be exploited by unscrupulous agents. "Players deserve advice, but it's the quality of advice we're worried about," said the PFA's deputy chief executive, Brendan Batson, on Friday.

Mr Hall's advice is in demand, judging by the number of calls he took as we sat in his lounge. Most were from managers or players eager to negotiate before the transfer deadline. "I relax by making deals," he said. On the wall above his head was an original cartoon by Jak from the Evening Standard, showing a cigar-chomping agent with Dennis Wise in England kit outside Wandsworth prison, talking to a guard. "I'm his agent. I get 10 per cent of everything," said the caption.

An enormous television in the corner was tuned to Sky Sports. On the bookshelves was a biography of Terry Venables, the England coach and a long-time friend. Mr Hall supported Venables throughout his courtroom battles with Spurs owner Alan Sugar, and compres karaoke nights at Venables's club and restaurant Scribes West, where celebrity guests have included England internationals and the notorious criminal "Mad'' Frankie Fraser.

Mr Hall claimed to be "53-ish", then admitted that was a lie. Gold discs on the wall betrayed his previous life as a music-business agent. He started as a teaboy, working alongside an unknown songwriter called Reg Dwight, who became Elton John. He ended up running two of the star's companies before branching out on his own. He worked with Queen and Marc Bolan and promoted a string of novelty hits such as Clive Dunn's "Granddad''. "I was the Pele of pop, the Maradona of music. The highest paid record- plugger in the country."

In the mid-Eighties, Steve Perryman, then captain of Spurs, asked him to become his agent for commercial contracts. He wasn't involved in transfers at all until a young Luton player called Paul Walsh asked for help negotiating personal terms in a move to Liverpool. "If you've got an actor or a pop star, you go and negotiate on his behalf," said Hall. "I didn't know that wasn't how it worked in football."

Now he handles the affairs of more than 35 different players, from the Premiership to the Third Division. "I will be aware of players who are unhappy, obviously, because they're my clients. And I will be aware of a club that wants to sell a player. If I know you're a manager of a certain club who's looking for a centre-half, and he's a centre-half whose club is prepared to let him go, I'll try and put you both together. That's being an agent and a matchmaker."

He takes 20 per cent of what his players earn for commercial activities and "a lump sum" for negotiating in transfers. "Of course I go on commission. I'm not a charity."

He would not say how much he earned, or even how much an established star could bring in from off-the-field activities. Looking around the immaculate but small flat, he said: "Everybody says Eric Hall is a millionaire. That's rubbish. If I was a millionaire, why would I be living here?" He also owns the house in Gantshill, Essex, where his mother lives.

Our conversation stopped when his driver, a blond and beefy-looking young man, reminded him it was time to dictate a column. "People say I'm a one-man band," Mr Hall said. "I'm too big for that. I'm a one-man orchestra."