Much spleen is being vented in the media at present over the role of agents, and this week Barry Hearn, a showman sports entrepreneur, took time out to outline his plans to take over football by entering the arena as a players' adviser. At the same time Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, is publicly arguing that his organisation should be the sole provider of advice to professional players. At the same time Fifa is attempting to introduce a system of licensing for agents.
My own interpretation of the role of agent is one of part-time financial adviser, public relations man, travel agent, counsellor and unqualified legal adviser. Attempts by the various authorities to impose licensing concentrate solely on contractual relations with the clubs, obviously a major part of the job, but only a part and, I would argue, one that can only be accomplished properly by someone with experience in these other fields. A football contract if viewed in isolation becomes a financial exercise only, but it determines other large areas of the player's life, and, in my opinion, he requires advice in a more all-round sense, as he ties up his future.
In another life, I am an independent financial adviser. I was once known as an insurance broker, and the transition between these two titles has involved various licensing authorities and much legislation, not to mention sundry acronyms and insults. However, my experience has enabled me to gain some insight into the problems likely to be encountered if such licensing is to be effective.
First, it is clear that any licensing authority should be beyond reproach and have real working knowledge of the subject. Secondly, those who stand in judgement should be clearly separated from those they judge, and finally the method of remuneration should be arranged in such a way that it avoids conflicts of interest, and reveals how much is being paid to whom, by whom, and for what.
Licensing has been a painful though evidently necessary process for the financial services industry. I would argue that if the football industry is to undertake this process, and in principle I am in favour of such a move, it should do so while taking the above points on board. Nobody can deny that there are agents whose practices have brought the game into disrepute and who have been counter-productive to their clients' own interests. It is totally unreasonable, however, for the PFA to expect to protect the interests of players as a whole while acting as advisers to some or all of them as individuals. Surely, in the former role they would be perfectly placed to stand as the licensing authority.
A clear distinction should be made between those acting on behalf of clubs in securing the services of a player (such individuals commonly operate on an international basis) and those who seek merely to protect the interests of the player. There is ample evidence of the former being paid by the player, and the latter by the club to confuse issues. Both have legitimate roles which should be acknowledged.
Perhaps, most importantly, football should start to respect its own contracts, and come to realise that there are two parties to the deal. I have never understood how football managers can spend much of their time talking about transferring a player without necessarily having the compliance or even awareness of the player in any discussions. Managers are outraged if a player in his own right takes similar action by discussing a transfer with another club without the knowledge of his employer. The player too must acknowledge the responsibilities of a contract and the penalties of failure to comply.