Football: Fair play is name of the game as Rachel tackles men of the PFA

Andrew Longmore meets the woman agent reluctantly making a stand for equality
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The Independent Online
READING v Huddersfield on a dismal Saturday afternoon is not most women's idea of a good afternoon out. Probably not Rachel Alexander's either. But business calls, and Allan Harris, Reading's assistant manager, is one of her clients, so Elm Park it is. Her long-suffering husband John is intercepting her en route from Sheffield. Fancy going to a game, luv?

Alexander has about 35 players on her books now, one for each year of her life, give or take one or two. They range from Julian Dicks, the original, through to a young goalkeeper at Canvey Island ("outstanding prospect he is"), 20 minutes down the road from her home in Westcliff-on-Sea. She took a player down there from Southend recently. "Big decision for him to move out of the League," she says. "But he wanted to qualify as a teacher." She's been down to Canvey Island a couple of times this season.

"Being a woman in a man's game, I have to do things a bit differently," she says. "I like to look after my players, know who they're married to, know the names of their children, their birthdays. Mothering them? Not so much that. I'm a confidante, a sounding board, I suppose. Who else have they got to whinge at?"

The feminine touch, you could call it. But Alexander has not taken long to stumble across football's troll mentality. Though registered as a Fifa agent at a cost of 200,000 Swiss francs, licensed to handle multi-million pound moves in the Premiership, she cannot pick up a knife and fork at the Professional Footballers' Association dinner next week. She was invited by Dicks last year, had a drink in the lounge upstairs but was stopped at the entrance to the dinner by Brendan Batson, PFA deputy chief executive. No women allowed, he said. Alexander found an unlikely ally in Graham Kelly, chief executive of the Football Association, who walked out in protest.

"I could have given my ticket to anyone walking down the street as long as he was male and wearing a dinner jacket. Half the people in there had nothing to do with football, but I wasn't allowed in to celebrate with my players," Alexander said. "It's absurd. I thought this issue had been dealt with years ago. Did you know that this is the Year of Women in football? No, didn't think you did. But 20 per cent of spectators are now women.

"Football's got to change its dirty, nasty, seedy image, but it's not going to succeed by keeping it as a boys' club. Look what's been happening at Newcastle. What happens if there's a woman minister of sport. Will she be turned away too?"

Alexander is a reluctant campaigner, a matter of instinct rather than lack of courage. "I don't want to be a bra-burner. This is just another little dinner, which I can do without. But this is a hard business for a woman to get into and if I have to make a stand to get more women involved, then I'll do it. What's encouraging is the level of support I've had from within the game, not just from my own players, but other people's."

A Hammers supporter by birth, Alexander was convalescing after a serious car crash when a tabloid headline concerning Dicks prompted a change of career. She was doing an aerobic instructors' course at the time, she and a lady called Kay. Seeing the headline, Rachel sounded off about the crassness of the modern footballer in general and Dicks in particular. Only later did she discover that she had been talking to Mrs Dicks. "You're right," Kay said. "I've tried to talk to him. You have a go." So she did. The renowned macho man listened and shortly after invited Alexander to become his agent. "Thrown in at the deep end, I think you call it," she laughs. Don Hutchinson was client number two. "Another so-called bad boy," she says. "They seemed to pick me. I think it worked in my favour. If I'd have had a goody-two-shoes like Lineker, I don't think it would have worked so well. Taking on these difficult chaps gave me some street cred."

Her first move with Dicks was to slap a three-month embargo on his mouth. Then she taught him to count to ten, transferred him to Liverpool and back to Upton Park. "It wasn't the going to Liverpool which made him, it was the coming back to West Ham as the same old hero." Hutchinson's career, on the slide out of the Premiership, has also taken on a new lease of life at Everton. The trick is in the anticipation, she says. She doesn't go to Canvey Island for the fresh air. "There might be a David Beckham out there. The dream is to recognise him before all the others."

Her battleground in the meantime is at the door of the PFA dinner on 5 April. She has already been warned she will not get in, invited guest or not. Her next stop may have to be the Equal Opportunities Commission. "Half of me wants to go to the dinner and make them look stupid, the other half says that's just childish. It depends if the child in me wins." But it is football which needs to grow up.