Football: Football the land of the milked and moneyed

Norman Fox hears how commercial pressures can kick morality into touch
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The Independent Online
A 14-YEAR-OLD in Somerset reads that his talent for goalscoring could, in four years time, earn him over pounds 500,000 a year. At the same time, Brian Laudrup is reported to be heading for Chelsea in a deal worth as much as pounds 50,000 a week. Surely there has been enough evidence of rampant financial insanity in football to ask whether anyone can justify the average Premiership player's wage - now topping pounds 7,000 a week and likely to rise steeply as a result of the Bosman ruling. Jon Holmes, one of Britain's most successful agents, says he can.

Holmes, managing director of Park Associates who represent several of the Premiership's most promising young talents, including Emile Heskey and Jamie Carragher, admits that when he negotiates in such huge amounts he accepts a moral dilemma. "Of course some of the money being paid is grotesque, but I don't see it as my job to stop people offering my clients ludicrous amounts of money," he said.

"When it comes down to money, none of us ever has enough. It's human nature to be greedy in that respect. If a young player comes to me and wants thousands of pounds a week, of course I can't justify that morally. How can any of us justify what we earn compared with, for instance, people who work in hospitals? But I can justify it commercially."

He does so because he believes that, contrary to talk of football's television-based financial bubble being about to burst, the future at Premiership level "is going to get better and better". Unlike rugby union which, he believes, has failed to translate a surge of interest in the international game to club level, football caught the massive interest in England's 1990 World Cup performances and legitimately milked the renewed optimism of the public, television and sponsors. He sees no danger of that situation changing, which leads him to treat top players "as if they were in any other money-spinning part of the entertainment industry".

And that leads to a simple commercial contention. "In comparison with film stars and American sportsmen and pop stars, these earnings are not that high. Football is show business. It markets itself about right. But there are moral arguments about giving your worth, about giving value for money. That's why I think the Bosman ruling is going to be a positive force, because I think players will be under more pressure to give value for money because if they do well the rewards are going to be even greater than now. If they do badly they will soon be turfed out. I think it's right that the players should hold the power. They deserve the money more than anyone else."

Holmes has often been asked whether football fans are being ripped off through high ticket prices as a direct result of wage demands, and whether agents would be largely responsible if clubs in the lower divisions went out of business. He replies that he is surprised how well the lower clubs have survived and that attendance figures at the expensive grounds show the game remains affordable. "At the top level the game is still growing and lower down the scale it's not doing too badly."

He is certainly not of the view that football will price itself out of the market or that it could collapse financially if Sky pulled out. "I believe that the public will go on wanting to watch and television will want football. People ask what would happen if the middle-aged middle class gave up on it but there's no sign of that. Football is dominating the sports scene by a greater distance than ever before. But clubs will have to offer more flexibility, with theatre-style pricing - the best seats will cost a fortune whereas the cheaper ones will be quite cheap. The clubs will acknowledge that what they need is to appeal to a family audience."

Holmes suspects that by next season a lot of clubs will have looked at this summer's "market place" - the World Cup - and bought more foreign players, but he hopes that those same clubs will look more closely at the disparity between the amounts paid to their managers and the "star" players.

He believes that the Ruud Gullit affair, in which salary figures of over pounds 3m were often mentioned, distorted the "fact" that the best managers are not paid enough. Gullit's salary was based on his perceived value as one of the world's most successful players. Alex Ferguson has no such advantage. "But," said Holmes, "what he has done for Manchester United is priceless; also Martin O'Neill at Leicester. I think clubs have got it wrong when they pay a successful manager less than some of their players." He is a believer in performance-related income, a policy which might quickly ruin the lifestyles of some big-name under-achievers on the managerial merry-go-round.