Football: The real boss-man ruling

The scales of influence have swung powerfully from the clubs to the players. By Nick Townsend
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The Independent Online
SO, THE Romany-like, fastidious Dion Dublin has finally encamped at Aston Villa, the Premiership leaders and, we are told, conveniently near to his Stratford-upon-Avon home. Presumably, he will be able to keep up his visits to the Royal Shakespeare Company's current production.

Whatever his rationale for spurning Leeds and Blackburn and joining John Gregory in a deal that will earn him pounds 5m over five and a half years, he has set our top clubs a merry trail over the last two weeks, not to mention his previous manager, Gordon Strachan.

Dublin, the former Manchester United striker, failed to turn up for one Coventry game, had to train alone, and was fined pounds 40,000. Just another typical week in football's fantasy-land where those who still pay to view live under the real sky can only shake their heads sadly at the apparent avaricious tawdriness of it all. And, lest we should forget, there are also Pierre van Hooijdonk and the De Boer twins of Ajax, who are perceived to have treated their clubs' supporters with disdain.

In the week when it was revealed that far more viewers would rather watch bread bake (in fairness, it was Delia Smith doing the baking) than Liverpool come to the boil and grasp victory from Valencia in a frenetic Uefa finale, could there be a hint that some players' desperate need for the dough, allied to performances that are frequently far from appetising, might actually be alienating even the faithful? A phrase involving golden, goose and eggs comes readily to mind, and that's got nothing to do with Delia.

According to Jon Smith, who together with his brother Phil runs the Wembley-based First Artist agency which handles the contractual negotiations of no fewer than 62 players, including Darren Huckerby, Mark Bosnich and England's Les Ferdinand, the scales of influence have swung significantly away from the clubs to the players. Once regarded almost like serfs of feudal landlords, they now have clout like never before. No wonder there are 107 Fifa-licensed football agents, "because everybody thinks it's a licence to print money, although only seven of us actually do any business".

"Quite rightly the players, who are the major participants in the games, are at last receiving the rewards they should be, like in any other industry," insists Smith, who describes the football side of his business as the "cash cow". "You have only to look across the water to the States. Because it is an industry that is run as much from the heart as from the head and it is in the public forum it is different to most others. It's no longer the player being told what to do. It's not player power; it's the maximisation of your own potential. Everyone does it."

But he adds: "The power has definitely swung to our side of the table, and I believe we should wield that power responsibly. If we milk it irresponsibly we could be mortally wounding a large part of this new industry. Because, make no mistake, football is no longer a sport but a business, albeit an infant one which has only really become serious since the advent of the Premier League. We're still all finding our feet."

However, he believes that the concept of player power is a distortion of the facts. "It's such an easy tabloid line and it's not correct. What has Dion Dublin done wrong, other than insist that Coventry abide by his contract [which contained a clause stating that he could talk to any club that bid over pounds 5m]?" asks Smith. "He hasn't particularly jumped at Villa for purely monetary reasons. But even if he had, what's so bad about that?

"Unfortunately, we live in England, where we don't like success. We don't like people driving round in Rolls-Royces; we'd rather scratch them, which I find rather sad."

He adds: "People who do a decent job should be paid well, and the going rate for a top footballer is pounds 1m a year. Dublin is a doer, not the kind of guy who'd miss training or flounce around the pitch, so good luck to him."

Van Hooijdonk, however, comes into a category that most agents with integrity wouldn't handle. "He's totally wrong because he's in contract," says Smith. "He should honour it or leave. You don't go on strike. That's pathetic. Similarly, you've get the de Boer twins, who had a bloody good contract from Ajax, but they want to break it because they see riches elsewhere. They see the interest from Arsenal, but a court says 'no, you're wrong'."

Dublin's contract was nothing out of the ordinary. "You can't do things that used to be tax efficient, like clubs buying houses. But any top player is going to have a clause like that. All sorts of clauses are creeping in. We were involved in a deal the other day which fell through because the player wanted an 'assist' bonus of pounds 250 as well as a goal bonus, which I don't like anyway because it doesn't help team spirit. But can you imagine the rows in the dressing room afterwards over whether a player gave an 'assist' with a goal or not? 'Well, I made the run and took the defender with me, which gave you the opportunity to come through the gap. I want my 250 quid . . .' It would be that kind of thing."

The dilemma remains: are players actually worth pounds 20,000 a week, or in Brian Laudrup's case a reputed pounds 50,000? Market forces decree that they are. Fans who earn less than half that a year may beg to differ. "Is Mike Tyson worth pounds 15m a fight?" says Smith. "Generally speaking, if players aren't worth it, clubs get rid of them. It sounds like easy money, but it's very competitive. The strange thing is that nobody seems to question whether TV presenters, pop stars, newsreaders, who all get paid well, deserve it. Only footballers' wages get questioned. Why? Well, probably because football is the life and soul of our nation and it's developed from a traditional working-class sport.

"I look back on Highbury in the Fifties and I look back with fondness, even though my memories probably include the bloke behind pissing down the back of my leg. We see kids of 18 today earning more in a year than our parents earned in a lifetime and it's difficult to reconcile that. But tradition can actually get in the way of progress."