The biggest investigation into corruption in English football comes down to eight clubs and 39 transfers that are under suspicion, Lord Stevens announced yesterday as his "bungs" inquiry reached the business end. Over the next two months the former Metropolitan Police commissioner will investigate the last 39 - which may even include forcing top agents to hand over their bank account records.
The man once given the job of rooting out corrupt policemen in the Met's Flying Squad refused to name the eight clubs in question - he had not even told the Premiership clubs before his press conference - but he did promise there would be no whitewash. In the next two months he and his team will focus on detailed examination of the 39 deals to discover whether the eight clubs involved have a case to answer.
"This inquiry will be thorough, detailed and robust," Lord Stevens said. "We will make sure it is successful." It was certainly not a performance lacking confidence that the question of English football's financial probity will be established once and for all. With the allegations of a transfer bung culture from managers like Luton Town's Mike Newell and the BBC Panorama investigation having dragged the question of illegal payments into the spotlight, Lord Stevens promised, "if we can't [find them] then no one can".
With his Quest investigative team, Lord Stevens talked of how he would look at "entities offshore and inshore" and make use of an "unprecedented" database assembled since January to close in on the 39 deals that he was so far unprepared to "sign off" as legitimate. The final battle for Lord Stevens appears to be full financial disclosure from agents, although neither he nor the Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore, would be precise about how they would do that.
Under the Football Association's rules, failure by a licensed agent to assist with an investigation can be construed as misconduct, but the legal niceties are likely to be a lot more complicated. Lord Stevens has two more months to finish his investigation, which has been whittled down from 362 deals, and at the crux of his actions will be whether he can use the FA's rules to force football agents to open up their most secret personal dealings.
The age-old problem of investigating transfer deals - following the paper trail beyond the buying club's initial payment and then abroad - is the final hurdle for Lord Stevens. He would only hint at the tools at his disposal - "you know what they are" - and said that "if necessary" he would use "FA powers that will be requested in certain cases".
The FA has never taken the fight to agents quite so directly, but last night a spokesman for the governing body said: "If they [Quest] ask us to use our powers of inquiry and investigation we will do so."
Lord Stevens' job finishes in two months' time when he will either, in his words, "sign off" the 39 remaining deals or, if he is not fully satisfied, hand his findings on to a body capable of handing out a punishment. Depending on the strength of the evidence, any wrongdoing will be dealt with by the FA - a potentially difficult prospect for the governing body - or, if more serious, the police.
Even when he comes to present his final report in two months' time it is highly unlikely Lord Stevens will announce names and transfers under suspicion. If he still has doubts over some of the 39 transfers, those specific deals are only likely to be made public when, or if, charges are brought by the FA or the police.
There were only small insights into the nature of Lord Stevens' inquiry which has looked at deals made by Premiership clubs during the five transfer windows from January 2004 to January 2006. During that time, 26 clubs have been in the Premiership, but Scudamore said that definitely not among the final eight were Leeds United who, during their time in the top flight in the period in question, did not complete any deals.
As part of the operation, the Quest team set up a "secure e-mail address" for informants. Lord Stevens seemed impressed by the amount of information volunteered from both declared and anonymous sources - "there have been a number of those, I can tell you," he said.
He had sent letters and questionnaires to 150 agents, only 65 of whom have responded. Some agents, however, had requested meetings with Quest, and the FA had "urged" all of them to make clear their financial records.
On the BBC Panorama investigation, which made allegations about, among others, Bolton's Sam Allardyce and Portsmouth's Harry Redknapp, Lord Stevens said that he had held meetings with senior BBC executives. However, he had not yet been given access to their full, uncut evidence.
"I have heard an absolute willingness from the Premier League to sort this out. I don't think anyone can doubt that," Lord Stevens said. "In the public interest and in the interest of genuine fans. They [clubs] have given us a certain amount of information and we have more work to do. I cannot sign off all the transfers until I am 100 per cent satisfied."
Lord knows: The findings so far
* 362 transfers were examined from the period January 2004 to January 2006.
* 39 transfers involving eight unnamed clubs need further investigation.
* The Premier League approves extension of inquiry by two months.
* Reading, Sheffield United, Watford and Leeds United are no longer part of the investigation as they conducted no Premier League transfers during the period of inquiry.
Expert analysis: Professionals deliver their verdicts
"I think Lord Stevens will come out with something meaningful. Even if it trips up just one or two people it's a warning to others. The game is not awash with corruption, but there are dark corners and we'd like some light shed on them." - Jon Smith, football agent.
"What surprises me is that there are that many clubs involved. All the managers I have dealt with are very straight and moral." - Sky Andrew, agent.
"It has needed to all come out in the open - and that is not a problem. Whatever happens, we'll wait and see but for me it is not a problem." - Harry Redknapp, Portsmouth manager.
"There is no reason why clubs ... should not have to open up their books and bank accounts. That has to be done better independently ... The cost of it would probably be saved by the millions going out of the game at the moment." - Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association.Reuse content