Eric Hall, who has rejoiced in his persona as a caricature of the players' agent throughout football's moneyed era, has turned serious, claiming that he agreed to "under the table" payments when he did a deal for one of his clients, Darren Caskey, to join Notts County in June 2001. Extraordinarily, Hall is pursuing the cash, £90,000, through his lawyers.
In a letter from his solicitors obtained by The Independent, Hall claims that in the face of competition from other clubs to sign Caskey, who was available on a free transfer - Bristol City and Cardiff were particularly interested - Notts County would not exceed the upper limit of the club's wage structure, but offered to embellish the deal by paying Hall an extra £30,000 a year for three years, which Hall would pass on to Caskey.
Notts County's then chief executive, Peter Storrie, formerly West Ham's chief executive and now at Premiership Portsmouth, rejects Hall's version of the agreement absolutely: "In 15 years in the game I have never done a deal like that with a player or an agent. It would be a breach of the Football League rules, and raise issues of tax. We agreed to pay Eric an agent's fee, common practice where a player is coming on a free transfer, and it's outrageous that Eric should be trying to get paid by claiming it was actually wages for Darren Caskey."
The Football League rules against so called "under the table" payments date back to the murk of the game's early years when cash was commonly paid in side deals to players who were officially subject to a maximum wage. Although the maximum wage was abolished in 1961 after it became clear that it was an illegal restraint of trade, and players' wages are no longer subject to a maximum - far from it - the rule has been maintained as part of the League's efforts to ensure financial dealings are above board.
The League's regulation, 55.4, states: "Full details of all payments to, or benefits paid, in cash or in kind, on behalf of players, must be included in the contract of service."
Breach of the rule is still considered a serious disciplinary issue, last raised publicly in 2001 when Chesterfield and most of their first-team players were charged by the League with running a cash bonus scheme outside the terms of the players' contracts. The charges were subsequently found by a League panel to be unproven. The League has committed itself to further reform by requiring that, from January, clubs publish all payments they make to agents.
The letter from Hall's solicitor, Peter Jordan of Tucker Turner Kingsley Wood, was sent to Paul Finnity, the insolvency practitioner who was in charge of Notts throughout the club's 18 months in administration, which ended when the club was saved 10 days ago. The letter expressly claims that Hall, Caskey and Notts County agreed that part of Caskey's wages would be paid outside the terms of his contract:
"At the time of Darren Caskey's transfer, he had the opportunity of going elsewhere as a free agent. It was clear the Club [Notts County] wanted him to come. They, however, had difficulty with the fact that if they were going to pay him what was required to secure his contract, it was in excess of the then maximum wage paid to any other player. They had already broken the wage limit and by paying the further sums which Darren Caskey was asking for, this was going to increase that even further. It was therefore agreed that the further excess sum, which Darren Caskey would accept, would be paid direct to our client [Eric Hall] who would then pass it on to his client [Caskey]. Payment has not been made by the club and accordingly Darren Caskey is owed a substantial amount of money."
What is startling is not just the claim that an agreement for "under the table" payments has been made, but that Eric Hall has stated it in a solicitor's letter and demanded the money. Caskey is understood to be currently paid around £130,000 a year, although Storrie thought the basic pay was much lower, around £60,000, when Caskey originally signed. There is no dispute about the figure owed to Hall: three annual instalments of £30,000 - £90,000 for bringing Caskey to Nottingham. The argument is over whether this represented additional wages to Caskey, in breach of League rules, or an agency fee to Hall. The distinction is crucial to determining whether in fact Hall will be paid, because Notts County was in administration.
For clubs to come out of administration, the Football League requires that the creditors agree to a settlement. In Notts County's case, the preferential creditors - the Inland Revenue and VAT - are to be paid around 20 per cent of what they were owed. Unsecured creditors, the usual list of public bodies and local suppliers, are receiving nothing. Were Eric Hall's £90,000 an agency fee, he would class as an unsecured creditor and get nothing. However, the Football League insists that clubs must satisfy their "football creditors" in full. This is defined as transfer money owed to other clubs, loans from the Professional Footballers' Association - and players' wages. The rules, which have been challenged by many people, including the Inland Revenue, because they perceive players receiving "super-preferential" treatment above other creditors, were recently restated by the League, adamant that they are necessary to maintain fair competition between clubs.
If Hall can convince the administrator that his £90,000 debt was in fact wages due to Caskey, it would no longer be classed as a mere unsecured debt and would have to be paid in full. The letter expressly makes this claim: "The debt due from the club to Mr Caskey via his agent is outstanding and appears clearly to be a football debt... We understand from our client that Mr Caskey is now concerned that the sums lawfully due to him are not now going to be paid."
Hall made himself unpopular at Meadow Lane in early September when fans were collecting money in buckets before one of several deadlines imposed by the League for the club to exit administration. Hall declined to put money in a bucket, saying: "This club owes me enough money as it is."
He made his name in the early 1990s acting for several Tottenham Hotspur players when Terry Venables was the manager, and became the cigar-chomping, Jewish-argot-spouting turn of choice for media wanting a quotable players' agent. But he has gone quiet on this one. When I called, he referred me to his solicitor. When I asked if he was persisting with the claim, he said: "Bubbeleh, you're good at your job, but I've been in this business a little longer than you. I'm not commenting and you'll have to talk to my solicitor."
His solicitor, Peter Jordan, said: "My instructions are to proceed." He explained he was well aware that Hall's version amounts to an admission that League rules were breached, but said Hall claims he was told to do the deal that way.
Peter Storrie denied that completely. He said that where players are available on a free transfer, as Caskey, the former Tottenham and England youth midfielder, was, having completed his contract at Reading, agents are commonly paid a fee if their players sign. The £90,000 to Hall looks very high from Notts County, but this is the lower-division end of the wedge which saw the likes of the agent Bernie Mandic paid £2m when his client, Harry Kewell, moved from Leeds to Liverpool last summer. Storrie ridiculed Hall's claim as a ruse to get paid, by attempting to have the cash reclassified as a football debt.
"Eric's gone too far," Storrie said. "It's crazy and outrageous that his solicitor is writing demanding payment for an agreement which would be a serious breach of the rules if it were true. It's utter nonsense."
The administrator, Paul Finnity, said the debt was down in Notts' books as an agency fee, and so will not be paid. If Hall is to pursue it, he will have to be quick.
David Hindley, the supporters' trust chairman who, following the takeover, is on the club's board, called for more openness in clubs' dealings with agents: "There is too little transparency, which gives rise to suspicion even if everything is being done properly. Some welcome reforms are happening but football's governing bodies need to act more quickly to ensure that fans can see what deals are being done."Reuse content