David Conn: Race for riches on Rooney's back reveals the dark side of game

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28 September, 2004 will be a landmark in football's history; the night of arguably the greatest-ever debut, when Wayne Rooney, just 18 and so without fear it is scary, swaggered out at Old Trafford to whack his hat-trick against Fenerbahce. Perhaps memories will fade eventually of the less glorious goings-on that same morning, far from a Theatre of Dreams, at Warrington Crown Court, where some of the dark arts employed by one of football's top agents to poach England's most startling young player were beginning to be laid bare.

28 September, 2004 will be a landmark in football's history; the night of arguably the greatest-ever debut, when Wayne Rooney, just 18 and so without fear it is scary, swaggered out at Old Trafford to whack his hat-trick against Fenerbahce. Perhaps memories will fade eventually of the less glorious goings-on that same morning, far from a Theatre of Dreams, at Warrington Crown Court, where some of the dark arts employed by one of football's top agents to poach England's most startling young player were beginning to be laid bare.

John Hyland, a friend of Rooney's first agent, Peter McIntosh, was on trial for blackmail, along with security men Anthony and Christopher Bacon, facing, their lawyers thought, between two and four years in prison if convicted. McIntosh claimed he and Rooney had signed a two-year agreement, running from 12 December, 2000, to 11 December, 2002. But Paul Stretford, of the Proactive Sports Management agency, had poached Rooney away in the summer of 2002. Hyland was trying to negotiate payment from Stretford in recompense, and claimed Stretford was talking to them, but Stretford had told police he denied poaching, or owing McIntosh anything, and claimed he was being threatened and intimidated. This led to the three men being charged with making unwarranted demands with menaces.

The trial collapsed on Monday after a fortnight of startlingly gory details: a gangster invited to meetings by Kenny Dalglish; bugged offices; £250,000 cash in a plastic bag. Rooney played obliviously on, while the world fell in on Paul Stretford. Having said on oath that Proactive had signed only an "image rights" agreement with Rooney in July 2002, documents were disclosed by Proactive themselves showing they in fact signed Rooney up fully as a player not just once, in July 2002, but - for a reason as yet undisclosed - again in September 2002, while Rooney was under contract with McIntosh.

John Hedgecoe, the prosecuting barrister, said: "The two representation agreements pre-dating 11th December 2002 ... seriously call into question the evidence of Paul Stretford ... we do not feel able to rely upon Paul Stretford as a witness."

As the judge, David Hale, declared Hyland and the Bacons not guilty, and Cheshire Police announced a review, the immediate talk was whether Stretford could ultimately be charged with perjury and attempting to pervert the course of justice, having maintained that he hadn't fully signed Rooney until December 2002.

Stretford could be in serious trouble on other fronts. The rules regulating the conduct of agents, set by football's world governing body, Fifa, and administered here by the Football Association, say agents must be of "impeccable reputation". That may be seen by many as a sour joke, but these events will not help Stretford hold on to the licence which has made him extremely rich.

Then there is Clause IV of Fifa's Code of Professional Conduct: "The players' agent shall ... respect the contractual relations of his professional colleagues and shall refrain from any action that could entice clients away from other parties." Portrayed as a small-time agent looking for a payday, Peter McIntosh, 55, is, in fact, well-respected. He first tramped the Everton patch when organising goalkeeping legend Neville Southall's testimonial. He then ran testimonials for Norman Whiteside, Joe Parkinson, John Ebbrell and Dave Watson, and represented players including Michael Ball and Richard Dunne. He currently acts for Everton youngsters Leon Osman and Tony Hibbert, and Jason Koumas, who moved from Tranmere to West Brom for £2.25m two years ago.

Football's grapevine was shuddering with talk of Wayne Rooney's unfeasibly outsized talents when he was still 14. As with many of the game's greats, Rooney's home life was on the raw side of humble; he grew up in an extended family in Croxteth, a grey, tough patch of Liverpool. All Evertonians, Wayne, even after announcing himself, still 16, with that astounding winning goal lashed in against Arsenal, went home to a bedroom covered in Everton posters, and street kickabouts with his mates.

McIntosh was the obvious agent to sign him and did so in December 2000, when Rooney was still just 15. Players cannot sign a professional contract until they are 17, and, as was said in court, McIntosh drafted a shrewd one for Rooney. It would, it is understood, have secured him £1,000 a week and £5,000 per appearance, but required Everton to completely renegotiate after just six appearances. By then, Rooney was already a star, praised by Arsène Wenger, coveted by Sir Alex Ferguson, eyed by blue-chip, big-paying sponsors.

Yet Rooney never signed that contract with Everton. He rampaged on until January 2003, still on his £80-per-week academy contract. Stretford, claiming to have signed him up fully only in December 2002 after Rooney's deal with McIntosh was over, then negotiated his first professional deal, worth £13,000 a week.

Stretford, a former vacuum cleaner salesman, took his first steps into football in 1989 with Frank Stapleton, the former United and Arsenal striker, whom he knew because their wives were friendly. He emerged as a significant agent in the mid-1990s, acting for the likes of Brad Friedel and Stan Collymore, who, in his just-published autobiography, Tackling My Demons, reserves savage criticism for Stretford.

As Sky's multi-millions poured into football, Stretford told me: "There was more money in the game and therefore a bigger pot for us to go at."

Proactive, his agency, floated on the stock market in April 2001, Stretford cashing in seven figures' worth of shares. By then he had a stable of Everton players, Alan Stubbs, Kevin Campbell and others; McIntosh claimed he never had any trouble before Rooney was promoted to the first team and went to train at Belfield.

McIntosh claimed that by July 2002, Rooney was gone, but Stretford, in his statements to police and then on oath in court, said they only ever signed the "image rights" deal, running for a whopping eight years. Understood to pay Proactive 20 per cent, the image rights, which govern sponsorship deals, were transferred to a company, Stoneygate 48, whose directors are Wayne's mother Jeanette Rooney, by now at the family's new, better-appointed home in the West Derby area, Wayne, based in his superstar footballer's gated pad in Formby, and Stretford.

Hyland, a friend of McIntosh, contacted Stretford in 2002 to negotiate a share of the earnings from Rooney which, he argued, rightfully belonged to McIntosh. He was going to claim in court that Stretford did negotiate, and talked about a settlement, which Stretford always denied. On the first day of the trial, lawyers said a witness, William Lindfield, had come forward saying that Stretford had paid him to drive to a meeting with Hyland at the Moss Nook restaurant near Manchester Airport, with £250,000 in cash in a plastic bag he was going to offer as a pay-off. The money was never handed over.

At two other meetings, at the Novotel near Euston and Le Meridien Hotel at Heathrow Airport in November 2002, Tommy Adams, from a notorious London criminal family, who had recently finished a seven-and-a-half year prison sentence for smuggling drugs, appeared with Stretford. Stretford said in court he did not know Adams and had not asked him to come, but Adams had been invited by none other than Dalglish, the former Liverpool great who was at the time director of Proactive's football operations.

Stretford said he felt let down by Dalglish, who did not give evidence, and the precise nature of his association with Adams is no clearer now.

Hyland was going to argue he became exasperated at being strung along by Stretford and was determined to get him to settle, with a contract drawn up by solicitors. He asked Christopher Bacon, a former Australian SAS soldier, to go with him because of Adams' presence at other meetings, and Anthony Bacon volunteered to go, too. The brothers were going to argue they knew no details and only went to give Hyland protection if he needed it.

The subsequent confrontation, at the Lord Daresbury Hotel in Warrington, was captured on video covertly by Stretford, and lasted two minutes. Hyland banged the table and shouted at Stretford to sign the contract, then they left. Hyland was going to tell the court that Stretford gave him his contact numbers, and Hyland tried to call him, but they had no further contact until the police arrested Hyland, charging him with blackmail.

All these details rolled out - the fight to earn off the broad back of the game's newest wonderkid - while the boy himself strode out for United alongside Ryan Giggs, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest, then worried Wales to distraction last weekend in England's 2-0 win.

Then on Monday, the prosecution withdrew, saying the two agreements in July and September 2002 were indeed full player representation agreements, and Stretford's credibility was shredded. The whole perception of the case was flipped on its head; Hyland's team was going to argue that Stretford set him up, drawing him into meetings which were secretly recorded. Stretford admitted taping another meeting at Proactive's offices on 25 November, 2002, but said he lost the tape. A tape then turned up but it was blank. Hyland claimed that all the meetings were amicable and professional, until he lost his temper at the Lord Daresbury, a meeting Stretford successfully captured on video.

After the case collapsed McIntosh said: "I am now taking legal advice." He may be advised to sue Proactive for damages, claiming unlawful interference with his contract with Rooney. Hyland said he was "delighted we have cleared our names", but declined to comment further.

Sean Sexton, of MSB solicitors, representing Anthony Bacon, said Stretford's position as a football agent "has to be untenable", while Peter Quinn, Hyland's solicitor, said the case raised huge questions over the murky world of football agents: "For football's sake, there should be an inquiry by an independent QC into how people operate in this world and what needs to be done to govern it properly."

In the fall-out, Proactive announced on Thursday that Stretford had resigned from the board. They could be in rather more trouble than has been supposed; the July contract is understood to have been signed not by Stretford, but by Proactive's chief executive Neil Rodford, and to be for eight years. If it is, it could be another breach of Fifa rules, which allow agents to sign players for a maximum of two.

The FA says it will investigate: "We are actively pursuing the matter. We have a duty to uphold the Fifa rules, which we take very seriously." If the FA finds its rules have been breached, they have the power ultimately to withdraw an agent's licence.

Proactive sources, however, said Stretford will tell any police investigation that he genuinely believed the agreements were for image rights only, and that if, in fact, they can be interpreted as full player representation agreements, the problem was with their wording.

"The Proactive board will defend its position robustly," said Proactive's spokesman, Ian Monk. He added that Stretford had received messages of support from players he represents.

One of McIntosh's laments has been that he lost the chance to nurture Rooney more sensitively into the lands of superstardom. He would have made him fortunes - and, yes, earned well himself - but he argues to friends that a Liverpool-based agent would never have sold Rooney's story to The Sun, still reviled on Merseyside for its coverage of the Hillsborough Disaster, and he says he would have tried to protect him from the antics which have led to embarrassing tabloid revelations. He may also have advised him to stay at Everton, at home among his family, a while longer before making the big move.

Instead, bang on the transfer deadline, Rooney went to Manchester United in the £27m deal which made Proactive £1m, rising to £1.5m, paid by both Rooney and United, an arrangement accepted by Fifa which Alex Carlile QC, Hyland's counsel, described memorably as "milking the cow at both ends".

Proactive's website opens with a picture of Rooney in muscular flow for England, and Dalglish at his wily, elegant best in Liverpool kit; two of the most enticing sights, a generation apart, offered by the beautiful game. In Warrington in the past fortnight, we learned a little more about what goes on behind the shop window.

Life and Times Of Football's Youngest Cash Cow

24 October, 1985

Born in Liverpool to Wayne Sr, unemployed, and Jeanette, a dinner lady. Staunch Evertonian family. Plays for Everton club, from the age of nine.

12 December, 2000

Signs with agent Peter McIntosh, at 15. Two-year contract, to end on 11 December, 2002.

July 2002

Joins Paul Stretford's Proactive Agency. Stretford claims this is for "image rights" only. McIntosh claims Rooney was poached.

17 August, 2002

Makes senior debut for Everton against Spurs, aged 16.

19 October, 2002

Scores wonder goal against Arsenal in 2-1 win, still only 16.

January 2003

Secures first professional contract, Everton paying £13,000 per week. Stretford the agent.

September 2003

Scores against Macedonia - the youngest England scorer.

June 2004

Stars in Euro 2004, scoring against Switzerland and Croatia, hailed as "the new Pele".

July 2004

Sells his story to The News of the World and The Sun, sparking outrage in Liverpool.

22 August, 2004

Is exposed by Sunday Mirror in lurid night-time activities.

August 31, 2004

Moves to Manchester United after claims he can "no longer stay in Liverpool". £27m deal earns Proactive up to £1.5m, paid by Rooney and United.

28 September, 2004

Scores hat-trick against Fenerbahce on United debut. Trial starts in which John Hyland and Anthony and Christopher Bacon are charged with blackmail.

11 October, 2004

Case collapses after prosecution reveals that Rooney did sign full player representation agreements with Proactive in July and September 2002.

14 October, 2004

Paul Stretford resigns as a Proactive director.