Game remains in state of denial

PFA call for greater transparency to avoid loss of money on the 'magic roundabout'
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The Independent Football

After the initial flurry of excitement caused by Mike Newell's willingness to spill the beans about illegal payments, football is now wondering whether anything other than excessive flatulence will result.

The Luton Town manager will talk to the Football Association's compliance department this week, providing details of inducements offered to him by club officials as well as agents. But there was widespread scepticism last night about how he will prove any of his allegations. One former leading football official told Sports-week that he had little faith in the FA, the Premier League or the bigger clubs taking any action.

"They'll carry on posturing and be supportive until push comes to shove," he said. "But I don't think there's the real will there. There may be in the Football League, because it's in their interests, like declaring agents' fees, but not in the Premier League. Whatever Mike Newell says will be denied. And unless he's been very canny, how is he going to prove anything?"

Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said of possible sanctions against those to whom Newell referred: "They seem a lot happier disciplining players for on-field offences than agents. Hopefully, it will hasten the process to greater transpar-ency for all personnel connected to a club. But it doesn't help when there's a difference in interpretation between the different bodies."

Although the FA introduced what they believe to be tighter regulations on 1 January this year, the football authorities cannot even agree on whether it is illegal for an agent to represent both a club and the player in a transfer deal, as Paul Stretford did during Wayne Rooney's move from Everton to Manchester United.

Fifa regulations appear to state quite clearly that such an arrangement is not allowed, but the FA claim that a transfer can be regarded as two different transactions, one between the two clubs and one between player and club. Their current charges against Stretford, charges which he is contesting in a forthcoming High Court case, relate only to how he became Rooney's representative.

Taylor says the PFA often have to pick up the pieces "when players are badly advised or overcharged by agents", which is why increasing numbers even at Premiership level are using the union to represent them; among them Marlon Harewood, James Milner, Curtis Davies and Lee McCulloch. "There needs to be a greater transparency with regard to transfers and a clear under-standing from the player that he knows where the money's going.

"While large transfer fees are still with us, there's certainly an opportunity for money going missing on what's called the magic roundabout. You hear of cases of players coming from South America or Eastern Europe where five or six different agents have been involved. Probably the most effective monitor of such activities has been the Inland Revenue rather than the football authorities."

It was the Revenue and then a High Court action that brought about the two most high-profile cases of recent years. In 1995, George Graham was sacked by Arsenal and banned for 12 months by the FA for receiving £425,000 from the Norwegian agent Rune Hauge. Then, after Sir Alan Sugar's famous High Court statement that Brian Clough "liked a bung", Clough was accused of receiving £50,000 in cash in connection with Teddy Sheringham's transfer from Nottingham Forest to Tottenham.

Sheringham's agent, Frank McLintock, said the money, although "not technically legal" was the agency's commission, on which they duly paid tax, subsequently asking: "Is it likely that we would stump up more than £20,000 to the Inland Revenue to protect Clough?" Robert Reid QC and Rick Parry, two of the FA's investigating committee, did not believe this explanation, but the third member, Steve Coppell, decided the evidence was inconclusive. The case against Clough was dropped because of his ill-health.

Graham Bean, the former police constable who worked as the Football Asso-ciation's sole compliance officer between 1998 and 2002, became frustrated at the lack of just this sort of hard evidence as well as the amount of work he was supposed to do on his own.

"What pains me was that I was a one-man band," he said in these pages almost exactly a year ago. "Now they have seven or eight people. If I'd had that many..." His conclusion about the closed world of football was that: "Players look after players, managers look after managers, directors look after directors. And agents look after every-body." Bean's sole success in prosecuting an agent was the £15,000 fine imposed on Mark Curtis for his role in Jermaine Pennant's move from Notts County to Arsenal as a 16-year-old.

Subsequently, there have been only minor cases concerning the use of non-licensed agents: Arsenal were fined £10,000 after signing Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, and last September Preston North End received a £1,000 fine. Clubs can hardly argue that there is a dearth of licensed agents to employ: the number in England has almost doubled, to 290, in the past four years alone.

Bean is one of many critics who have called for an independent regulatory body for football, first proposed by David Mellor's Task Force a decade ago. Lord Burns' review into the structure of the FA, still being debated five months after it was published, claimed that regulation currently operated "fairly well" and recommended only a "semi-autonomous regulation and compliance unit".

What exists now is a compliance department of seven officers within the FA building, with Steve Barrow, effectively Bean's successor, as its head of regulation. The department is responsible for a wide range of activities including on-field discipline, doping control, crowd control and child protection. Bean, meanwhile, has founded a disciplinary consultancy called Football Factors, using his intimate knowledge of FA regulations and procedures to defend clubs or individuals who are charged under those rules.

It would be more than a little ironic if the former FA prosecutor ended up defending any agents or club officials eventually charged with misconduct following whatever revelations Newell may make this week. Many in football feel that the accusations, however well intentioned, will not even progress that far.