Graham Kelly: Critics will point fingers until football cleans up its act

Every time one opened a newspaper last week the number of questions posed to the board of Manchester United by their majority shareholders, Cubic Expression, the investment company of John Magnier and JP McManus, appeared to escalate. First it was 13, then it was 37 and it moved swiftly through 74, ending the week at 99.

No doubt the heightening of the campaign by Magnier was linked to the United board's statement that promised merely an internal review of recent player transfers and their solemn assurance that the manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, had no involvement in the financial aspect of transfers, but simply recommended purchases and sales.

By far the vast majority of the queries related to agents' fees on transfers in and out of Old Trafford, challenging the "astonishing" amounts and the need for secrecy. Just as we were attempting to digest the clinical detail of the weight of all the material came the further revelation that the wisdom of offering Sir Alex a long contract when his health was subject to scrutiny had also been challenged.

In view of the size of his investment, Magnier is said by sources to want to widen the investigation at Manchester United to take in the whole of football. There is no way he wants to see his commitment jeopardised by a lack of due diligence or corporate governance, they say.

The wider aspects of United's standards of corporate governance are probably capable of repelling his attack, as the balance of the board's composition meets the latest City requirements, but it is persistently rumoured that a target is director Maurice Watkins, whose firm James Chapman and Co have provided legal services for a variety of United connections and for whom Sir Alex has been full of praise.

This story of Manchester United in crisis first came into the public domain with the allegations that the club had used Swiss-based agent Gaetano Marotta to broker the transfer of goalkeeper Tim Howard from New York Metro Stars last July and that the agent had paid £139,000 to another agent who is a business associate of Ferguson's son, Jason.

The Football Association made some noises about investigating at the time, but all has gone quiet since, and, in any event, after the agent Dennis Roach forced it to drop a case, it has been forced to accept that its powers of investigation into Fifa agents are strictly limited.

Shortly after I joined the FA in 1988, I challenged Manchester United over their employment of Roach following Mark Hughes's £1.5million transfer from Barcelona, but unfortunately I could not get behind his company's £25,000 invoice for "promotional activities".

There has never been any internal impetus for the financial regulation of the professional clubs since the Premier League and Football League successfully joined forces to frustrate an FA proposal, which was backed by the Professional Footballers' Association, for independent compliance and monitoring after the George Graham case.

The Leagues' representatives argued that such a compliance unit, which, incidentally, would have deployed financial advisers too in order to avoid smaller clubs getting into difficulty, was unnecessary and bureaucratic.

The former Metropolitan Police deputy commissioner, Sir John Smith, also produced a robust report along similar lines, but was disgracefully ignored by the FA and successive recommendations have come forward at regular intervals in the interim, including from the government Task Force.

Later this month the Independent Football Commission, the body set up following the Task Force's recommendation will make renewed calls for action, as will MP Alan Keen's all-party committee, which has been examining football's finances for nearly nine months.

In fact, it is now over 10 years that the issue of "bungs" has been at the forefront of football's consciousness, since Tottenham Hotspur chairman Alan Sugar dramatically brought it out into the open after his dispute with chief executive Terry Venables.

The Spurs faithful cared as little about the niceties of such matters then as do the Red Army now. The supporters' passion is primarily a winning team and they have qualms only when the team stops winning.

Somewhat surreally, Sir Alex, under pressure from the United board to settle the "private dispute" that has spilled damagingly into the news and business pages, spoke of the days when he and former chairman Martin Edwards managed to conduct transfer business between them, but I can warn United fans that I spent many hours round solicitors' tables with Sugar and Venables arguing in vain about matters that boiled down to a major clash of massive personalities. The sums involved were small change compared to those at issue here.

When it's all over, the wider issues need addressing, for until football can prove itself clean its critics can assume it is corrupt.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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