Ian Herbert: The dependency culture that clubs have on agents doesn't have to exist – but no one seems keen to tackle the problem
No one seems terribly keen on policing football’s Wild West. The responsibility for the governance of agents has been Fifa’s job in recent years but the world governing body is scrapping its licensing system and it is against the backdrop of uncertainty about how things might now work, that the Football Association has announced it will stage an examination next month for those who aspire to be in the profession.
For a potential part in an industry which last year saw agents collect £45m from English clubs wanting them to act as intermediaries in transfer deals, just download the application form from the FA website, read the “Test of Good Character” rules and fork out a £250, non-refundable application fee. Happy days.
The FA’s test will be rigorous – and perhaps Birmingham City fans should be thankful for the small mercy that even the less intensive Hong Kong equivalent was failed twice by Carson Yeung’s friend Marco You. But that £250 seems a very small price to pay when you consider the tidal wave of money which is flowing out of football and into agents’ coffers – leaving clubs wondering what exactly they’ve paid for and grassroots players deeply out of love with the professional game as they hack around on mud pitches which scream out for investment.
The high-rolling agents are making a killing because clubs remain so desperate for players and so unwilling to invest in a scouting system which makes them – rather than the intermediaries – experts in a player’s worth. Even David Moyes was confronted with a sense of muddle when he arrived at Manchester United last summer. Sir Alex Ferguson had reached a series of loose valuations of players with his head scout Jim Lawlor – the “black box” as they call it at Carrington.
Here’s a typical scenario that you find in a Premier League landscape. Agent rings Club ‘A’ and says: “I can get you a right-back from Club ‘B’. He’s worth £5m but I can get him for you for £4m.” Agent rings Club ‘B’ to say “I can get you £4m from Club ‘A’ for your £2m right-back – if you’ll split the £2m with me.” Done deal. Not a bad return on two phone calls and 10 minutes work.
Clubs will also tell you that they play a guessing game working out who exactly represents the player. One technical director tells me of an hour spent talking to an intermediary who was extolling his client’s worth, only to learn he was not the agent after all. And even at clubs who do know who they need to talk to, the desperation for signings makes them pay for the most astonishing things. Annual accounts of the kind Queen’s Park Rangers published last week, with their £65m losses and a wage bill which doubled to £58.5m, do not reveal Jose Bosingwa’s agent’s attempt to get the club to agree a clause paying his client a £5,000 a week bonus if he was injured. QPR respectfully told him where to take that suggestion, though proprietor Tony Fernandes’ determination to plough ahead with deals minus football expertise, knows no bounds.
Players end up feeling equally frustrated, as they watch intermediaries walk away with millions from deals they have essentially organised themselves. The Independent writer James Scowcroft tells of how he had personally negotiated his early release from Leicester City at the end of the 2005 season – the kind of early lump sum severance deal which can benefit both club and player at the end of a season – only to discover that a middle man was being paid £8,000 for a role in the proceedings. He felt flummoxed and mildly infuriated.
It would be wrong to characterise agents as a universal drain on football. Even the best equipped clubs will tell you that they need them. One of the fraternity, Willy McKay, pulled a masterstroke for QPR, for example, when he enabled Redknapp’s predecessor, Mark Hughes, to get Joey Barton into Marseilles last year. Neither would Juan Mata have joined Manchester United without them. At ground level, there can actually be a feeling of awkwardness among some club executives about doing business face-to-face with each other. Better to get an agent to do it.
The dependency culture doesn’t have to exist. Manchester City have established a sophistication in their scouting which has freed them from the sorry state of dependence on agents which the Abu Dhabis discovered in 2008. Agents will also take less money from the game when those who play it are more enlightened. As professionals become more educated and aware, so there will be more of the Gary and Phil Neville mould, who know their own mind and simply pay a good lawyer to convert that to legalese.
But lower league clubs will find such independence harder and will always be more vulnerable. League One clubs committed to pay £2,229,019 in agents’ fees in 2012/13, while in the Championship, Blackburn Rovers’ state of incompetent paralysis saw them pay out £3.5m alone.
Though the FA’s licensed agents must take out professional indemnity insurance or pay a guarantee of 100,000 Swiss francs into a bank account that the FA can access in extremis, a credible barrier to entry is the very least that is needed. There should be a five per cent cap on any deal or else a cash limit – £5,000 to £10,000 – on the money agents can take away each time. It remains to be seen whether anyone has the appetite to drive that one across the windy plains of the Wild West.
Baltacha’s career has been an object lesson in courage
Elena Baltacha’s fight against liver cancer is one which the nation will follow and have in its thoughts, but the revelation of it recalls to mind how lonely her fight for a foothold in the women’s game must have been for her at times in the past 10 years. When I met her in the summer 2008, she had been overwhelmed by the emotion of her first-round win at Wimbledon over Angelique Kerber.
What might have looked like a modest achievement to the nation – with its fleeting interest in her sport every summer – was something far more. Liver problems had at that time limited Baltacha to no more than three continuous weeks of tennis and she did not know whether her physical frailties would permit her to play the 30 tournaments a year she needed to make the step up in the game. “Hopefully my body will allow me,” she said. She lost her next round match, to Jie Zheng but has ploughed on with her career, indefatigably and without complaint, a true object lesson in that generally over-used sporting term, courage.
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