James Lawton: FA must now take aim at agents' drain on the game

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The Independent Football

Jean-Marc Bosman was an obscure Belgian professional who in a very basic way made football a much more decent place. Now it could just be that Ivica Mornar, a Croatian striker quite as anonymous as Bosman until this last weekend, will make an involuntary contribution to a similar end.

Jean-Marc Bosman was an obscure Belgian professional who in a very basic way made football a much more decent place. Now it could just be that Ivica Mornar, a Croatian striker quite as anonymous as Bosman until this last weekend, will make an involuntary contribution to a similar end.

Bosman eliminated the last vestiges of football slavery. You may say this is a risible assertion, but it seemed real enough when clubs could sit on the contract of a dissatisfied player, when someone like Sir Tom Finney could be denied a life-changing transfer to Italy because a bunch of small-time Preston businessmen in the boardroom said no.

That was wrong, scandalously so, and Bosman is rightly celebrated among the fair-minded for his determination to go to court and fight for the self-evident truth that a footballer, like anyone else, should be able to offer his labour in the open market.

Mornar's potential role is untouched by any hint of nobility, but it could prove equally valuable in the long term. He could be known as the player who more than any Rooney or Ferdinand or Van Nistelrooy drew attention, and invited proper examination, of the place of agents in football.

The intriguing crux of this possibility depends on the Portsmouth chairman, Milan Mandaric, who has recently been occupying so much newsprint and airtime with his anger over the profit levels of agents. The first real debate on the issue could happen if Mandaric, rather than merely catching a few headlines, shows any genuine determination to contribute to football reform during his dispute with Chris McMenemy, who claims that the Portsmouth chairman owes him £120,000 for his work on a free transfer which took Mornar, briefly, from Anderlecht to the south coast club.

In legal terms, McMenemy, who is the son of the former Southampton manager Lawrie, may well be perfectly entitled to apply the force of contractual law to his argument with Mandaric. If he had a deal, he is entitled to receive his payment. But whatever the conclusion, Mandaric would be doing football a great service if he laid bare the details of this arrangement.

The burning question is what McMenemy did to deserve a fee which would translate into handsome reward for a year's labour in some demanding and skilled occupation. How many hours did McMenemy put in? What huge obstacles did he overcome to deliver Mornar, who scored one goal in eight appearances for Pompey and is now on loan to the French club Rennes?

This, Mandaric would surely understand better than most after expressing disgust that agents received more than £3m worth of fees for their work in the 38 signings made during the regime of the former manager Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth, would simply be a starting point.

Because we've been made blasé by the telephone-number figures which are routinely tossed about in most of today's transfer deals, there is a temptation to think of this £120,000 dispute as quite inconsequential.

Yes, it is something that pales against the £1.5m paid to agents by Manchester United when they splashed £28m on Wayne Rooney last summer. Or the £750,000 they coughed up when Louis Saha came to Old Trafford from Fulham for £12m. Still more grotesquely, United paid Ruud van Nistelrooy's agent £1.2m when the player renegotiated his contract last January.

This, and scores of other examples of massive payments to agents, makes McMenemy's claim seem modest indeed. But only if we skip over it as we consider the Himalayan range of agents' rewards. Let's be quite sure about this, £120,000 is still rather a lot of money, and for what has it been expended? How many peak-hour phone calls? How many journeys to Brussels? How many coffee-fuelled sessions into the early hours when McMenemy cajoled and coaxed Mornar to Pompey?

These are the questions which have to be asked - and properly answered - if football is ever to convince a watching, and increasingly astonished world, that agents have not become an utterly unacceptable drain on the resources of the national game.

There was a time when agents did well to share the same room as a leading manager without inviting cascades of abuse. Graham Taylor, an essentially kindly fellow, once said they should all be lined up against the wall and shot. Sir Alex Ferguson, whose deals have contributed so dramatically to the growth of the agent industry, is a relatively recent convert to their value, which may or may not have something to do with their number for a time being swollen by his son Jason.

Now the agents are the lords of football. It is a bewildering development and begs the question: why couldn't the Portsmouth chairman, his football staff having established the need for a striker like Ivica Mornar, pick up a phone, call Anderlecht, establish the player's situation, and make an offer? What really does an agent do, apart from hawk his player's services? Why does this cost a club like Portsmouth?

In American sport they have an unbreakable rule. No agent can receive even a plugged nickel from any source but his own client. Transfer deals all pass through a central clearing office staffed by lawyers and accountants. Such a practice in England would save football millions upon millions of pounds at a stroke. New legislation should be a matter of great urgency for the new chief executive of the Football Association, Brian Barwick.

In the meantime, though, it would be helpful if Mandaric settled his business and then made public the details of the invoice that demanded £120,000.

If legislation fails, and there is of course no guarantee that it will ever be launched, who knows, massive public ridicule might be a little help.