James Lawton: Ferguson acting as agent provocateur in the game of loyalty

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The Independent Online

The idea that Sir Alex Ferguson might feel imperilled, or at least embarrassed, by Manchester United's refusal to do any more transfer business with his son Jason is, the more you think about it, quaint. Ferguson doesn't do remorse. Just his version of loyalty.

The idea that Sir Alex Ferguson might feel imperilled, or at least embarrassed, by Manchester United's refusal to do any more transfer business with his son Jason is, the more you think about it, quaint. Ferguson doesn't do remorse. Just his version of loyalty.

Loyalty, he has said, is the anchor of his life. Selective loyalty, that is. Family loyalty, football loyalty. The loyalty of mutual self-interest. He says he learned it in Govan where he grew up beside the docks and the shipyard cranes. It's not a principle but a matter of survival: the survival of you and your people.

You might say, to hell with Ferguson's version of right and wrong, and how you can bend it however you like. But don't expect applause in many corners of football. The game is beyond such strictures and anyone trying to pass judgement on the outrageous privileges granted by Ferguson to his son is simply wasting time if his behaviour is not set in that reality.

In fact Ferguson had some reason to be relieved in the wake of the BBC3 documentary Fergie And Son. The show had several bullets to aim at the heart of the master of Old Trafford, and it did so with some enthusiasm, but instead of taking a dead aim it produced a flurry of gimmicks and such non sequiturs as asking a director of impoverished York City what a fraction of young Jason's earnings might have done for her club.

That made you wonder why they didn't go all the way along that road and cart the sound gear to the streets of Bombay or some mountain village in Laos to check how many deaths from hunger might have been prevented by the Elite agency's £300,000 pay-off for the brilliant achievement of persuading Wigan Athletic's Roy Carroll to move to Manchester United.

The consequence of even the less spectacular diversions of the television narrative was that at worst Ferguson took a couple of flesh wounds, albeit ones that could easily be prone to serious infection in the next few weeks and months.

For the makers of Fergie And Son it was both a waste of some dynamite research and the chance to drive home the most relevant question raised by the entire production: why do Manchester United or any big club have to pay agents anything up to a million pounds for, in essence, making a phone call?

What, indeed, are agents for? Sometimes we are told they are now the most important people in football, all-knowing, all-moving, all-shaking. They package assets and take a large slice of the profits because without them big-time modern football simply wouldn't work. They swim with all the currents of the game.

Most of this is unbridled tosh. Football agents, very few of whom are ex-players, do not know or do anything that could not be learned or done by a competent employee of a club such as Manchester United. Make a phone call? Check on a player's availability? Ask the club how much they want? Arrange work permits? Yes, boss, it can all be done because, as you've got round to asking, it is not rocket science.

So we need to ask again: what are agents for? They know how things work. They know what to do. But beyond those other basic chores, what? They know how to tap up players, move the money around, make the moves that make the deals. This isn't such claptrap, not in reality, but it would become so if football's authority ever drummed up the energy, nerve and decency to introduce an entirely new level of regulation to the game.

Before Jason Ferguson entered the business, his father said, as Fergie And Son reported, that football was a rat race and that the rats - the agents - were winning. Has anything changed, apart from Jason's profession? All indicators say not.

Of course, agents do have one entirely legitimate function: to protect the interests of the players. Past generations of footballers, as they eke out an existence in these days of grotesque Premiership payrolls, can only look back in anguish at the lack of such an element of support in their own careers.

Jon Holmes, of the front-rank SFX agency, says: "I've never seen a real reason for clubs to use agents. They cannot do anything that a contracted employee of a club can do legally and with responsibility. The proper role of the agent is to look after his client, and that would surely be the situation if the FA brought in proper regulations." Here we have the nub of it. When the regulators are away the mice, or as Ferguson used so say, the rats, inevitably play.

The rewards are so enormous that Ferguson, having built Manchester United into the financial powerhouse it had become so soon after the former chief shareholder Martin Edwards had proposed to flog it off for scarcely more than the agents' fees they have paid out over the last five years, wondered why his own son, poorly rewarded, he felt, as a TV sports producer, should not enjoy some of the benefits.

It was a train of thought that has brought a potentially disastrous slur to his reputation, one of the greatest ever achieved in English football. It may also have brought a breaking point in his battle to reassert his old powers.

However, what it hasn't provoked, at least thus far, is any serious discussion of how it was that Manchester United allowed Jason Ferguson to build such a bridgehead of business opportunity within his father's club.

Peter Kenyon, now in charge of dispensing the Abramovich millions at Chelsea, was supposed to supervise the operation. He watched the growth of Jason Ferguson's clientele and profits at Old Trafford, he looked at the cheques. Has his reputation suffered these last few days? Not so far.

Ferguson is taking all the heat, and for his own compliance in something that was plainly wrong he surely cannot complain. But then who in football is in position to pass judgement? Before you put a man in the dock, you first must make some laws.

Footballers should be seen, not heard

What an extraordinary bunch of committed, caring young footballers we are sending to the European Championships.

After failing to banish half the media from his presence while fulfilling his duties as captain of England, David Beckham proceeded to advise his notional boss Sven Goran Eriksson on team selection. A high priority is that his friend Nicky Butt, who can scarcely get a game for Manchester United, should be a sure-fire choice against the reigning champions France in the opening game in Portugal.

Frank Lampard, who after Beckham's statement of desire may be rewarded for a brilliant season at Chelsea with nothing better than a place on the bench, is equally anxious to explain to his patron Roman Abramovich quite where he should direct his next cascade of transfer money.

Finally Steve Gerrard advises his club Liverpool that while he is on England duty his mobile phone will be switched on and available for discussions on the appointment of the next Anfield manager.

Maybe your spirit is moved by this evidence of a new generation of players who are willing to contribute not just their ability on the field but the full benefit of their agile minds. Or perhaps you still cling to the old-fashioned thought that just as fighters fight and runners run, footballers should concentrate on playing as well as they can and leave the rest to the man deemed capable of managing the team.

As it happens, I lean to the latter view. Perhaps more significantly, so did Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles and the rest of the England team back in 1966, though this is not to say that they were entirely subservient to the will of their manager Sir Alf Ramsey.

Once, Bobby Charlton approached him on behalf of the squad to suggest that on a forthcoming long journey, in economy class, it would be much more comfortable to wear casual clothes rather than the official team suits. Ramsey said he would give the request due consideration. Then he walked a couple of yards, turned and said, "Bobby, I think we'll wear the suits."

Of course this level of discipline may have been totally incidental to the fact that a wonderfully drilled team went out to win the World Cup - the only time England won a major tournament.

England may profit from Hussain's selflessness

Nasser Hussain didn't quite proclaim, like the hero of A Tale Of Two Cities, "it is a far better thing I do, than I have ever done," but surely he would have got away with it.

Hussain's decision to quit, and effectively rubber-stamp the selection of the brilliant new man Andrew Strauss for the second Test, was a fine decision and perhaps, more than anything, underlined the broadening effect of his years of captaincy.

He started as a self-obsessed over-achiever; he finished both a hero and a man with the grace to look beyond his own situation.

Yes, it is reasonable to wonder if Hussian might have been less generous if he hadn't been able to redeem his running out of Strauss with a marvellous winning century. But that is less important than the fact that Hussian had the spirit and the grace to recognise that he could not have had a more perfect ending to a splendid career. He recognised the gods had been kind and he had the wit to pass on their generosity.

English cricket has not always been marked by such selflessness in its senior players. Indeed, his example should serve as an inspiration for years to come, perhaps even to the point when the Australians are finally beaten. In a memorable way, Hussain has helped that possibility.