James Lawton: Ferguson helps the Glory Game to become the Money Game

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Sir Alex Ferguson crumbled in his battle over a horse called Rock Of Gilbraltar. Now he is obliged to examine the foundations of a brilliant career that has never been so beset by a sense of crisis. Yesterday he was handed a new problem: a stigma delivered from his own boardroom. It is one that will be seized upon by his worst critics and could well bring a new threat to his increasingly imperilled reign - and Manchester United's.

Sir Alex Ferguson crumbled in his battle over a horse called Rock Of Gilbraltar. Now he is obliged to examine the foundations of a brilliant career that has never been so beset by a sense of crisis. Yesterday he was handed a new problem: a stigma delivered from his own boardroom. It is one that will be seized upon by his worst critics and could well bring a new threat to his increasingly imperilled reign - and Manchester United's.

As it is, the reputation of Ferguson has never been so low in the water since he seemed to be walking on it in the Nou Camp five years ago when his Manchester United beat Bayern Munich in Barcelona for the European Cup.

His reward then was an instant knighthood. But yesterday, when his club announced that they would no longer use the Elite Sports Agency run by his son, Jason, in transfer deals, another kind of sword was being wielded in his direction.

While United's answers to the 99 questions posed by their leading shareholders, John Magnier and JP McManus, were couched in carefully defensive language, they admitted that "there are things we could do better to protect the reputation of the club," and, "the board recognises concerns over the connection between Elite and club manager Alex Ferguson."

For Magnier and McManus, the Irish horsemen who produced massive and now career-threatening retaliation when Ferguson launched a court case to claim stud fees for a brilliant horse which is looking increasingly like the one that was wheeled into Troy, it was damaging confirmation of the long-held belief that they could do major damage to the reputation of a man who was once their friend.

The family connection between Elite and the man in charge of the United football empire, who signs and sells, was the point of the Irish attack, and some of the details that have seeped out of Old Trafford are indeed shocking.

Ferguson had 13 players on his staff who were represented by his son's company - a staggering arrangement in a plc-governed operation of one of the game's most expensive squads. This situation will be inevitably linked with claims by the investigative writer Michael Crick that Ferguson had bullied several young players into signing up with his son's firm.

Jason Ferguson was, it is on the record, advised by his father to go into a business which he had previously publicly despised. Yesterday it was revealed that the volume of business conducted between the father's club and the son's company was at a level that could only raise questions about potential conflict of interest.

United paid agents' fees at both ends of the sale of Jaap Stam to Lazio, when the president of the Italian club publicly praised the role of a business associate of Jason, the Monte Carlo-based Mike Morris. Morris also received a payment of £139,000 - out of a £700,000 fee paid to the agent Gaetano Marotta after the £2.3m signing of the American goalkeeper Tim Howard. "Although the agent's fee was large as a percentage of the overall deal," said the United statement, "the board believes the total cost represents good value." After Roy Carroll, the Wigan Athletic goalkeeper, agreed to move to Old Trafford, the agent's fee was £300,000.

Overall, United have paid agent fees of £13.4m on top of transfers totalling £158m over the last three years.

United's finance director, Nick Humby, interviewed agents, Ferguson and the former chief executive Peter Kenyon, who is now in a similar position at Chelsea, before issuing his report. The key conclusion is the one that United can no longer use Elite, and that any fees paid to the company as the result of renegotiated contracts with their 13 clients at present on the United playing staff will be publicised.

United agree that the new watch word at Old Trafford has to be transparency.

How long will it be before the Football Association recognises that what United now agree is right for them is also a crying need throughout the game? In American sport, the most professionally organised and jealously safeguarded, in terms of business practice, in the world, the 99 questions of Magnier and McManus would have read like messages from another planet in need of decoding.

The National Football League insist that all transfer deals are processed through a central league office. All contracts are approved by league lawyers and accountants and all monies paid to agents have to come directly from their player clients. One NFL agent, appraised of the facts of the George Graham "bung affair", said: "I just can't believe what I'm hearing. It is bewildering that a major sports league would allow business to be conducted in that fashion."

That was a decade ago, and while there are no charges of impropriety levelled against United or the Ferguson family, the exposure of such close business association is a bewildering statement about the lack of controls exerted by the football authorities.

The agent was once the pariah of the game, excoriated by managers like Ferguson for the way they drained money from football. Now they are literally members of the family. Leading managers, while breaking no rules of football, have invested in the Pro-active company of the leading agent Paul Stretford. How can this happen? Only when football loses any sense of the effect it is having on the fans who pay for their tickets, their souvenir shirts and their television satellite dishes.

Increasingly, the sense is not of the old glory of football but a money-driven and loosely supervised business. Indeed, football used to be known as the Glory Game. Now it is hard to see it as anything other than the Money Game. Inevitably, the image of everyone in football suffers.

Yesterday the English club with the most romantic history of them all decided it had to protect its reputation - and the huge irony was that in so doing they damaged that of the man who over nearly 20 years has done most to build the club into a huge business empire. He did that by his work as a football man. Somewhere along the line, that distinction has been blurred. It means that at this late hour he has to fight for his professional life.

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