James Lawton: New rules needed to curb parasite culture of agents

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The Independent Online

A few months ago Sam Allardyce was running hard for head coach of England. Now, after last night's BBC Panorama probe into football corruption, he faces the fight of his professional life. But then if the Bolton Wanderers manager, one of the most high-profile figures in the Premiership, is facing the worst of the fire this morning, all of the national game must worry that few of its leading citizens are now above suspicion.

Decades of doubt, sometimes even outright mockery contained only by the burden of proof, have finally come to a head.

A scattergun of accusations may now be in action, but if football is wise, it will see that if there are to be more denial, more claims that the game is essentially clean, there has to be a new climate of honesty in addressing suspicions so deep-seated that they have strained the faith and belief of millions of fans.

The old disdain for whistle-blowers like Luton Town's young manager, Mike Newell, who raised alarms last year with his claims that he had been invited to make corrupt deals, will no longer begin to do. There has to be a reaction that is not about obscuring a problem but bringing it into the open for proper examination. Serious doubts have to be assuaged. Independent assessors have to be invited in. The need for a significant degree of reform of basic practices has to be accepted.

Football does not have a record of stringent self-regulation, everyone knows that, but the more you look at the realities of the game the more you see where the problem lies. The question leaps out: where are the regulations to regulate, where is the code of practice which would begin to be acceptable in other areas of business life and, for example, in the professional sports world of North America?

It simply doesn't exist. The other reality is that agents, who were once seen as pariahs by the leading managers, who describe them as, at best, a disruptive force, at worst, parasites waxing fat on the lifeblood of the game, and now the princes of football. They do not have offices in box rooms or above their garages. They have suites in places like Monte Carlo and Mayfair. They have profited from football's TV boom more spectacularly than many fine managers who have spent their lives in the game, embracing a dream rather than a way to become multimillionaires.

Now some sons of football managers aspire not to be players or coaches or referees. They choose to be agents. Why? Because agents make money relentlessly; they do not depend on the results of a team, nor even, sometimes the success of players they hawk around the world. They have, so much physical evidence suggests, licences to make bundles of money.

And what do they really contribute? Do they, generally speaking, make football a better industry, more inclined to loyalty than the exploitation of a desperate buyers' market?

For more than a decade now the record says the truth is quite the opposite. But football, luxuriating in the TV money that ultimately comes from those who love the game and buy the satellite dishes, powers on with agents at the heart of the business, making the contacts, fixing the deals.

Some of the results have driven at the heart of confidence and belief in some of the old values of the national game. The recent Ashley Cole affair, when he met the Chelsea hierarchy while under contract to Arsenal, has been one of the more extreme examples of the accelerating force of financial opportunism and the extent of the blow to the image of the game is still being calculated.

But then when someone like Newell attempts to blow the whistle there is an overwhelming sense that he is not fighting for the health of his game but somehow has become its enemy.

In this disordered world of huge and questionable profits, Panorama last night became the latest entrant into a murky half world of football business. While the game waited with some apprehension for the extent and weight of its evidence, some argued that the issue had gone beyond the question of individual guilt and innocence. It was, they were saying, a time when football simply had to think of its image more seriously than ever before, to stop talking about the damage from innuendos but the enforcement of rules that would kill them dead.

Transparency is the overwhelming need and it can be created only by new demarcation lines between the necessary business of football clubs and the activities of some agents.

It would require a new regime under which football clubs did their own business and where agents had one authorised function: representing their clients in negotiations with clubs and then receiving payment from one source. It would demand the most dramatic overhaul of the game since the lifting of the maximum wage in the Sixties.

Football cannot operate like this, we will no doubt be told. Agents have become key figures, men of special vision, knowledge and contacts who make the industry work. But for whom? Mostly for themselves and those willing to do business with them and not always to the apparent benefit of the clubs involved.

Whatever the implications, and any investigations that might flow from it, the real point of the Panorama programme for many was that football is operating a system defenceless against the possibility of outrageous profiteering ­ and worse.

Guilty men may be elusivebut not the picture of the opportunities that the more unscrupulous denizens of the football jungle will continue to enjoy until the game wins back the trust of those on whom it relies for its profit. That, still, is the ordinary fan who pays his money and, necessarily, can do no more than hope for the best.

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