James Lawton: So why did big-time football start its love affair with agents?

Not so long ago managers regarded the transfer market's middle men as pariahs. Yet today they seem to play a key role in nearly every deal
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When the fate of Sir Alex Ferguson is settled finally, and when Leeds United learn with any certainty whether or not they have any kind of future, football might just get round to an intriguing question.

It is the one that surely flies out of the campaign being waged against Ferguson by his former friends, John Magnier and JP McManus, and all the financial debris of Leeds. In shaping this question there is absolutely no requirement for business or legal training. You don't have to be able to find your way through the labyrinths of big-money transfer deals or player loan agreements.

All you need is half a memory. The relevant question: at what point did the football agent cease to be a parasite draining the life out of the game and become one of its cornerstones?

When did great football clubs decide that they couldn't make a deal without the help of an agent and his network of contacts? When did football managers, almost en bloc it sometimes seems, conclude that if their sons couldn't be star players the next best thing was for them to be agents of those who could?

However legitimate, or not, the claims of Magnier and McManus against Ferguson in their effort to constrict his contract negotiations with Manchester United, few would normally dispute the right of men with a 25 per cent shareholding to pose questions about the remarkable level of payments to an assortment of agents connected to recent transfers involving the club. The fact that the details are being used as ammunition in an increasingly ferocious campaign is, when you consider that last point, completely irrelevant.

Allegations that Ferguson's son, Jason, has been a beneficiary in an improper way are being vigorously denied by United. Certainly, the possibility that the manager who has essentially created the vast wealth of the club could be cut down by fallout from his dispute with Magnier and McManus over the breeding rights to the horse Rock of Gibraltar seems improbable.

But in both the Ferguson and Leeds United cases, the role of agents in conducting the vital business of the clubs has been astonishingly large.

Most amazing of all, however, is the way the agents have shed their pariah status. There follows, for a few examples of their old standing, a random sample of the way leading managers and administrators were speaking of them only a few years ago.

The former England, Aston Villa and Watford manager, Graham Taylor, was forthright enough. He said in October 1999: "Someone asked me what I would do about them [agents] and my reply was: 'I'd like to line them all up against the wall and shoot them'." An extreme solution, perhaps, but back then Taylor was just one voice in a crowd.

David Dein, the vice-chairman of Arsenal and an increasingly powerful influence at the Football Association, was appalled when Nicolas Anelka was spirited away to Real Madrid. He said, also in 1999: "For the Premier League to be strong there has to be some form of discipline. Players will move every year or two, there will be no stability. It's a free-for-all with agents and advisors."

Around about that time, Ferguson said: "What has happened with Anelka has big implications for our game, concerning the involvement of agents, things like that." Today Fulham, mourning the loss of Louis Saha to Ferguson, if not the extraordinary transfer fee of £12.8m they received, will no doubt consider that comment somewhat ironic in the light of events - as others will feel the same about the decision of Dein's son to become an agent.

Alan Smith, the former manager of Crystal Palace, claimed that agents played the role of pimps as they hawked the services of players around the game. Steve Bruce, the manager of Birmingham City, said that if he had his way he would tell them all to "clear off". Kevin Keegan declared: "The more an agent is involved, the less I am."

This did not, however, prevent Keegan from taking shares in the leading agent Paul Stretford's Proactive company. He was not alone. Keegan was joined by a pack of other top managers, including Martin O'Neill, Graeme Souness, Sir Bobby Robson, Peter Reid and John Gregory. They may have subsequently sold their shares, but the fact was that this was a situation which, staggeringly, did not apparently cause a flicker of concern at the highest level of the game's administration.

The dwindling tide of opprobrium against agents has of course been replaced by an apparent flood of wealth. One of the least engaging images of the weekend was, perhaps, the picture published in the Sunday Times of a Swiss agent, Gaetano Marotta, pouring champagne into the mouth of a young woman, directly from a bottle, while travelling in the back of a limousine in the company of Francis Martin, a director of Jason Ferguson's Elite agency.

Marotta, it is claimed, received from United the commission for the signing of their American goalkeeper, Tim Howard. Marotta, it has been reported, then passed a percentage of the payment on to Mike Morris, Jason Ferguson's business partner. In another life, Morris sold used tyres in Bolton. He now lives in Monaco.

In all of this, one other question begs to be asked. Why did big-time football learn to love agents? Surely it cannot be that it simply forgot how to pick up a phone and make an offer?

Liddell's sense of loyalty lost in the past

On a weekend when one of football's more taxing moral issues was whether Leeds United players should put on deferral a small percentage of their weekly wages, which in several cases exceed the national average yearly income by 300 per cent, it was haunting to be reminded of the agony once faced by Liverpool's legendary Scottish winger, Billy Liddell.

It happened in 1950, when Liddell, who like all the great players of that era was paid a maximum £12 a week in the season and £10 in the summer, was offered a financial package of £12,000 to move with his wife and two young children to Bogota. Liddell said no to the Colombian league, which was outlawed by Fifa, unlike Manchester United's Charlie Mitten, who came home to a six-month ban by the FA and a suspension by his club. United eventually sold the striker to Fulham because they could not bring themselves to pick him again.

Liddell's decision was explained by his widow, Phyllis: "Billy said no for various reasons, but primarily out of loyalty to Liverpool. When the news of the offer leaked out, nobody wanted Billy to leave Anfield. That included the family doctor, who said 'It's not the place to go. Billy. The air is very thin'."

For the trip in the time machine, I'm grateful to John Keith, chronicler of the Merseyside football tradition. Billy Liddell, The Legend Who Carried The Kop (Robson Books, £16.95) is, like his earlier works on Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Dixie Dean, about another age - and another set of values. Followers of today's game may need assurance that every line is true.