James Lawton: Stevens deserves praise for trying to put football's suspect house in order

'Be patient,' said the old cop. The promise is there will be a new order in football
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The Independent Football

We didn't get blood on the floor, we didn't get a single name and for Mike Newell, the whistleblower who provoked the scorn of so many within the football establishment, there was no instant vindication. But when Lord Stevens, the old cop who has been asked to examine a tidal wave of suspicion, asked yesterday for the two-month extension he needed to complete his bungs inquiry, the last thing he deserved was derision.

This was because for the first time in decades of ever-deepening doubt, there had to be a real sense that at last football's disorderly house might just be in danger of significant exposure, and if not in the most satisfactory form, at the very least some genuine and vital reform.

When Stevens was appointed in the wake of Sven Goran Eriksson's loose talk to undercover reporters on a yacht in Dubai, there was a widespread, and perfectly understandable, reaction.

Another whitewash was in the works. The Newells of the football world could blow their whistles as long as they liked. The media could make bricks and then see them crumble; not enough straw, not enough nailing evidence. But the spivvery would go on. So many agents would continue to make the deals and become obscenely rich with the help of friends within the game. "Show us evidence," said some of the game's old sweats. For some observers it was impossible not to believe they said it with the practised smugness of those who believe they have an unbreakable racket.

So when another inquiry was set up, there was no question about the difficulties of finding proof. Stevens was asked to perform the investigative equivalent of parting the sea - he had to prove something that had proved itself, but for some mishap, some by-product of an income tax investigation, maybe, beyond the arm of any adequate law or supervision.

Yet when Stevens faced inevitably cynical inquisitors yesterday, he didn't do it with empty hands. He said he had serious work to do in the next two months, and until it was completed he would not depart from procedures that had shaped his professional life: build the evidence until the point when you can act, when you can deliver something more than a half-formed case. In the meantime you could build concern among those who have something to conceal. You can work, maybe, on a sloppiness created by greed that has often been easily rewarded.

But, yes, there was indeed something on the table. There were 39 major transfers he could not sign off or rubber-stamp, and they involved eight Premiership clubs. There was another fact which suggested a proper investigation was indeed happening. Of 150 licensed agents, 65 had responded to the inquiry's request for meetings and co-operation. This meant a substantial majority, for one reason or another, had failed to respond. This, surely, is a devastating statistic for all those who argue that football has nothing to hide. Stevens was impressive in his refusal to play any media games. He didn't offer any easy headlines; he was, despite the immense obstacle of football's version of omerta, the vow of silence, attempting to get to the heart of the matter, and, no, there would be no shuffling of responsibility.

It wouldn't just be a case of the Premiership evaluating or sifting the evidence, or reaching their own conclusions. If wrongdoing was established, the implications would go beyond football; they would come into the realm of law, maybe criminality.

Stevens said that even as he spoke, his team were seeking to apply pressure to the reluctant agents, including invitations to the FA to make their own judgements on why evidence, even the opportunity to discuss and examine, was being denied.

The former head of the Met even agreed with one investigative reporter of solid reputation that because of the inherent lack of transparency in the system that operates in English football, there was a possibility that some of the transfers he had cleared might ultimately prove to be not quite what they appeared. So if anyone had any more evidence, it would be received and acted upon; in the meantime, he would continue to delve into the 39 deals in which, so far, the paper trails have proved less than convincing.

This is progress. This is the creation of a climate that is quite different to the one that has prevailed for so long and which, yesterday, provoked a representative of the Football Supporters' Federation to say that his members were tired of all the years in which their conviction has grown that "they are having their pockets picked". Eight clubs and 39 big deals represent a hard core of serious suspicion. If the Stevens inquiry was set upon a whitewash, such an ambition is surely now time expired.

"Be patient," said the old cop. But be patient for what? The promise is that there will indeed be a new order in football; that agents, and those they do business with, will be more accountable than ever before. Stevens has involved himself in a challenge which has carried him back into the imperatives of the job for which he was trained, and yesterday there was encouraging evidence that his old instincts had been powerfully aroused.

He said that part of his brief was to make recommendations for the future, to bring in a system that would command the confidence of those who now believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have been cast as victims and fools, the fans who support football with their money and what is left of their faith.

This is maybe the greatest source of encouragement. Stevens is already on the record with his belief that the current transfer system will just not do. The level of suspicion, the lack of transparency, has breached the old complacency.

If the recent Panorama programme was considered by many to be less than conclusive, it certainly served a process that Stevens did not discourage yesterday. It dealt with the reality of the game's image and it had sufficient impact within football to cause the firing of Kevin Bond, an assistant manager at Newcastle. Bond has taken legal advice, as has Bolton's manager, Sam Allardyce, who categorically denies the BBC accusations that with his son, the former agent Craig Allardyce, he has been a party to illegal dealing.

But then how many other legal consultations are taking place in the wake of the interim report of the Stevens Inquiry? The old cop wants more time and that is an encouragement in itself. It is not time which will lessen the pressure on football to prove itself beyond suspicion. Quite the opposite. Eight clubs have been denied, at least temporarily, an endorsement of their methods of executing a transfer. They know who they are and we can be sure, whether they are guilty or innocent, they are urgently reviewing their methods, and laying out their defence.

Certainly, it is reasonable to believe that they will be more conciliatory now than they were before Stevens was appointed to the argument that football needs to have imposed upon it a new way of doing business; a way that puts all football citizens above suspicion.

Stevens has made it clear that he is on the trail of the cash, that he wants, one way or another, access to bank accounts, including those that operate offshore. He has cut through the fallacy that football has the means, and the conscience, to police itself properly. Maybe even now the Stevens team has produced enough evidence to persuade someone to break the silence, in his own interests. Maybe a little plea bargaining is in the air. Maybe the closed circle, having felt more heat than ever - heat which could never be generated by the FA and the Premiership's pathetic version of a compliance unit - is in danger of being broken.

Could someone, as they say in the Mafia movies, even now be singing like a canary? It is an enthralling thought for all those who believe that a grotesque draining of football's resources has kept pace with the growth of television riches.

Lord Stevens has promised to tell us more in two months' time. After the years of denial it does not seem too long to wait. Certainly not if it is true, as there is some reason to believe, that he is indeed doing his work in the fastidious way of one of the better old cops.

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