James Lawton: Truth, justice and the American way - how to rid our game of parasitic agents

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The Independent Football

Unless his evidence is hard and incontrovertible, Mike Newell has this week no doubt elected himself only to a place among football's dwindling number of romantics who believe that the game should be something finer than some monstrous monument to greed.

This doesn't diminish by one iota the respect the manager of Luton Town is due today. He has cried out against a culture of spivvery and his plainly deep-running distaste for it would already have had a thunderous chorus of support but for the game's long rule of silence on the matter, a regime ofomerta at times worthy of the backrooms of Palermo. As it is, there is merely a smattering of half-muted agreement that anyone who thinks a significant amount of "graft" is absent from English football might be also be entertaining membership of the Flat Earth Society.

Obviously, until Newell's evidence is assessed, and either embraced or cowered from, we cannot know the prosecutable value of his claims that agents and officials of other clubs have offered him illegal incentives in transfer dealing. But we can surely celebrate the fact that one youngish, ambitious and working football man has had the courage to break ranks and, let's be honest, make himself something of a dangerous pariah in a business where the best trick, it is reasonable to presume, has always been to answer no questions and tell no lies.

In the wake of Newell's so far unproven claims - which come seven years after a long and expensive Premiership bung "inquiry" could achieve nothing more dramatic than the pathetic scapegoating of an ailing Brian Clough - there doesn't seem a lot of point in running through the old gamut of outrage.

Yes, agents are widely seen as parasites but their freedom of action, their ability even to conduct negotiations on behalf of all three parties in a single deal, is never likely to be under threat when one of their number, Bernie Mandic, is able to draw, unchallenged, as much as £2m from the £5m deal which took Harry Kewell from Leeds United to Liverpool.

It means there is one overriding question to be asked. It goes like this: if football has revealed itself totally incapable of checking their unfettered activities and wealth, if the drain of their sickening share of the game's largesse cannot be halted, why do the authorities not take another route to cleaning up the game? If they cannot beat the agents, why do they not simply phase them out? It would not be a unique or difficult action. It has already happened in that part of the world where professional sport has long been seen as a huge industry in need of vigorous and professional regulation.

In America the National Football League long ago installed a set of water-tight controls. Here, I do not apologise for repeating an account of a conversation I had with an NFL official at the time of George Graham's sacking by Arsenal when he admitted to receiving a "bung" from Norwegian agent Rune Hauge. After I recounted the details, there was a prolonged pause on the transatlantic telephone line ... eventually, the aghast NFL official said, "Say what?" To put it briefly, he couldn't believe that English football, the founder of the world game, could leave itself so open to such a catastrophic loss of trust.

He explained, quite tersely, that in the NFL an agent did not receive a penny from any dealings before his sole client, the player, received his share. The client would pay the agent after every detail of the transaction had been monitored by a central clearing office at NFL headquarters in New York. All monies were paid into the league office, then distributed to all parties. A small levy was charged by the NFL. It might be termed an honesty tax.

Why can't such a foolproof system operate here? There is one impediment and it is a nonsense. It is the widespread belief that the agent has a valuable role beyond looking after the interests of individual player clients. Agents, we are told, know what's happening, have their fingers on available players, can best grease the wheels of difficult deals. It is malarky. Agents have one prime function : to make their fortunes.

Jonathan Holmes, the thrust of whose own highly successful career as an agent was to develop the profile of gilt-edged clients like Gary Lineker, Will Carling and Mike Atherton, says, "Mike Newell's comments are very interesting, and at the very least they invite us to ask again why it is a football club needs to employ an agent. I just cannot see the point. Clubs have their own professional staff who should be more than capable of assessing the value of a particular player. When you think of how much leading clubs pay agents it is quite bewildering. If the authorities really meant business on this issue, surely they would have seized on the Mandic affair. That was the perfect opportunity. I don't know what will come of the Newell allegations, but I do know that the basic questions will not go away. The main one is surely: how can football allow so much money to flow out of the game, so needlessly?"

Holmes, instructively, offers his own thumbnail sketch of the development of the sports agent. There were two basic schools of operation. One was founded in America by the legendary Mark McCormack.

His priority was the development of his own clients. He gave the world the superstar golfers Arnie Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, and built a vast empire on that basis. Then there were the ghostly operators who in the days of the Iron Curtain began to move Eastern European players into the mega-rich Italian game. "When you consider the combination of the Iron Curtain and Italian football," says Holmes, "there is a temptation to conclude that most of these were crooks."

Whatever the legality, or otherwise, of so many of today's operators across European football, there is one irrefutable truth. Attached to football is a small army of agents who put into the game only their often grossly exorbitant invoices. If they and their profits cannot be controlled there is surely only one option. It is the American way. It is to legislate them out of their present exploitative existence.

Honours system remains a joke unfit for heroes

Liverpool Football Club should not exercise themselves unduly over the absurdities, even the iniquities, of the honours system.

Much better to proceed with the serious business of setting unbeatable standards in the more important matter of winning major trophies on foreign fields, something they do with a consistency that leaves all domestic rivals way back in their slipstream.

If Liverpool are in need of further advice, they might profitably consult George Cohen, the most modest of fully paid-up national heroes.

Cohen, who along with Nobby Stiles, Alan Ball, Ray Wilson and Roger Hunt, had to wait 34 years for the lowest rung of honour after winning the World Cup for England, did once reflect valuably on the whole risible business.

He said: "A lady from Downing Street called me to ask if I would be averse to receiving an MBE. I said, 'No, not at all, thank you very much.' But there were, I have to say, elements of the comic. They said they had had quite a problem finding me. In fact, they had finally got hold of my number from Nobby Stiles, which I didn't think said an awful lot for the Secret Service." When the Queen eventually handed the prize to the great full-back, she said, "It's been quite a long time." Cohen, typically, maintained a respectful silence.

Le Saux should ignore hate 'Mail'

In its commendable search for improved standards of television broadcasting after the BBC's sacking of Peter Schmeichel, the Daily Mail drew up a list of candidates who might just be voted off the screen.

Ian Wright drew most votes, with Sally Gunnell closing hard. Intriguingly, though, none of the Mail's own broadcaster contributors were exposed to the voters.

John Motson, dear Motty, Nasser Hussain and Andy Townsend were taken out of the firing line, unlike Alan Hansen, Mark Nicholas, Mark Lawrenson and Alan Shearer.

The Independent's own Graeme Le Saux attracted six per cent of the Mail voters, but this, he should comfort himself, may have had something to do with the fact that he doesn't foam at the mouth, is capable of uttering a perfectly formed sentence and tends to know what he is talking about.