Jon Holmes: Players, not clubs, must employ and pay agents

Football should learn from the system of regulation in the US
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The Independent Football

Having been a sports agent for more than 30 years I cannot say I was surprised by some of the revelations on Tuesday night's Panorama programme, "Football's Dirty Secrets". While the programme was not the sensation that "would rock the foundations of football", as it had been cleverly trailed, it was a well-planned and researched insight for the uninitiated into the venal world of the football transfer market. It exposed some of the murky characters who work on the fringes of the game. It also showed why, given this background of sleaze and braggadocio, it is important that rather than run for cover under the cloak of "nothing proven", the football authorities should react as seriously as the racing authorities did to similar allegations a couple of years ago.

In my career three managers, one of them currently operating in the Premiership, have intimated to me they would like a kickback. One, for example, suggested he could send a player my way but asked if he would "benefit" from doing so. Was that asking for a "bung"? I thought so and walked away from the situation as I did from the others.

Three occasions in 30 years may suggest the practice is uncommon, but I have worked in a supervisory role during the last decade and been less exposed. In addition, word gets around about agents as it does about managers. I would no more expect to receive such a suggestion now than would Mike Newell, the manager of Luton who went public on the issue in January.

But others will. The finances of football are such that the temptations to the greedy are ever present. It need not be. As Newell pointed out early in the programme it is supporters' money that is being played with. But it is also shareholders' money and it is within their power to take steps to make the path of the crooked very much more difficult.

Football clubs do not need agents. They have scouts and managers handsomely paid to make transfer arrangements. Players, who are by and large financially unsophisticated, need agents they can trust to negotiate their way through the minefields of contract negotiation. If the club pays the agent, the temptation to undersell the player and worse will always exist.

Tax rules do not permit players to set agents' fees against liabilities. This has pushed clubs towards paying those fees on behalf of players who, quite naturally, see such a practice as cutting their own costs. The fact is that, in transferring this liability to the club, they open themselves to exploitation. The clubs, in agreeing to this situation, open themselves to the corruption of their paid officials.

The Sports Nexus, of which I am a board member, last month published a report into the role and regulation of agents in football. This was undertaken by several independent figures in commerce and academia. Of the 23 recommendations the first and most critical is that players, not clubs, should employ and remunerate agents. In fact, clubs should not be allowed to employ agents in any capacity on the transfer market. It also recommends that the system of tax allowances should be looked at. If progress towards giving the industry some probity is to be made this step is fundamental.

The matter of Sam Allardyce and his son, which occupied much of the programme, seems to me a matter very much between Sam and his employer. If the manager has knowingly allowed his son to benefit at the expense of the club, then Bolton, if they care for the interests of their shareholders and the game, should react accordingly and with vigour.

The issue of agents taking managers on expensive jollies was also raised. If clubs allow this, they open themselves to corruption. Each individual club has the power to stop this but, if the (relative) competitiveness of the League is to be maintained it is important that the clubs act in concert. It is the big clubs who are reluctant to move forward. They fear they will lose out in the international transfer market. This is why it is vital that a higher authority, either the Premier League, the Football Association, or the Government since the first two are largely controlled by the big clubs, take this principled and long-term step for the good of all involved in the game.

Current FA policing of agents is a ramshackle affair. The much-publicised Harry Kewell case involving the unlicensed agent Bernie Mandic has been extraordinarily sidestepped by the FA, even though clear breaches of the existing rules were revealed under oath in the High Court. Other allegations of malpractice, such as those involving payments to agents by one of the Premiership's leading clubs a couple of years ago, have not been satisfactorily followed up.

If clubs were not allowed to employ agents in transfer matters and make such payments there would be no basis for this type of allegation, and if the tax status of agents' fees were altered, the motivation of players to agree to such practice would be diminished. Football should learn from the system of regulation in force in the US. There it is illegal for clubs to pay the agent. The players' union polices agents and does the basic contract terms, the agent does the twiddly bits. Here, however, the players' union acts as an agent itself.

Jon Holmes is a licensed football agent and member of the board of Sports Nexus