Kicks and kickbacks: Why bungs have always been part of football

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The first "bung" was, in all probability, paid in Lancashire, received by a Scot, and spent on a few ounces of snuff, some moustache wax and several pints of pale ale. The bung culture, which Mike Newell has sensationally brought back on to the agenda, is as old as the FA Cup.

The only difference these days is that it is managers and agents who are usually the recipients, rather than players, and the windfall is more likely to be spent on another conservatory, a boob job for the wife (or mistress) or a fast car.

Back in the 1870s there were no agents, or managers in the modern sense. But someone at Darwen took the decision to lure two Partick Thistle players to the small Lancashire club with an offer of well-paid but nominal employment in the local cotton mill - one of the men was actually a stonemason - and, probably, match fees in cash.

This came to light after Darwen had unexpectedly held the Old Etonians to a brace of draws in the FA Cup of 1879, a result then seen as improbable as Manchester United's at Burton at the weekend. The game, still dominated by the gentlemen's teams of the south, was technically amateur. However, while the Wanderers and Old Etonians could afford to play for nothing, those who played for the new working men's clubs of the north of England, and in Scotland, could not. Shamateurism arrived and was exposed when, since the best players of the time were Scottish, clubs took on an increasingly tartan hue.

In 1885, by which time several clubs, including the mighty Preston North End had been disqualified from the Cup for illegal payments, professionalism was legalised. But the current bung culture could be attributed to the failure of the Football Association to learn the lesson, that the laws of the game had created a climate in which corruption flourished, the more so because football, until very recently, was a cash-based society.

The FA did not learn when the minimum wage encouraged clubs to offer under-the-counter payments - not even after Leeds City were wound up by the FA in 1919. Herbert Chapman, the man immortalised in Highbury's marble halls, was manager. Nor in 1957 when Sunderland, the "Bank of England club", were discovered to have been making illegal payments on a grand scale for years - a revelation that led to widespread fines and suspensions and the fall of the club's manager and chairman. Only when the players threatened strike action was the minimum wage finally lifted.

That meant an end to under-the-counter payments but led, inexorably, to the arrival of agents. Footballers, often poorly educated, needed professional help to realise their value. Into this vacuum stepped the agent and, soon, he was also the go-between in transfers, a role previously often played by journalists.

A go-between was required because, unlike in most jobs, regulations forbade, and still forbid, "tapping up". But the FA did not allow clubs to use agents until 1995. The clubs simply broke the rules, even those clubs, like Aston Villa, whose chairman, Doug Ellis, was on the FA's finance committee. In 1993 ,Villa were fined £20,000 for "irregular dealings" with an agent relating to Mark Bosnich's arrival. "I only broke the rules slightly," claimed Ellis.

By then, as the bung commission which found George Graham guilty revealed, the use of agents and delivery of bungs had become commonplace. And with transfer fees in the millions, the temptation for managers to cut themselves a piece of the pie was, for some, overwhelming.

Graham remains the only manager ever to have been convicted and punished by the FA for taking a bung, or more precisely two, following the transfers of Pal Lydersen and John Jensen to Arsenal in 1991 and 1992.

Graham received £140,000 in £50 notes after the Lydersen deal and £285,000 after Jensen moved from Brondby from the agent, Rune Hauge. He always maintained that the payments were unsolicited gifts, but the FA disagreed and he was banned from football for a year and fined £50,000. He repaid Arsenal the £425,000 plus interest.

Hauge was given a life ban by Fifa, reduced on appeal to a two-year ban. Since resuming work, he has represented the likes of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and played a role in Rio Ferdinand's move from West Ham United to Leeds United in 2000.

Hauge originally established himself as the agent of choice for English football when be brokered dozens of deals to bring Scandinavians across the North Sea in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

One such move involved the Icelandic midfielder Toddi Orlygsson, who moved to Nottingham Forest, then managed by Brian Clough. Infamously, it was later revealed that Ronnie Fenton, Clough's assistant, had received a £45,000 back-hander as part of the move, and collected the money in Hull, from a trawler, where it arrived in a fish box.

Clough escaped prosecution as a result of the bungs inquiry because of ill health, even though he also shared part of a £50,000 bung arising from the transfer of Teddy Sheringham from Forest to Tottenham. That cash was passed to Fenton at a motorway service station on the M1.

Anecdotal evidence of a current bung culture is easy to find - but almost impossible to substantiate or act upon. One Premiership chairman, talking off the record in 2003, said both he and his manager had been offered bungs in the recent past.

On one occasion, a crooked agent mistook the chairman for a managerial assistant and offered to funnel cash to a Swiss bank account to grease a transfer. "I told him he was suggesting I nick my own money. Then I told him to fuck off."

This type of encounter has often gone unreported because of a lack of hard evidence. "You can't prove a negative, and you run a risk of being scandalised by association when, in fact, you're blameless," the chairman said.

Newell's stand is without doubt honourable. But to quote a Celtic official at the meeting in which the Scottish game finally accepted professionalism in 1893, "he might as well attempt to stop the flow of Niagara with a kitchen chair".

Comments