It took almost 10 months, involved a team of 20 forensic investigators and cost £850,000 but Lord Stevens' investigation into alleged improper payments in Premiership transfer deals ended yesterday without a single named offender and cries of "whitewash" before Stevens, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, had even left the podium.
Richard Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, tentatively suggested that "in one sense they [the League clubs, managers and officials under investigation] are in the clear, in that the investigation into them has finished", but the reality is nobody is clear of the woods yet. Lord Stevens and his Quest team have been granted a second, indefinite extension to examine 17 deals still sufficiently opaque that almost a year of probing has not allowed them to be "written off". Most of those deals relate to transfers involving foreign players and/or agents.
And as Lord Stevens put forward 38 recommendations for transfer practice - that he said "must be implemented, as they are essential to the future and reputation of this game" - he also gave a few intriguing, if scant, details about his ongoing work. He revealed that "eight major agents" had not co-operated with Quest and, while declining to name names, he said he will now seek help from the Football Association and Fifa, football's world governing body, to pursue them.
The implication is that the 17 deals (of 362 within the inquiry's remit) and the eight agents may yet throw up evidence of malpractice. Indeed, one of the most revealing moments yesterday came when Lord Stevens was asked whether his years of dealing with "crooks" had led him to a "gut instinct" that there was an element in football making money criminally, he answered with one word. "Yes."
He was less forthcoming when asked if it was his decision, or the League's (for image reasons) not to provide details of the three clubs that he found were unaware of the transfer regulations or the 16 he found had made a "mess" of paperwork in at least one deal. "No comment," he said.
On the subject of the 17 transfers and eight agents, he added: "The reason why we are not naming names is the inquiry is ongoing. I know you would like us to name and shame but I can't do it at the present stage."
He did confirm, however, that he is in possession of sufficient information about malpractice to have handed over some information to "the appropriate authorities."
A Premier League spokesman confirmed last night that these authorities meant one or more of the police, the Inland Revenue, and Customs and Excise.
The spokesman acknowledged that some of its clubs and officials "could yet find themselves not in the clear".
When it was suggested directly to Lord Stevens that he had presided over a whitewash, and was now chasing the last few uncooperative agents as a witch-hunt, he said: "This is no witch-hunt. This is no whitewash." Yet until the investigation - with so many murky ends left untied, produces a "collar" - the League, for all its protestations, will retain a credibility problem.
Most of Lord Stevens' 39 recommendations, in some shape or other, are due to come into force next May under revamped FA rules. Lord Stevens' extra innovations include an annual independent audit of the FA's own department that oversees transfers, a ban on the Professional Footballers' Association being able to act as agents, and measures to ensure full disclosure of every payment to and from every club, agent, player and intermediary in every single deal. The Premier League may or may not adopt them all, and will decide early next year.
"The FA and the compliance unit does not have the credibility of the public or the clubs," Lord Stevens said. "Part of the FA's problems has been the lack of forensic investigators and accountants. The work must be preventative."
He added: "Failure to [implement every recommendation] will result in the game remaining under attack and its remaining members subject to allegations and innuendo."
While not finding any evidence of malpractice by clubs or officials (including managers), Lord Stevens had plenty of criticism for the clubs' sloppiness with paperwork. "This further erodes the reputation of the game and those involved in it. Such scant disregard for the rules and regulations of this great game is unacceptable."
Brian Barwick, the FA's chief executive, last night leapt to the defence of the FA compliance unit, insisting that he had "full confidence in its ability to regulate the game."
Barwick said that the FA is introducing most of Lord Stevens' recommendations anyway.
With a sting in the tale, Barwick used Quest's own meagre findings to assert that "there was little detail concerning irregular transfer activities" anyway.
THE KEY RECOMMENDATIONS
* Annual independent audit of FA compliance unit's handling of transfers.
* The Professional Footballers' Association should not, as it does now, act as agents, but rather only advise on what agents to use.
* Players alone, not clubs, should pay agents who represent players, and submit annual statements of fees paid.
* Club officials' close relatives should not be managers' agents or receive any payment from transactions relating to that club.
* Every club to submit an annual detailed return of all payments to agents.
* The Stevens inquiry had a limited remit to examine whether any Premiership clubs, managers or other club officials were guilty of irregular payments in relation to 362 permanent transfer deals (not loans) between 1 January 2004 and 31 January 2006. No evidence has been found.
* Seventeen of the deals have yet to be "written off", and Lord Stevens said that "eight major agents" refused to co-operate fully with his inquiry. His Quest team has been given an indefinite extension to investigate these further, and has asked for FA and Fifa co-operation.
* Stevens found that "many recommendations" made by the previous "bungs" inquiry in 1997 "have not been adopted. He found three clubs had breached rules through ignorance of the regulations, and 16 clubs had failed to document financial arrangements connected to transfers properly.
* Stevens found that many players have no idea how much their agents make. In 15 transfers the agents' fee was more than the player's annual salary. On three occasions payments were made to agents with no supporting invoices. Two clubs failed to enter into written agreements with the agents. Six clubs failed to identify an agent who had acted in a transfer.
* Stevens found "significant conflicts of interest" in some relationships between clubs and agents, including payments by an agent to a firm managed by a relative of a club official. At seven clubs, Stevens had "concerns about the degree of influence of particular agents within that club and its transactions".
* Stevens also found that 20 agents "acted together or in loose informal partnerships in certain transfer deals, again without always disclosing this to the club or player". This, he concluded, served to exacerbate the rumours that payments are being made "in the shadows" and make it more difficult to investigate payments to agents. This also undermines the transparency of payments in connection with the transfer.Reuse content