Stretford's expanding sphere of influence

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The Independent Online

Twenty hours in January reveal the astonishing influence of Paul Stretford. Goodison Park, 7.30pm on Friday 17th and the silver-haired agent is sitting next to his recently-acquired client: Wayne Rooney. On the other side of the teenager, who has just signed a record-breaking deal with Everton, is his relieved manager, David Moyes. In the audience are Rooney's parents, Jeanette and Wayne Snr.

Twenty hours in January reveal the astonishing influence of Paul Stretford. Goodison Park, 7.30pm on Friday 17th and the silver-haired agent is sitting next to his recently-acquired client: Wayne Rooney. On the other side of the teenager, who has just signed a record-breaking deal with Everton, is his relieved manager, David Moyes. In the audience are Rooney's parents, Jeanette and Wayne Snr.

From west to east. The next afternoon, at St James' Park, and Newcastle United kick off in the Premiership against Manchester City. The man of the match is Jermaine Jenas, a Stretford client. As the City goalkeeper Carlo Nash picks the ball out of the net he obscures the logo on his shirt. The sponsor, First Advice, is another Stretford client. He brokered the deal. No matter, the advertising on the perimeter is highly visible – the boards are owned by a Stretford company.

After the match, in the executive boxes, guests discuss whether the injured City goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, would have made a difference. He is another long-standing Stretford client. Oh, and those hospitality packages were sold by Stretford. Downstairs the managers, Sir Bobby Robson and Kevin Keegan, face the press. Both are shareholders in Stretford's company Proactive Sports. Later that evening highlights of the game are shown on ITV's Premiership programme sponsored by Coca-Cola. Stretford brokered that deal, too.

With 384 footballers on his books, including 62, such as Sami Hyypia, acquired when he recently bought out a Scandinavian agency, Paul Stretford, 44, is the biggest and most active agent in Britain, working from a power-base in the North-west. He takes great pride in the fact that 189 of his clients are internationals and 15 featured in the latter stages of the World Cup. Stretford is an immensely powerful figure in sport and even boasts of being asked to carry out scouting missions for clubs.

If football is not your thing, then he can sell you grand prix motor-racing or Ryder Cup golf. Being an agent is now just one part of his burgeoning portfolio – although it is the most high-profile, lucrative and, of late, controversial.

Stretford, a former vacuum cleaner salesman, started his business in 1987, working from the cellar of his home in Wilmslow, Cheshire, when he joined up with the former Manchester United defender Kevin Moran. The Irishman is still a major shareholder in Stretford's company, as is another former United player, Jesper Olsen. Both also sat on the board until last year. Stretford is still in affluent Wilmslow – the home of many footballers in the North-west and Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager. It was not until he acted for one of those residents, Andy Cole, then at Newcastle United, and Stan Collymore, that he started to come to public prominence. As chief executive, he now employs 49 people, including Kenny Dalglish and former football executives such as Peter Robinson, ex-Liverpool, and Colin Hutchinson, ex-Chelsea. His company, with 11 offices worldwide, is listed on the stock market and was valued at over £30m when it floated two years ago. In his Cheshire offices, in Manchester Road, there has stood a life-size wax statue of one of his star clients, the aforementioned Schmeichel, in typical pose. Stretford's car of choice is an Aston Martin.

His ties are strong. Many managers and players hold shares in his business – including Graeme Souness, Martin O'Neill, Howard Wilkinson and Steve Coppell. He also has commercial links with clubs such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Leeds United and Sunderland. The secret of Stretford's success is in fostering clusters of contacts within clubs – from the boardroom to the training ground. Take the transfer of the Jermaine Jenas from Nottingham Forest to Newcastle United in February 2002 for £5m. Jenas's early career was managed by Jamie Hart, who was employed by Ambition Management, a Nottingham-based firm. In mid-January 2002 Hart – the son of Forest's manager Paul Hart – left for Proactive and shortly afterwards his most valuable client followed him. A few days later the deal to Newcastle was finalised, with Proactive, naturally, taking its commission.

Stretford's reaction to criticism was frank and revealing. Nepotism is not a crime, he declared. "There is a potential conflict of interest on lots of occasions but it depends on how that is managed and conducted," he said. Indeed so. And, in Stretford's defence, there is no suggestion whatsoever that his shareholders – such as the Newcastle manager Robson – have acted improperly.

Furthermore, the Football Association – another organisation Stretford does business with through his hospitality division – has a regulation that individuals are allowed to own a shareholding of up to 10 per cent. Not one of his clients owns anywhere near that figure. In fact, collectively, the managers who are shareholders own around one per cent of the stock.

Not that it has been a money-spinner for them. The shares have been performing badly in a depressed market – despite Stretford's prodigious activity. He carried out 117 transfer deals and contract negotiations during the first year as a stock market company, including the sale of Hugo Viana to Newcastle. In February, Proactive's interim results showed a profit of just £100,000, down £600,000 on the previous year. When it was originally listed on the stock market the share price was 40.5p. Now it is 4.5p.

Stretford has shown no sign of letting up, however. Having made his reputation by acting for established players, such as Cole, he is now targeting youth. As well as Rooney and Jenas, other clients include Blackburn Rovers's 17-year-old defender James McEveley, Fulham's Sean Davis and Nottingham Forest's Michael Dawson. By signing up such players, Stretford is putting himself in an ever-growing position of strength, especially as, due to the state of the industry, youth is at a premium. It also means that questions will continue to be asked even though, under the rules, he has done nothing wrong.

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