The £5m question: how to halt agents 'blackmailing' clubs?

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The Independent Football

The Football League is lobbying for a ban on some agents being paid by more than one party during transfers amid fears that some middlemen are effectively blackmailing clubs into making payments to secure new players or retain existing ones.

According to figures released yesterday, the League's 72 clubs committed themselves to paying agents £5,024,789 between July and December last year, an increase of more than £3.6m on the previous six-month period.

Sir Brian Mawhinney, the League's chairman, said that the figures show that too much money is draining from the game into agents' pockets.

"Deals using agents need to be more transparent, not least so that supporters can understand when agents are genuinely helping clubs to behave with financial responsibility," he said. "We are working with the Football Association to try to achieve that."

Mawhinney has been seeking a tightening of the rules, policed by the FA, that govern agents. He is known to feel that the international transfer rules, laid down by Fifa, football's world governing body, and enforced in England by the FA, are too lax. They allow agents to be paid by two parties during one transaction - by the club, and by the player.

This practice fundamentally undermines the transfer system, often wresting effective ownership of a player away from the clubs and into the hands of agents. If an agent was paid only by the club (for whom he was recruiting) or only by the player (whom he was representing), there would be less scope for extortionate demands. But as the rules stand, agents are often paid by their players for advising them (with clubs picking up that tab) and also by clubs, for facilitating moves.

"It does effectively come down to blackmail," one senior executive at a Championship club said yesterday. "Either you pay what the agents are demanding in fees or you risk losing your player. But until everyone, and I mean clubs, chairmen, the League, the FA, are united in their approach to this, it's not going to stop."

Mawhinney said: "This report strengthens the argument of those who believe that football needs an effective regulatory framework to ensure a level playing field for clubs when negotiating with players."

The FA is reviewing its approach to agents, and the League will press for rules that go beyond Fifa regulations.

The figures released yesterday in the League's Agents' Fees report confirmed Leeds United as the biggest spenders in the last six months. They made commitments to pay £1.55m in the review period, £1.1m of it to agents of players who left the club last summer. Without paying those fees to smooth the moves, Leeds would have been saddled with playing contracts worth tens of millions of pounds.

Last season's other relegated clubs, Leicester (£405,000) and Wolves (£306,121) were the next biggest spenders. Derby spent £204,000 - "excellent value", said their director of football, Murdo Mackay, a former agent.

Crewe, widely seen as how a football club should be run, were the only Championship club not to pay agents. Crewe's chairman, John Bowler, explained: "We deal with our players directly. If a player wants to have an agent to give advice and guidance, fine, that's their prerogative and I can see a role for that, and the players can pay for that. But we don't deal with agents."

Championship clubs accounted for 88 per cent of agents' payments. Agents were used in 257 of 1,498 transactions (transfers, loans and contract deals) carried out by League clubs.

A SLICE OF THE ACTION COST OF MIDDLE MEN

The Spendthrifts: Leeds

Leeds spent £1,553,688 on agents between July and December, with £1.1m going to representatives of high-earning players who were shipped out of the club after relegation. The other £450,000 was spent on agents of incoming players. With the wage bill reduced by more than £27m, Leeds claimed the fees were value for money, and now expect a "massive reduction in payments to agents".

The Tight Ship: Crewe

"We would never pay an agent," said Crewe's chairman, John Bowler. "Many clubs do, but most of our signings come through our academy so it's not often an issue. And if we want to buy a player, we deal with the player. If it's a choice of dealing with an agent or nothing, we don't talk. If players want agents' help and advice, that's fine and understandable, but we're not paying for it."

Payments to agents: The facts and figures

* Between 1 July and 31 December 2004, Football League clubs engaged in 1,498 player transactions, with agents receiving a fee in 257 cases.

* £5,024,789 was spent by League clubs on agents' fees during this period.

* Of this, £3,836,146 was committed to be paid to agents by the signing club and £1,188,643 paid by the player's previous club for the agents' involvement.

* Sixteen clubs did not commit money to agents, with Crewe the only Championship side not to do so and 26 clubs paid out £5,000 or less.

* £4,399,403 was spent by Championship clubs over the six-month period, with Leeds topping the list having dished out more than £1.5m in agents' fees.

* Of the 482 transactions in League One, 61 paid an agent, resulting in £346,295 going their way.

* Six League One clubs did not pay for the services of a licensed agent (Blackpool, Colchester, Huddersfield, Stockport, Torquay and Wrexham), while Sheffield Wednesday were the division's big spenders, handing more than £67,060.

* In League Two, 53 of 545 player transactions involved agents, with clubs spending £267,091 over the six months.

* Nine League Two clubs did not pay for the services of an agent (Boston, Bury, Cheltenham, Darlington, Kidderminster, Lincoln, Rochdale, Rushden & Diamonds, Scunthorpe), with Swansea paying out £37,080 - the most in the basement division.

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