The Nick Townsend Column: Fears for Newell the whistleblower as he strays into the shadowlands

Click to follow

Within the sometimes masonic world of professional football, Mike Newell has always appeared to stroll rather uneasily among the brotherhood. Not because anyone doubts his prowess as a manager in the ascendancy. Simply that he is not a natural participant in the political game. There is nothing sham or calculating about this Scouser, who speaks as he feels, through force of instinct and conviction, and has always been forthright, guileless even.

When his image metamorphosed from astute man-manager lauded for the manner in which his Luton Town team made Liverpool sweat in last week's classic FA Cup tie to old-fashioned whistleblower who suggested the collective of football club administrators and agents preferred mystery payments to mysterious handshakes, the ensuing furore will have astounded him. It will almost certainly have troubled him, too

Already there are whispered threats. One leading agent warns: "I think Mike Newell has acted naïvely. His ranting and raving won't change the system. He thinks that he is a 'white knight', sent in to clean up the game. But as a result, agents might not want to do business with him."

If Newell receives the support of his peers and the powers that be, his words could prove to be a catalyst for a serious examination of a subject which continues to portray the professional game in such poor odour. The Football League's Lord Mawhinney has reacted positively; so, too, the Premier League's Richard Scudamore, but otherwise there has not been an overwhelming rush to rally behind Newell. As he says wryly: "I fear there won't be a long queue of people lining up to back me."

Newell was motivated by nothing more than a long-standing sense of irritation at a system that he believes permits players' representatives to extract an inordinate amount of money from transfer deals and contract negotiations. Worse still, he claims, backhanders are offered, and have been to him, as enticements to oil the mechanics of deals.

Certainly Newell is prepared to provide examples. "We have a player who we got from nowhere and 18 months later we offered him a new deal on good money," he says. "His agent came from nowhere and asked for absolutely ridiculous money and says the reason for it is because we got that player for nothing. I said, 'What's that to do with you?' Surely it was good business on our part that we got him for nothing. It was silly money. Not six figures, but half of six figures! The player hasn't re-signed yet."

In the same week, we hear, almost unbelievably, that Robert Earnshaw has written to the FA requesting details of his £3.5 million move from Cardiff to West Brom, asking who represented him, what was the exact fee, and how much of that went on "agents' fees, consultancy fees, finder's fees or retainers". And who were these people?

It's an interesting question. The fact that the Football League's own latest figures, produced in a creditable attempt at transparency, reveal that 23 Championship clubs (Crewe were the only exception), "committed" just under £4m to agents in the last six months give some idea of the sums slopping around the periphery of the game.

Some in the game will contend that the interests Earnshaw refers to are a necessary evil, others that they are an unnecessary fact of life, or something in between. The reality is that their clients feel comfortable with such a guardian angel hovering in their corner; and to acquire a player they covet, and then hold on to him, clubs are prepared to indulge their presence. But should clubs, many of whom are in penury, be laying out this kind of money?

The anguish of the much maligned middle-men, invariably soft targets, has been predictable. Members of the newly formed Football Agents' Association, who are attempting to make the whole process more transparent, have referred to Newell's observations being "defamatory" and casting "aspersions over the whole role of agents".

So, why has Newell elected now to expose the problem? This, after all, is a man with lofty aspirations - "I'm ambitious, and I don't see any limits to that" - who, having played in Blackburn's championship-winning team, has at least one good friend in a position of influence, Alan Shearer. He has, with a following wind, the potential to be considered a future England coach.

Newell has long regarded the football agent as a bête noire. He never had one himself and has often included references to "parasites" in his club-programme notes. When a question arose about the transfer window at a press conference on Wednesday he simply bared his soul.

He should be applauded for bringing the issue to the fore, although there is about as much chance as George Galloway emerging from the Big Brother house to become a speechwriter for Tony Blair as there is that the names he presents to the FA will concede their misdemeanours. The fervent hope here is that Newell has not created rather more strife for himself than those he has accused.

He has placed his own reputation in jeopardy; having strayed off-limits into the shadowlands of football and revealed a seething mass of entwined, glistening bodies, he must hope fervently that the authorities don't just grimace, close their eyes, and walk away, with him labelled as Maverick Mike, or as some in the game no doubt already regard him, Mike the Snitch.

Fergie's backing for Glazers is badly mistimed

Just when it appeared safe to return to the subject of the Glazers, Sir Alex Ferguson takes it upon himself to provoke their detractors like a man who has stumbled across a nest of angry wasps. Except that this was clearly no accident; Fergie is fully aware of the impact of his observations.

Before his words, this had seemed a reasonable time to take stock of the family's intervention in the club's fortunes and suggest that, quietly, the United manager had gone about his business in the transfer window, acquiring £12 million worth of talent, including Patrice Evra, who began yesterday's Manchester derby; and that, notwithstanding the setback at City, United were progressing steadily.

Others have taken a similar view, including Terry Venables, who opined that United are better off in private hands, even the current hands, than suffering the vagaries of being a plc. Then the Scot steamed in, to no great purpose - is it ludicrous to suggest he is simply currying favour with the Americans? - by claiming: "I have found the new owners to be excellent. They have never failed in terms of fulfilling their promises."

Those who oppose the Glazers contend that £100m is required in the pursuit of top honours, and that until there is a change in ownership, that kind of major squad investment will remain impossible. They have short memories. Even before the Glazers' intervention, Ferguson was told, following the £27m for Wayne Rooney, that there would be no more money available for two seasons. The debate will continue to be fanned, particularly if the manager is in the kind of mood he has been this week.

You don't have to subscribe to the philosophy of those who take to the streets, daub walls, form a new club and sing anti-Glazer songs at games to contend that Ferguson's remarks were distinctly untimely.