The world has changed – now show us the books
Sunday 12 February 2012
Harry Redknapp's innocence was no surprise to his legal team, who had been saying for months the charges should never have been brought.
But while last week's not guilty verdict was an obvious relief to Redknapp, the evidence presented at Southwark Crown Court raises questions about how football is run. For despite all the money in the game, it is still more like a cottage industry whose practices most other businesses would find unacceptable.
We knew that football was a big business. But what the Redknapp hearing did was provide striking evidence that the game can reward managers so handsomely that bankers' eyes would water.
Portsmouth paid Redknapp more than £4m per year – four times the bonus RBS's Stephen Hester felt compelled to refuse after a public outcry. Consider that Redknapp was managing a club not sure of their Premier League status; Hester has been trying to rescue one of our major banks whose collapse was felt to be so unthinkable that the taxpayer now owns 83 per cent of it.
But, despite the high wages in football, a manager can also legitimately receive a commission from the sale of a player. This system developed when clubs had little money and they would use the commission to supplement a manager's meagre wages. Today most businesses would see such payments as potential conflicts of interest. That these payments exist shows how removed the game still is from what would be considered acceptable modern corporate behaviour.
However, perhaps the most revealing thing about the trial was that English football still shrouds itself in secrecy. We discover the secrets of the game not because the football authorities want to be transparent but because of events beyond their control.
The Revenue learned that Redknapp had opened his Monaco account because he told the Stevens inquiry about it. One reason that inquiry was launched in 2006 was because Sven Goran Eriksson, the then England manager, claimed in a News of the World sting that bungs were common in the English game.
This led to an outcry and the Premier League hired Lord Stevens. His public report did not mention Redknapp's account but the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner told the Revenue. The conclusion is that if Eriksson had not been deceived by the "Fake Sheikh" of a now defunct paper, there would have been no Stevens inquiry and no public knowledge of how transfers work.
In the Redknapp case there was no question of a bung being paid despite that term being used in court, to his intense annoyance. The commission he received on the Crouch sale was legitimate. Yet it is worth looking back at how we first learned of bungs back in 1993. Then, as in this case, a secret tumbled out, not because the game's authorities revealed it but as a by-product of unrelated events. The word "bung" came up in an affidavit filed by Alan Sugar during a battle for control of Tottenham with Terry Venables.
Bitter as their rivalry was, it was by no means certain the case would end up in the High Court. But Venables, outraged that Sugar had sacked him as chief executive of the club, took legal action. That led Sugar to reveal that Venables had told him Brian Clough liked a bung and generally preferred the money to be handed over at a motorway service station.
I broke the original bungs story, along with Jeff Randall. In 1992 Tottenham paid a bung of £50,000 to Clough, then the Nottingham Forest manager, when they bought Teddy Sheringham. Sugar's allegations were examined by a three-man inquiry of Rick Parry, then chief executive of the Premier League, Robert Reid QC and Steve Coppell. They took five years to report and had to interview the witnesses again and again as many of them kept changing their evidence.
In the end, Reid and Parry were convinced that Clough was guilty but they could not convince Coppell. Many have seen this as Coppell following football's law of omerta but by then Clough had retired for health reasons and the Football Association decided not to charge him. Parry thinks the FA were wrong; strong action would have shown football was serious about getting its house clean.
The FA did charge George Graham in 1995. He had received a bung of £425,000 when manager of Arsenal and was fined £50,000 and banned for a year. Shrewdly advised by his lawyers, he said the bung was an "unsolicited gift".
The FA were worried about how Graham might react if they were too harsh with him. As the FA chief executive Graham Kelly said when questioned about the leniency: "Our lawyers have warned us to be careful about restraint of trade."
So despite illegal payments being made to managers over transfers, the authorities left football to manage its own affairs. The Arsenal board, having sacked Graham, wanted to bring criminal charges against him. As Peter Hill-Wood, the Arsenal chairman, told me: "It was our money and we took counsel's advice. Counsel waved his arm in the direction of the window and said, 'The police have a lot on their plate'."
This is where the world has changed – to Redknapp's great disadvantage. The decision to charge him despite the fact that this was not an illegal payment but alleged tax evasion shows how the relationship between sports' bodies and the judicial authorities has altered.
The authorities are no longer confident that sports bodies can be trusted to carry out their own investigations. This has been reflected in recent months in the successful criminal prosecution of the three Pakistan cricketers for spot-fixing and the decision to charge John Terry for alleged racial abuse of Anton Ferdinand.
Football needs to come to terms with this reality. It must be transparent and accountable. This involves the game opening up its books and re-examining its old methods of rewarding managers. A useful starting point would be a full disclosure of transfer payments between clubs with a detailed breakdown of who gets what in a transfer.
If the Redknapp case led to such reform, then it would have done much good. Unless football gives that signal and does so quickly, we cannot be convinced that the game is finally ready to move into the 21st century.
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