A couple of years ago, the £5m transfer of a football player from one club to another would barely have raised an eyebrow. English clubs, awash with cash from lucrative broadcasting deals, were spending at will. Exotic names and telephone-number fees were the norm. Few supporters showed much interest in who was pocketing what commissions from where as long as their clubs were competitive in the market and on the field.
The saga of Harry Kewell's move from Leeds United to Liverpool, which was concluded yesterday with the player being unveiled by his new club, is the surest sign yet that such complacency is over. The move exemplifies football's post-boom era, where financial crises are as likely as live action to feature in the sports pages, and where influential agents and their luminary clients wield more power and make more money than the clubs who employ them.
Some people, including Liverpool's chief executive, Rick Parry, say that transfers such as Kewell's are nothing more or less than business reality. Others, not least fans of Leeds, argue that the sale of the Australian is the downfall of the national game in microcosm.
Why, Leeds fans want to know, did their club only make £3m on the sale of a 24-year-old star whose value was estimated as high as £50m three years ago? How were Kewell's agent, Bernie Mandic, and his employers able to pocket the other £2m from the transfer? And what happened to the extra £2m that Leeds' chairman, Professor John McKenzie, says Liverpool were prepared to pay for the player last week?
Some of the answers arrived yesterday, although they were hardly music to Leeds supporters' ears. Professor McKenzie, who was appointed this year, continued to rail against a transfer system that allowed Mr Mandic to make £2m from Kewell's move. He even allowed correspondence that would ordinarily be confidential to be published to show how the move had come about.
On 17 June, Mr Mandic wrote to Professor McKenzie saying Kewell, whose contract at Leeds was due to expire in a year, would be willing to sign a two-year extension. On the face of it, that should have been good news for Leeds. Kewell had been attached to the club since arriving from the New South Wales Soccer Academy as a 17-year-old aspirant. He had become a firm favourite with the fans, a dynamic, skilful player capable of playing in midfield or attack. He was seemingly happy in Yorkshire. Last year, he married his long-term local girlfriend, the Emmerdale actress Sheree Murphy, and the couple had a second child last month.
One problem for Professor McKenzie was that Mr Mandic wanted any new contract between Kewell and Leeds to include a clause that gave Mandic's company, Maxsport, 50 per cent of any subsequent transfer fee for the player, "subject to Leeds United receiving no less than £2m". In other words, Kewell would stay at Leeds as long as his agent was guaranteed a cut of any future transfer. Another problem for Leeds was the club's debts, which stand at £80m after years of extravagant gambles on players and wages that did not pay off. Professor McKenzie is under huge pressure to keep the club solvent and has already overseen the sale of a string of players. If he did not sell Kewell, he knew the player would be free to leave for nothing next summer.
In response to Mr Mandic's "50 per cent" proposal, Professor McKenzie authorised the agent to seek an immediate buyer for Kewell instead. Professor McKenzie told Mr Mandic he wanted £5m for the player and agreed he would pay £2m of that to Mandic for his services.
On 30 June, Mr Mandic, unhappy that the chairman had said that Kewell's situation was a "farce", notified Leeds that his player was "no longer for sale and all previous undertakings are cancelled". He then told Leeds that unless they sold Kewell to Liverpool - the club he supported as a boy - the player would not be going anywhere and would leave next summer for nothing. Professor McKenzie knew he either had to do Mandic's bidding or recoup nothing for Kewell.
Professor McKenzie's ire at the saga stems from his helplessness. Leeds got themselves into such a financial mess that a firesale of assets was necessary. If they had renegotiated Kewell's contract before it only had one year left, they would not have been under such pressure to sell. Alternatively, having failed to renegotiate, they should have sold him a year ago, for a greater sum.
On Wednesday, the deal became more acrimonious when Professor McKenzie claimed Rick Parry, Liverpool's chief executive, had verbally offered him £7m for Kewell last week, only to reduce the offer to £5m. Professor McKenzie implied the £2m difference had been diverted to Kewell or Mr Mandic.
As Kewell was paraded at Anfield yesterday, wearing the Number 7 shirt once worn by such greats as Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish, Mr Parry denied Liverpool had ever offered more than £5m.
"The money has gone to Leeds and money has gone to Harry through his contract, but there is nothing else and suggestions to the contrary are wholly without foundation at all," Mr Parry said. Kewell, whose five-year contract at Liverpool is worth about £60,000 per week, said he was "sad" that his departure from Leeds had been so bitter.
HOW THE MAIN PLAYERS CAME OUT OF THE DEAL
HARRY KEWELL: The 24-year-old wins a five-year contract, worth £60,000 a week, at the club he supported as a boy, where he'll play alongside Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard
BERNIE MANDIC: The agent's company, Maxsport, pockets £2m for arranging the move. This fee was agreed in advance with Leeds, who had to deal with Mr Mandic or retain Kewell as a player
RICK PARRY: The Liverpool chief executive gets one of the most exciting talents in British football for £5m plus £3m-a-year wages, still a snip compared with the prices of a few years ago.
PROFESSOR JOHN McKENZIE: The Leeds chairman gets £3m for a player valued at £50m in 2000, but Kewell could have left for nothing next year when his contract expires.Reuse content