Why there is a clear need for transparency over transfers

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The Independent Football

For all the pain that major shareholders John Magnier and J P McManus are causing Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson, there should be lasting benefit to football in their pertinent inquiries into the financial dealings of the country's most famous club.

The process has already begun, with United's voluntary declaration that the sum of £750,000 was creamed off by agents in the £12.825m purchase of Louis Saha, a player who hardly needed long hours of arm-twisting to leave Fulham for Old Trafford or to accept the salary being offered. Though highly commendable, this revelation immediately invites repetition of one of the 99 questions addressed by the Irishmen's company, Cubic Expression, to United's plc chairman, Sir Roy Gardner: "Please explain the reason for the amount of the commission and the process of calculation of that figure."

It is salutary to see ourselves as others see us. Magnier and McManus may have little knowledge of football and even less interest. But having put so much money into United for investment purposes, they are determined to see the business run as responsibly as public companies should be. Hence the incred-ulity of their letter of 16 January: "What we cannot understand is the necessity for the relative secrecy in which agents conduct their role and the astonishing fees which have been charged to the company."

There is, of course, other motivation at work, and the methods involved in pursuit of it have caused outrage from Ferguson and a measure of disapproval from more neutral observers. Their relationship with him having broken down completely after receiving a writ from the United manager about his entitlement to stud fees from the jointly owned stallion Rock Of Gibraltar, Magnier and McManus seemed determined to show that they make bad enemies.

They flexed their muscles by employing an investigative agency that allegedly planted questions at the club's annual general meeting; but stand accused of heavy-handedness and worse if the firm had anything to do with the sort of harassment that Sir Alex claims his son Jason has suffered because of his work as an agent.

What cannot be denied is that Cubic Expression have tapped into the growing demand for greater transparency in football. A diffuse campaign had its beginnings in the "bungs" scandal which claimed Arsenal's manager George Graham as its only high-profile victim. The football Task Force, however emasculated, followed as part of New Labour's new interest in the national sport; the subsequent Independent Football Commission are turning their attention to good governance; the Football Association do at least now have a Compliance Unit, even if Graham Bean left it in disappointment at achieving so little; the FA are also, in theory, preparing a fit and proper persons act for directors and others; and this month the All-Party Parliamentary Football Group will publish their report into football finance, almost certainly following it with an investigation - now even more topical - into agents.

The Football League are committed to revealing all agents' commissions as part of future transfer deals, and United have commendably promised the Stock Exchange they will do the same, as well as working with the Premier League "to establish new guidelines for dealing with agents".

Since there are already 10 pages of regulations in the FA rule-book on the subject, it is unclear what that means, but it shows willing. Nine publicly listed clubs, including United, Aston Villa, Leeds United, Newcastle United and Tottenham, have also been reminded by the Financial Services Authority that they are duty bound to reveal the exact size of all major transfer fees (instead of leaving the media to guess) and any other information that might affect share prices. The penalty for not doing so, they were warned, is "unlimited fines".

Only last week, Arsenal followed suit with unprecedented and welcome detail about the instalments being paid to Sevilla for the Spanish forward Jose Antonio Reyes, whose fee had been quoted as high as £20m but turned out to be substantially less. How much grief might have been avoided had they been as open in the Graham era?

These are all small victories for Magnier and McManus, and are unlikely to be the last. An EGM at United, forcing a vote of confidence in the plc directors, might be another, but it is highly unlikely that they are actually keen to bring Ferguson down - down a peg or two, yes. A little preferential treatment extended in the past to his son would, if proven, hardly provide sufficient grounds to do so, though there were complaints by some young United players in 2001 about being browbeaten by the manager into joining Jason's agency, Elite, and United's then chairman Sir Roland Smith felt the need to warn Sir Alex about any possible conflict of interest. But the minutest knowledge of football is reason enough not to want a change of manager. Nor can they be serious about taking the club over at a projected cost of some £800m.

The great irony of all this is that when Cubic Expression first bought into the company three years ago, obtaining 6.8 per cent (they now have 25.49) per cent, other directors feared that a possible takeover would make the Irishmen's new racing friend Ferguson all the more powerful - too much so for some tastes. The talk then was of him as a future chairman, or at the very least a director. It is hard to envisage that today. Rarely guilty of underestimating the opposition, he may have done just that with his writ, which has brought him up against heavier hitters than Northampton Town. But if Ferguson is for once a loser, football may yet be a winner.

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