Hearn's concern for grass roots

Simon O'Hagan hears a chairman state the case for Government action
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The Independent Online
NOT many people understand the implications of the Jean-Marc Bosman case as clearly as Barry Hearn. Not many need to.

As one of Britain's leading manager-promoters in boxing and snooker, there is little Hearn can be taught about the hazardous business of investing in sporting talent. And as the chairman of Leyton Orient Football Club, the 47-year-old Hearn is at the sharp end of last week's court ruling in Luxembourg that may spell an end to transfers.

It was, he said, the worst news football could have had, threatening the livelihoods of a third of the players in the lower divisions and the entire structure on which the professional game was built. Indeed, so grave were the possible consequences, Hearn said, that it might need Government action to ensure that current practice was retained, or a means found whereby clubs dependent on selling did not lose out.

"I still think that common sense must prevail," Hearn said. "I believe there'll be a few more twists to this yet. You could say that every player's got to sign a 10-year contract, but that's a huge restriction. I don't think that could be allowed. Or maybe you say that the original club has an option on renewing the player's services. But you've got to be able to create something that's going to give you a saleable asset at the end of a contract.

"The only way round it is for the powers that be, and I'm talking at Government level, to look at the situation prima facie and say, yes, we agree with the legal analysis, but this is a special case because of the type of sport football is. Transfers are an inherent part of it."

Hearn likens what could happen in football to the situation that already exists in boxing. "It puts you off developing talent. You sign a young fighter for three years - that's the maximum length of contract you can have - and you say, `OK you're going to learn the game and then we're going to go for glory.' Now what happens is you spend all the money, you lose money on shows, you develop their career, put in trainers, pay them a salary, etcetera, and what does he do? He turns round and signs for somebody else."

At Leyton Orient, the Third Division club Hearn bought into at the beginning of the year and whose ailing fortunes he has quickly turned round, young players, Hearn said, are encouraged to think big and dream of playing in the Premiership. "OK, so they're going to sign for two or three years, but they're not going to sign for longer than that. They're looking to play for Manchester United or Liverpool. And they'll have some little agent walking around saying, `Don't you dare sign anything; three years down the road you're going to make a lot of money.' " A year ago Hearn himself was poised to enter the world of player representation, but abandoned it when he took over Leyton Orient because of the conflict of interest.

Was Hearn aware then of the sea-change that could be about to overtake football? "Yes. I mean I've never wanted a business that revolves around transfer fees. I've always looked on that as the bunce, if you like. I've always said we've got to run Leyton Orient, irrespective of transfer fees, at worse on a break-even basis, which is difficult but just about possible. But having said that, the long-term development of Leyton Orient, as at any club, would inevitably revolve around selling players that you've developed. That's how ground improvements are made and the squad is strengthened and the youth team is invested in.

"That's the nuts and bolts of our business. Not everyone who plays football earns pounds 200,000 a year. A well-paid Third Division player, a very well- paid one, earns pounds 1,000 a week. There are plenty on pounds 200 a week. But all of it is built on this on-going scenario that smaller clubs will always sell one or two players a year to balance the books."

In his eight months in the chair at Leyton Orient, Hearn can look back on two particularly profitable deals - the sale of Paul Heald, a goalkeeper, to Wimbledon for pounds 275,000, and the pounds 300,000 they received as a result of a sell-on clause when their former midfielder Chris Bart-Williams went from Sheffield Wednesday to Nottingham Forest for pounds 3m.

But what about buying players? Was Hearn in the market for anyone at the moment? Yes, he was. And what was he going to do about that? "I'm going to carry on. But then I'm a mad bugger." Not as mad as what might be about to happen to football.

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