Rich pickings for the free agents

Andrew Baker meets a middleman at the heart of Europe's new contract system
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The Independent Online
THE walls of Jon Smith's office are hung with pictures of him smiling with celebrities whom he represents. There's Jon with cricket stars, footballers, with Mikhail Gorbachev, with Mother Teresa of Calcutta . . . hold on. Mother Teresa of Calcutta has an agent? "No, no," Smith says. "I met her on a trip with the England cricket team. We prayed together for an hour."

It would not be seemly to ask what it was Smith prayed for, but it is clear that the effect of the Bosman judgment on his business has been little short of miraculous. His company, First Artist Corporation, was rubbing along quite nicely, thank you, but now: "It's like someone has said: 'Right, here's your new job and oh, by the way, you've won the pools as well.' Agents have been changed from the Brothers Grimm into shining lights. I've got a meeting with the FA on Monday about how best to help create a better environment for the game."

But as well as such altruistic matters, Smith is concerned with gathering intelligence on the previously untapped footballing resources that the Bosman judgment has freed up. "It's not about doing deals at the moment," he explained. "It's about being ready to do deals in May and June."

Since the Bosman judgment relates only to players who are out of contract, the work of the moment for every agent in Europe is identifying just who those individuals are. "This came on the fax yesterday," Smith said, producing three sheets of paper covered with neat handwriting. "Players out of contract in Belgium. And I've had an enquiry from an agent in Holland asking about British players in the same situation. Not in the Premiership, mind, in the First Division." Smith is right to enthuse about what he calls an "information stream". The names on his lists will prove valuable: "certain managers" have already contacted him about their summer shopping plans.

The European Championships will only intensify the deal-making frenzy. "It is a fantastic shop- window," Smith said. He has recently been approached by one eastern European football association to act on behalf of its players at the championship.

Smith, a slight, immaculately turned-out figure, is greatly concerned about the image of the agent in football. He provides chapter and verse on the respectability of Fifa-licensed agents (a licence costs about pounds 110,000, which is a pretty powerful incentive for good behaviour), and is keen to extol the virtues of the International Association of Football Agents, which meets in Brussels once every three months. But all the while he's coming up with nicknames and descriptions for his profession. "Angels with dirty faces" he suggested at one point. The impression is that while he is determined to improve the reputation of the agent in football, something inside him is still nostalgic about the spivvier side of the profession. Eric Hall, of whose image Smith is nowadays politely disapproving, was an usher at his first wedding.

Smith may not have his face on the back pages every week, but he does not need the publicity. He already has Ruud Gullit and Les Ferdinand on his books, along with other well-known Premiership players and a good few from the lower divisions whom he expects to prosper in the future, like Steve Guppy, who starred for Port Vale in the FA Cup victory over Everton.

Smith and his younger brother Phil, an expert in football contract negotiation, will continue to scour Britain for emerging talent. But the Bosman verdict has encouraged them to roam further. "I'm going to be a British Airways Gold Card passenger this year," Jon said. "I've got the silver already."

He and Phil ticked off the places they have visited since the Bosman opinion was given last September: Brussels ("a lot"), Bosnia, Serbia, Italy ("regularly"), Holland, France, Spain, Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech Republic. "We haven't been to Scotland," Phil remarked, a statement that will not do a great deal for morale north of the border. The Scots are not the only players with problems. "Poles don't travel," Jon proclaimed. "Whereas players from former Yugoslavia travel very well."

One particular European player has received special attention: Jean-Marc Bosman himself. "I went to see him several times while the case was still going through the court," Jon explained. "I had plenty of legal opinions, but I wanted to get it from the horse's mouth." Now he is helping to put together a benefit match, to be staged in Malaga in March, to enable Bosman to pay his legal costs. "Gullit is going to play, and Maradona - we represented him for four years."

It is highly appropriate that players and agents should reward the man whose stubbornness will bring such bounty their way. "The power is now on my side of the desk," Smith said. "I have to make sure that it's used responsibly." Then another metaphor for his profession: "We used to be thought of as Mutant Ninja Turtles," he said, "crawled out of the gutter. Now we've changed - morphed - into the Power Rangers."

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