The Big Question: What are 'bungs' and are they widespread in British football?

Nick Harris
Tuesday 03 October 2006 00:00
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Why are we asking this now?

Lord Stevens, the former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has just concluded an eight-month inquiry into accusations of corruption relating to transfers in England's top football competition, the Premier League. An unconfirmed number of agents, managers and clubs are suspected of involvement in improper - and possibly illegal - conduct. The inquiry was commissioned in January by the League's chief executive, Richard Scudamore, and was undertaken by a team of specialist investigators, including forensic accountants, working for Quest, an independent "intelligence company". Lord Stevens is Quest's chairman. Quest's remit was to examine the 362 transfers to and from League clubs between 1 January 2004 and 31 January 2006.

What has Stevens found?

He said yesterday that of the 362 transfers, 39 require "further investigation" or, in other words, remain suspicious for reasons Lord Stevens declined to clarify. Those 39 deals involve eight current or former Premier League clubs, the identities of which are being kept secret. The inquiry has been extended for a further two months. Lord Stevens repeatedly asked for "patience" for results, but, at the same time, could not guarantee that details of any suspicious deals will be made public in two months' time. Rather he will hand details to the Football Association to pursue then. Lord Stevens said he had had "full" co-operation from all clubs, but admitted that 65 of 150 agents contacted as part of his investigation had yet to "respond fully". Quest has no powers that allow it access to bank accounts of managers, or agents, and although some individuals have offered such access, Lord Stevens was unable to provide any guarantees he would be able to gain access to all accounts he might wish to inspect.

What exactly is a 'bung'?

An unauthorised and undisclosed payment to a club manager - or any other decision maker within a club, for example to a scout or club official - to "grease" a deal. In other words, a secret financial incentive to make a transfer happen.

How does it work?

The most common method would be an agent paying a club official - perhaps a manager - a "backhander", or slice of his own cut, to persuade someone to do a deal. In some cases an agent might work in cahoots with a selling club. For example, a club wants to sell a player and values him at £1m. An agent hawks him around and sells him for £2m. The difference is then split between the agent and whoever he has "bunged" at the buying club to make it happen. Another scenario could see a manager asking his board to acquire a specific player via a specific agent, who then secretly hands a cut of his fee back to the manager. It is believed that, in some cases, English clubs have signed players who were actually available for nothing but fees were paid under false pretences.

What's wrong with 'bungs'?

Bungs are bad for the game, and in some cases illegal, for various reasons. First, they influence people to make decisions on financial, not sporting, grounds. Second, they can effectively amount to fraud, with buying clubs spending cash under false pretences. Third, bungs are anecdotally paid in cash, or into offshore accounts, creating the possibility of tax evasion. Fourth, and most important to football fans, any bung is ultimately the supporters' money.

Since the advent of the Premier League in 1992, English football's top division has been awash with unprecedented amounts of cash, mainly from television rights deals. Premiership players' wages have risen astronomically, to a current average of £676,000 basic annual pay (around £1m with bonuses ), according to an Independent survey of players earlier this year. In little more than a decade, agent numbers in England alone have grown from a few dozen to almost 200, each seeking a slice of a hugely lucrative market.

Agents are estimated to take around £150m per year from the English game, directly and indirectly from players and clubs, most of that legally. But with such riches at stake, and cuts from some £300m of transfer deals per year up for grabs, there is clear potential for agents and other middlemen, in some cases, to make secret and illegal subsequent payments to third parties to help them seal transfers. Every pound of "unnecessary spend" is inevitably passed on to supporters through inflation-busting ticket prices.

Where's the proof?

Bungs, by their very nature, are hard to prove. If agent X has legitimately earned £1m commission on a deal and then hands £100,000 to a manager in cash in a brown envelope, or pays it from his own offshore account into someone else's offshore account, proof is elusive. Similarly, anyone who has ever offered or taken a bung will not rush forward to say so, while anyone who has declined a bung will struggle to prove a negative beyond doubt and in a legally watertight manner.

Has anyone ever been found guilty for taking a 'bung'?

One manager, George Graham, was sacked by Arsenal in 1995 after taking bungs of £425,000 from a Norwegian agent, Rune Hauge, to sign two Danish players, Pal Lydersen and John Jensen. But he was the only person punished after a Premier League inquiry that lasted several years in the early 1990s. Other figures were implicated in bungs but not charged for various reasons, including ill health in the case of Brian Clough.

Is Stevens' inquiry the only reason that corruption is suspected in English football?

Far from it. There have been rumours of "dodgy" managers and agents for years. In January, Mike Newell, the manager of Luton Town, said he had been offered bungs and last month named one of the agents allegedly involved, Charles Collymore. Ian Holloway, the former coach of Queen's Park Rangers, also said in January that he knew of illegal payment offers. Sven Goran Eriksson, England's then manager, and his agent, Athole Still, were also secretly recorded by The News of the World intimating that they knew of a bung culture in the game. More recently, Panorama alleged - via several agents - that Bolton Wanderer's manager, Sam Allardyce, had been involved in irregular deals, and the programme secretly filmed Allardyce's son, Craig, an agent, implicating his father. A variety of other agents, managers and club officials have voiced suspicions that dodgy deals happen in football. These included Colin Gordon, the agent of the current England manager, Steve McClaren, who claimed that the majority of agents working in England are corrupt.

So what happens next?

Quest will spend another two months looking for smoking guns related to the 39 outstanding dubious deals. The FA will charge any managers, officials or agents where there is evidence of wrongdoing. The police will get involved if criminal activity is suspected. There will be calls for total transparency about the deals probe, and there will be little or no transparency. If nobody is found guilty, expect cries of "whitewash" from the public, and "Can you settle my bill now?" from Stevens, who is reportedly charging up to £1m for his company's services.

Is corruption a growing menace in English football?

Yes...

* It started in 1992 with the formation of the Premier League, where self-serving greed became the mantra of the elite

* Regulation in football is a joke. The Premier League's clubs lack any transparency in financial matters and have no wish for change

* Clubs accept agents as a necessary evil - because agents effectively control most players these days - and are loathe to upset them

No...

* Lord Stevens' inquiry, and other separate investigations by the FA and Premier League into bungs allegations, will act as a deterrent

* Political pressure will force a tightening of the regulations and total transparency on all stages of all transfers

* Most managers and agents say there is no problem, or a minor one at worst, and the whole notion of corruption is largely a myth

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