Bolton bungs and stings

Once an investigation depends on a sting, it is surely compromised. A sting is plainly based on deceit; it is in essence a lure to make its victims incriminate themselves.

It was perhaps appropriate that in the very week, when the BBC TV Panorama programme made its dramatic accusations against English agents and managers, via an undercover reporter, that delightful film `The Sting' should have been showing on BBC TV. For a sting this certainly was, an obscure Dutch soccer coach being fitted up with a tiny camera and a wire to film and record his quarries.

With at least one loose-mouthed, greedy, garrulous agent called Peter Harrison, whose shameless admissions were the centre of the show, bungs have confessedly been the warp and woof of his lucrative career. That he should now ineptly announce that he was telling lies, and proclaim that he is suing for libel, seems feeble to the point of farce.

Yet I do have one substantial reservation, and I believe I am entitled to it. This because some 30 years ago, I and the multilingual American journalist Keith Botsford conducted what was still probably the most sensational investigation of soccer corruption in the history of British journalism, the so-called story of The Golden Fix, the corruption, attempted or successful, of the great Italian clubs of referees of European competitions. And we "stung" nobody. Entrapped nobody. Never wore a wire. Simply pursued and persisted.

For, once an investigation depends on a sting, it is surely compromised. A sting is plainly based on deceit; it is in essence a lure to make its victims incriminate themselves. In Harrison, you might say, this particular sting struck gold. He did his best, however, unwittingly, to incriminate Sam Allardyce, the robust manager of Bolton Wanderers, famous for his shrewdly productive dealing in the foreign transfer market, not to mention his silly son, Craig, who chattered happily away about how his father had let him act as a proxy. Allardyce senior also says that he is suing; and you do ask yourself, given the success of so many of his transfers, such as Spain's Ivan Campo and Nigeria's Jay Jay Okocha, why he or any other manager would have to be bribed to take on such talent.

Peculiarly displeasing, however, were the episodes which show the ineffable Harrison touting a 15-year-old Middlesbrough junior called Nathan Porritt, a winger of seemingly high potential, in particular to Frank Arnesen, the former Danish international lured to Chelsea from Tottenham to be in charge of youth development. Harrison offered the boy to Chelsea and to Liverpool, mentioning the sum of �150,000. No wonder Boro are so fiercely up in arms. Which makes me revise my erstwhile view that one major argument for soccer agents was that they can protect the interests of the vulnerable young. We should not, I suppose, be surprised by the typically knee jerk, palliative, response of the League Managers Association, which has instantly and publicly dismissed the investigation. And certainly it did give ammunition to potential critics with its limp attempt to incriminate that king of the wheeler dealers, Harry Redknapp, now so successfully plying his trade at Portsmouth, with a half-baked attempt to show that he was "tapping up" the Blackburn Rovers player, Andy Todd. They never, in the vernacular, laid a glove on him and would have done better not to have shown that meaningless episode at all.

Mentioned here and there after the programme was the case of Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United, and his son Jason, formerly running the so-called Elite Agency, there being a plain parallel with the liaison between Sam Allardyce and his son. And here I must declare a special interest. Expressing my regret that the Irish racehorse millionaires Magnier and McManus, once Fergson's friends but later when he outrageously claimed breeding rights on a horse which they had let him run profitably for nothing, relations sourced. So much so that the Irishmen posed 99 questions to be answered by the Manchester United Club.

None of them alas ever was, since the huge debt ridden Glazer takeover enabled the two millonaires to sell him their shares at a colossal profit and happily retire from the fray. Yet, there was one question which I have long wanted to be answered and now I don't suppose it ever will be. It concerns Tim Howard, the USA international goalkeeper, who joined United in 2003, after a series of impressive performance in the Confederations Cup in France.

It was suddenly exposed that United had paid a vast sum of money to an obscure Italo-Swiss agent, allegedly for helping Howard get a work permit to play in England. At which my scepticism ran riot, for I had myself served for a couple of years on the appeals committee of the Department of Employment, which decided on appeals by foreign players initially refused a permit, because they hadn't played enough official games for their country. Howard, though, after his display in France, would clearly have been a shoo in. No agent could have helped him, not least because none could ever get near to the committee.

As for the money, it transpired that most of it had been transferred to an English agent in Monaco called Mike Morris and then to Jason Ferguson's Elite company. The whole case screamed aloud to be investigated, but it never has been. Bang to rights on the programme was a little-known agent called Charles Collymore, confirmed by Luton's excellent, upright Liverpudlian manager, Mike Newell, as the agent he had in mind when he previously announced there was corruption in the game. And the inquiry by ex-top copper Lord Stevens has still to publish (or conceal!) its results.