Soccer squalor


WITH the publication of Tom Bower's Broken Dreams: Vanity, Greed and the Souring of English Football, a foul stench hangs over the English game. Not that most of us football journalists weren't aware of the pernicious situation already. It's just that Bower, a famous investigative journalist who usually works in the fields of politics and commerce, has done some admirable research and brought into the harsh light of day things, which had been suspected or even known.

How, for example, can Peter Ridsdale, the beleaguered Chairman of Leeds United explain that colossal payment to Rune Hauge? And what was he and several other English clubs doing, having any kind of dealings with that notorious Norwegian operator at all? For Hauge, you may remember, was the central figure in that deplorable pay off over various transfers to George Graham when manager of Arsenal. Hauge was so grateful to George that he creamed �400,000 off his dubious profits and paid it to him.

Unfortunately for George the dirt hit the fan, he was found guilty by the Football Association, and suspended from soccer for a year. He howled and protested against the injustice of it all, but in my opinion a five-year ban would have been a lot more appropriate not least, in the words of Voltaire, because it might "encourage the others." Those numerous others, that is to say, with their snouts in the trough.

For the most horrifying and worrying feature of the whole nasty business is the collusion between agents and managers. Ridsdale of course is a director, and has to explain why, when Leeds United bought Rio Ferdinand from West Ham United for �17 million, Hauge, first promised by Ridsdale a 5% cut, was in fact given one of 10%. This, mind you, after he had seemed largely peripheral to the deal.

Years ago, when agents were eventually allowed by the Football Association officially to act for players, I didn't think it was a bad idea. The reason being that young players, often naive and uneducated, needed some kind of protection from the clubs, which employed them. I still think this argument is valid but alas, it has gone far, far beyond that. Agents proliferate, agents manipulate. And far too often they are far too close to managers, so that time and again you wonder where the money went and just how much of a published fee was in fact bumped up by manager and agent between them, so that they could divide the excess over what was actually paid.

How much can be done about it? As things stand, pitifully little. One of the most active and sometimes controversial agents is Dennis Roach, a former carpet salesman and amateur centre-half for Barnet, who pops up all over the place in Bower's book, often somehow materialising in deals which he has not initiated, to the exclusion of agents who did. Which brings us, in passing, to another sore point. The habit of so many agents, often those among the leaders, who put themselves forward in transfer deals when in fact they have no contractual relationship at all with the players involved. Alas, it isn't a criminal offence though perhaps, in an ideal world, it should be.

Back to Roach. When the Football Association's investigative officer, Graham Bean, wanted to proceed against him, it was only for the FA to discover that there was nothing they could do. They could only pass the matter on to FIFA, that body which itself has been redolent of backhanders and dubious schemes. Needless to say nothing has happened and one doubts whether it ever will. Time and again you find agents quite illicitly acting for both parties, the buying and the selling clubs, or the buying club and the player. In this respect, Bower impugns both Roach and Jon Smith of the highly active First Artist group; agents who are embattled rivals.

Bower tells a revealing tale of Tottenham's negotiations with Red Star Belgrade to acquire the Yugoslav international defender, Goran Bunjevcevic. Initially it was believed by Spurs that the Yugoslav was available on a free transfer but they were then told by Roach that in fact a transfer fee of �1.4 million was invoked, raising speculation that a back date contract might be involved. When Goran came to London in May 2001 to clinch the deal, he was accompanied by a Red Star official and by a solicitor, Peter Baines, who had long acted for Roach.

Every now and then Baines left the room to make a phone call. Spurs' Secretary John Alexander, suspicious, eventually checked Roach's number and found that when Baines was out of the room making a call, it was engaged. When he came back it was free again.

Brian Clough, in those high old times when he was manager of Nottingham Forest, twice winning the European Cup, was well known, in the words of Terry Venables — himself suspended for seven years as a company director — to "like a bung." Indeed, Bower tells the astounding tale of how Alfie Healand (still ready to sue Roy Keane for his crippling injury) joined Forest from the Norwegian club, Bryne. They wanted �150,000. Enter the ineffable Rune Hauge. He told Clough the fee was �250,000. Clough then allegedly told the Forest chairman that the fee was �350,000 so there were �200,000 to play with. Stranger then fiction: �45,000 in cash was delivered by Norwegian trawler to the Yorkshire port of Hull; where it was picked up by Ronnie Fenton, an assistant Forest coach.

Hauge was for a while suspended by UEFA, but he still seemed to be pulling strings in the background and now he is fully active again, quite shamelessly used by English clubs who clearly know all about him.

The name of another agent, Paul Stretford, crops up time and time again, often in tandem with that of certain managers. We've still to hear the whole story of the two colossally expensive strikers John Gregory, now at Derby, bought for Aston Willa; �9 million plus for the Colombian Juan Pablo Angel and over �6 million for Bosko Balaban of Dynamo Zagreb, who scarcely kicked a ball before being loaded back again to Dynamo.

Then there's Harry Redknapp, West Ham's Cockney ex-manager, allegedly paid �300,000 by the club for not buying players, telling them not to sell Rio Ferdinand, then strangely changing his mind, largely buying duds with the transfer money.