Big Sam, the Football Bubble and the Rise and Rise of “Intermediaries.”

By in Niall Quinn's Route One

In the movie, The Big Short, a group of stock analysts made a lot of
money by betting against the bubble that was the American sub prime housing
market about ten years ago. If the same fellas are still around I
wouldn’t be surprised if they are watching the Premier League football bubble.

The game at the top end is definitely in a bubble, the incredible TV packages
and current wage demands tell us that.

The TV rights war will eventually reach a plateau though. TV companies can only go
so far in driving the rights payments of the Premier League through the roof.
When that happens is English football prepared for a slowdown? Are there wage
structures and strict ownership regulations and a sane transfer system in
place? Is the game corruption free?

The last week has brought the game in England to a crossroads. I’m not
sure it wanted to get to that crossroads but which direction it takes now
will be very interesting.

When Shakespeare said “that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”,
the people who run football weren’t paying attention. Last year it was
decided that agents (boo, hiss) would no longer exist. Football would
have ‘intermediaries’ instead.

Intermediaries. They sound like social workers. Good generous souls who bring
harmony to places where there was none. There would be no more of the
regulation that agents had to go through. Anybody who felt the calling
could be an intermediary.

You can go online and become an intermediary yourself if you are at a loose
end.

Just over a year after agents became intermediaries the FA finds itself
having to sack an England manager who had one match under his belt. It’s
a fine mess.

I know Sam Allardyce and his family a very long time and consider him a friend.
He is good company and a funny story teller. He likes to dominate a
conversation and he has a tendency to big himself up. I know a lot of agents
( or intermediaries) too and as a breed they have that same trait. If you need
a player who can defy gravity the agent will just happen to have Superman’s
nephew on his books. But you need him to play up to sixty games a year you say?
“no problem, his mother’s brother is Wolverine. He heals instantly this lad.”

And if Sam were in the conversation he would chip in that he’d had
Wolverine as a youngster at Bolton but he got rid of him because Wolverine
wouldn’t track back.

So, it’s not really Woodward and Bernstein stuff (the Washington Post journalists who broke the Watergate scndal and forced the resingation of President Nixon) to secretly film football
people and agents talking big over drinks but that’s a discussion for
journalists to have. I genuinely hope that conversation happens
and that the media step up their scrutiny of our game.

I think the FA were right to give Sam his cards. As a manager of the
national team he should have known better. Would a reprimand and an
apology not have done? I don’t think so and Sam, unfortunately, chose to
dilute his apology by blaming “entrapment’ for his misfortune.
There should have been nothing for anybody to entrap him with. It was
a conversation that should never have happened.

When I arrived in England years’ ago the thoughts of walking into George
Graham with an agent would have been a death wish. You went in and did
your business on your own. Clubs and their strong managers had the upper hand.

Funnily enough it was Jerome Anderson, the DJ and stadium announcer at
Highbury, who became one of the first big agents. Jerome decided to help
Charlie Nicholas out and ended up representing nine of the 1989 Arsenal
title team. He was the first agent to bring in international stars (he
brought Bergkamp and Overmars) and ended up becoming an early super agent.

(It is ironic that when Venky’s purchased Blackburn Rovers they entrusted
Jerome Anderson to advise them on the purchase and how to proceed when the
deal was done. One of the first acts was to sack Big Sam. Alex Ferguson
commented at the time that “Anderson couldn’t pick his nose!”

Years later agents are all over the house. My hope is that by having
taken the hard decision to move Sam on that the FA won’t just return to
business as usual. The FA can let the column inches fill themselves with
months of speculation about who the next England manager will be or they
can make some tough decisions.

One thing that the FA might have noticed about the secretly filmed
conversations is about how commonplace and relaxed those sort of
conversations are among football people.

The transfer system we have lends itself to circumvention of normal best
business practice in the first place.

It might have been better if we had evolved a system of trades and drafts like
American sports operate but football is a worldwide business stretching
across so many jurisdictions that no fundamental change is now going to be
possible. But we have to better police and regulate the system that we have.

There are so many things which mitigate against due diligence in our
transfer system. Deadline day is one of them. It is wonderful
entertainment but everybody knows that on deadline day there will be
madness in the air with managers desperate for a life jacket will cling to
anything.

And that’s the honest end of the business.

Third party ownership has been in the news this week. Third party
ownership is a form of modern day slavery with a well paid victim.
The fact that lots of other people (except perhaps the club who developed the
player) makes off with part of the fortune is one of the smaller problems.

I first came across third party ownership during a documentary I did
a few years’ ago and spoke to the chairman of Robinho’s
club, Santos in Brazil. Robinho had been sold to Milan for £19 million I
think it was, but the club had ended up with only £1.5 million of that money.

That has become almost standard practice in Brazil and Argentina now.
More recently it was third party ownership and attempts to conceal it that
cost the president of Barcelona his job after Neymar was purchased from, guess who?
Santos…

At a football club you have agents constantly hustling you to take
players. They have the best young player in Africa, Manchester United
want him but the agent will only let him go to you. The kid loves what you’re
doing at Sunderland. (Actually the kid thought he was going to Newcastle but hey,
any port in a perfect storm)

When I was chairman of Sunderland I got a call from an agent one evening as
the transfer deadline approached. “He’s a great player, give him an easy medical
and sign him. He won’t let you down. Cheers.” The poor player, he had flown from
Ghana and turned up at the gates of the football club ten minutes’ later.
I had to get security to prevent him and his irate translator from entering my
office. He went off and believe it or not signed for three years at another club
down south the next day. He didn’t work out. Some agent, though.

There are other problems apart from third party ownership – we imagine it’s
just shady businessmen who buy players but often it is the agents themselves.
We have the problem of tri-party representation where one agent acts for the
player, another for the buying club club and even one more for the selling club.
It’s raining intermediaries in football right now.

The FA and the Premier League need to do a couple of simple things.
Firstly agents are employed by players. For heaven’s sake the Players should
pay them. Not clubs. Second, that point should be re-inforced by introducing
two types of license. One for agents who want to work on the side of the street
representing players. Another license for firms who will consult and help
clubs with deals. These firms should charge no more than the hourly rate
of a good senior law firm. If an agent is caught acting improperly, the
company he works for needs to take the hit, not just replace him with a
surrogate while letting him operate as usual. Yes this happens.

Finally perhaps we should admit that the current transfer system is more
than a little mad and is anti-competitive in that we have created a brand
of players who are only affordable to a handful of clubs.

Down the road could we take a look at creating a price ceiling?

There are lots of other issues. Stockpiling players to lend out, a fair
play levy to distribute some funds from the biggest transfers to grassroots
and so on.

Will the FA step up? I have my doubts. They’ll be worrying too much
about whether the next England manager has to be English, squeaky clean or
both. And so will the media.

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Dundalk Could Be Just The Start For The League Of Ireland.

I was in Newcastle last Friday. I caught a taxi from the airport and as
we were driving along the driver had TalkSport playing on the radio. The
discussion was about Dundalk and their win on Thursday night. The taxi
driver was fascinated and quizzed me about them. I explained how big
Dundalk is and why they were playing in Tallaght instead of Oriel Park.
It was all amazing to him. As a Newcastle man his idea of a small
club was probably Middlesbrough.

The strange thing was that for the rest of the day I found myself in
conversation about Dundalk again and again. They seem to have reached
that tipping point where people in English football are becoming aware of
their story and the romance of it. It was a pleasure to be talking to
people about Irish football in that context.

That’s a great thing for the club and for the league of Ireland
generally. In Ireland we still suffer a bit from that complex where we
only rate things as worthwhile if we get validation about it from another
country.

Recognition is welcome but it also creates a problem. When the last
Irish squad was announced a lot of people were disappointed that Daryl
Horgan wasn’t included. I understand that but I wouldn’t be too worried
at this stage. Guys like Daryl Horgan or Sean Maguire are good players
and that sort of recognition will come when it comes. It’s not an insult
to the League of Ireland if they don’t get international calls ups right
away and we need to start believing in the league as something that is
intrinsically worthwhile in itself, not be constantly wondering how
Dundalk would do if they were in the English Championship? Or being
insulted if a player doesn’t get a cap. I don’t think Martin O’ Neill has
anything against the League and he seems positive about having players in
to train with the senior squad. Dundalk are still at an early stage of
this great European adventure, we should enjoy it for what it is.

More worrying is what might happen in January and beyond. Several
Dundalk players are bound to have caught the eye of English clubs by now.
If taxi drivers in Newcastle are asking questions about them you can be
sure scouts are making reports. What happens if three or four players
are whisked away and Stephen Kenny goes too?

You couldn’t begrudge any of the lads that opportunity. And in it’s own
way if it happened that would be the validation of the League that a lot of
people crave. The possibility underlines the potential of the League
though and what needs to be done. Hopefully other clubs can step up and
compete with Dundalk and match the standards that have been set.

When we produce a broad quality of exciting football and can take the hit
of players going to England and wish them well and not feel that the League
is smaller without them we will be close to fulfilling the league’s
potential and winning the argument for domestic football to be considered
an intrinsically good thing in itself.