A fortnight ago, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson made some colourful comments about the role of football agents. Days later, his captain Gary Neville did something similar when he accused agents of “mollycoddling” players.
It wasn’t long before cynics laughed off Neville’s contribution as the latest effort by a perceived “teacher’s pet” to please his employer.’
Fergie’s assertion that some modern players are “fragile” and “cocooned” by agents, meanwhile, was deemed to be a passing observation on the changing nature of the game.
This week, however, it became apparent that the United pair had timed their comments to perfection as the world came to terms with an eye-catching FA Premier League fact sheet on payments made to agents.
As it has been doing for five years now, the Premier League published figures for the 12 months from October 1 last year to September 30 this year. In that period (which contained two transfer windows), clubs paid out 70m pounds (almost Rs 540 crore) to agents.
Manchester City (who spent around 170m pounds (almost Rs 1, 312 crore) on players at the prompting of owner Sheikh Mansour) led the way with an outlay of almost 13m (around Rs 100 crore), while Chelsea paid out 9.6m (around Rs 75 crore).
Liverpool (6.7m, around Rs 52 crore), Tottenham (6.1m, around Rs 48 crore), Wigan (5.5m, around Rs 43 crore) and Arsenal (4.8m, around Rs 37 crore) also kept the agents happy.
The Premier League also asked its clubs to publish their figures on their websites, but few were accompanied by explanations. Only Manchester City went into specifics. This policy of publishing clubs’ payments was aimed at promoting greater transparency in club’s financial dealings and grew out of concern over financial excesses.
Yet, the Premier League is still not required to answer questions on what exactly agents do to earn their money. The clubs are not required to break down their payments on a deal-by-deal basis, nor declare which agents were paid for which deals.
Indeed, the only transfer deal explained in any detail was that which took leftback Wayne Bridge from Chelsea to Manchester City.
Bizarrely, given that it appeared a straightforward case of a club happily selling a player to a club which wanted him, Chelsea made a 900,000 pound payment to agent Pini Zahavi.
So, what services would the agent have provided the player, or the clubs, in that deal? And what service do they provide that could not otherwise be handled by a solicitor or an accountant?
The most vociferous critics of agents and their earnings invariably argue that this money is “going out of the game”. They suggest that the money would be better spent on grass-roots development, or at least in a “trickle-down” effect to lower leagues.
However, it would be naive to think that payments to agents will do anything but increase as the multi-billion
pound Premier League bandwagon continues to barrel along.
Catch John Dykes on ESPN’s Football Focus every Tuesday and First Edition on Friday