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.


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.