Mike Newell has either been very brave or very foolish.
The Luton Town manager’s claim that he has been offered bungs — illegal payments — by agents for transfer deals and will “name names” brought the predictable Football Association inquiry and denial from the middlemen.
Newell could be responsible for one of the biggest controversies in English football history or end up with egg on his face, unable to substantiate his allegations.
It would be naive to think there are no backhanders in football — it would be equally naive to assume no policeman, city council official or many other employees in various walks of life do not line their pockets with illegal payments.
Yes, some managers have, and probably still do, benefit from a generous agent eager to facilitate a transfer of his client to a club. But proving it beyond reasonable doubt has so far proved nearly impossible, mainly because the people who could provide the indisputable evidence — the agents — are not in the turkeys-voting-for-Christmas club.
Newell, who also accused club officials of attempting to line his pockets, is adamant that he can put his evidence where his mouth is.
“I can back up everything I have said, and I can sleep well at night,” he said. “I have been offered sweeteners by agents and certain club officials to sell players from this club.
“I always say I am not interested and I never give it a minute’s thought. If I was open to that sort of thing, I might well have taken a sweetener. I have no problem substantiating what I have said and I am quite happy to meet the F.A.”
The guardians of the English game have been down this road before and discovered it was a cul-de-sac.
In 1993, the Premier League appointed a three-man “bungbuster” commission to look at illegal payments — Rick Parry, now chief executive of Liverpool, Reading manager Steve Coppell who was temporarily out of the game then, plus Robert Reid QC spent five years investigating clubs’ transfers, mainly those of foreign players and only Ronnie Fenton (assistant manager of Nottingham Forest) and Steve Burtenshaw (chief scout of Arsenal) were charged.
George Graham, fired by Arsenal and banned for a year when he pleaded guilty to accepting more than £400,000 from a Norwegian agent, was sunk by disclosures of an investigative journalist from Norway.
It brought the memorable remark from one manager: “We all like a drink, but George wanted the entire brewery.”
Just when the Premier League commission thought they were about to find something, the financial trail would disappear into an impenetrable maze of overseas accounts.
Chances are the F.A.’s compliance department will meet the same untraceable evidence, but chief executive Brian Barwick said: “These are very serious claims that Mike Newell has made. We welcome the fact that he has said that he is willing to provide names and details of people who have breached the rules. If he provides us with evidence, we will investigate fully.”
“It’s a major problem,” said Newell. “It’s been the scourge of the game in the last 10 or 15 years.”
Phil Smith of First Artists was one of a number of agents unhappy with Newell’s accusations and said the Luton manager needs to “put up or shut up — come out with it all and name names to the relevant authorities.”
Smith added: “We really need a proper investigation to flush it out — for as much as the industry has been cleaned up, we don’t feel the F.A. have policed it properly.
“If it is still going on we need to know who it is. He [Newell] cannot turn his back on it now. He needs to say who he has been approached by — are they English or foreign agents and what did they offer?”
Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore said they had failed to uncover a “hard shred of evidence” of illegal payoffs in his seven years in charge of the top English league.
“Mike has a duty to the game to tell us exactly what he knows and if there’s been any wrongdoing going on we will chase it down . . . we will deal with it appropriately,” said Scudamore.”
Quite how Newell has gathered his evidence is unknown.
If an agent was going to offer a manager a bung he would be unlikely to put it in writing so unless Newell had secretly recorded a conversation, proof that would be beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law, one wonders what the Luton manager will present to the F.A.’s compliance department.
Given the seriousness of Newell’s accusations, the thought occurs that the F.A. could even charge him with bringing the game into disrepute unless he puts his evidence where his mouth is because of the potential damage to the sport’s image.
League Managers’ Association chief executive John Barnwell admitted his surprise at Newell’s allegations of transfer bungs within the game.
“I have to say, it does surprise me that he says it is endemic in the game,” said Barnwell. “If it were, the number of dissatisfied managers and other employees of football clubs would surely have broken these stories years ago.
“I was surprised at Mike coming out and making these statements. He’s an intelligent boy, so, if Mike Newell has evidence of underhand, backhand deals on transfer fees through agents, then there are procedures which he should take — first of all to his own board, then the F.A. and the Football League, to let them deal with it. If he has hard evidence then that is the road he should go down.”
What is beyond doubt is that being an agent can be a very lucrative business.
When Manchester United signed Louis Saha from Fulham in January 2004, it paid the player’s agent Branko Stoic £250,000 for negotiating his client’s contract and paid Pini Zahavi, the Israeli “super-agent,” for work they did not initially define.
It transpired Zahavi was paid by United directly for operating as a middleman, negotiating on its behalf with Fulham’s chairman Mohamed Fayed, who initially refused to talk to United’s chief executive David Gill.
Zahavi made phone calls, opened the door to Fayed and enlisted the help of the British Home Stores retail magnate Philip Green, who flew Gill to Monaco in his private jet, where Gill agreed to pay Fayed £12.825 million.
Saha has since mainly been on the bench and plagued by injury, but Zahavi was paid £500,000 for his services.
When Alan Smith joined United from Leeds for £7 million in May 2004, his agent, Alex Black, was paid £750,000 for, United said, “acquisition of the player and negotiation of the contract.”
Black is unlikely to be in the red because he was also paid by Smith for negotiating his new deal, although United picked up the payment, and United also paid the agent, on top, a “success fee” when Smith signed that deal.
There is no suggestion any of the aforementioned agents have made any illegal payments.
According to Newell, some agents have and, unless he can help the F.A. to uncover the shady middlemen, the Luton manager will be known as the whistle-blower who could not. Who merely huffed and puffed but blew down no houses.