LONDON — The Football Association’s bung-busters are in action again, this time investigating if an alleged £139,000 commission on goalkeeper Tim Howard’s £2.3 million summer move from the New York MetroStars contravened any transfer regulations.

Christopher Davies

Breath should not be held.

The F.A. also stressed that while it is investigating the matter, it is not an inquiry.

No, I don’t know the difference either.

While not suggesting there is anything illegal about the Howard deal, despite numerous attempts to find any wrongdoing in transfers or backhander payments to goodness knows who, only former Arsenal manager George Graham has so far been fingered for accepting a bung.

It could be that football is, in fact, as clean as a whistle and no dodgy payments are being made to anyone.

And the cow jumped over the moon . . .

United, which claims everything was above board, said it paid FIFA registered Swiss agent Gaetano Marotta for brokering Howard’s move to Old Trafford.

However, the Sunday Times reported last weekend that £139,000 was then paid by Marotta to a business partner of Jason Ferguson, son of United manager Sir Alex.

Marotta was allegedly invoiced by the Monaco-based World Football Agency, which has close links with Jason Ferguson and Elite Sports Group Ltd, and by paying Marotta, United effectively paid the £139,000 to Elite.

The problem seemed to be Howard’s work permit — any non-European Union player must have played 75 percent of his country’s internationals over the past three years to qualify, though this is open to appeal.

This was the case with Howard, whose initial application was rejected but successful after an appeal and the goalkeeper registered as an American in the Premier League.

How much work was involved in such a process is unknown, but if the cost was in excess of £100,000 the conclusion is that there are some good jobs about.

While there is nothing illegal about the son of a manager working as an agent, it leaves those concerned open to the raising of eyebrows and as a PLC, United must be above suspicion at all times with no conflict of interests.

When Jason Ferguson’s Elite agency received a six-figure sum for the transfer of Jaap Stam’s £16.4 million move from United to Lazio in August 2001, the issue was raised by the late Sir Roland Smith, then chairman of the club’s PLC board.

Sir Roland feared trouble with the Financial Services Authority, in case United was in danger of breaching the UK regulation rules regarding the day-to-day business practice of PLC’s.

It is alleged Elite has been involved in a number of Old Trafford deals, while the transfer of one prominent international recently was brokered by an agency in which the player and both the buying and selling managers had shares. Good news for all three shareholders.

Quite why a player has to pass through so many agents before a deal is completed is a question that only those involved could answer and, unsurprisingly, they prefer to keep as far in the background as possible.

Sir Roy Gardner, the chairman of Manchester United PLC, apparently wants details of exactly how the money was paid — some might say it is incredible he does not already know how his company’s money has been distributed.

What is not known, except by the Sunday Times, is how they came about the financial intricacies of Howard’s transfer in the first place.

They were obviously leaked by a well-placed source, yet such figures would have been available only to the power brokers of Manchester United.

Why would anyone want them made public?

There have been allegations that the Howard situation is a knock-on from Sir Alex Ferguson’s legal battle with major shareholder John Magnier about the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar’s ownership.

The pressure group Shareholders United claim they have evidence that Magnier arranged for a six-strong team to hijack the recent annual general meeting to ask potentially embarrassing questions about Ferguson in an effort to discredit the manager.

Company records revealed the questioners had bought their shares days before the meeting in batches of 100 or less — “they clearly stood out,” said United spokesman Paddy Harverson. “We were puzzled by what they were up to.”

Yet sources close to Magnier, an Irish racing tycoon, said it would not be in his long-term interest for sensitive information to be leaked ahead of the pending court case with Ferguson.

Expect the Manchester United saga to run and run during 2004.

I KNOW of a first-division club which bought a player from Central America whose transfer fee was £150,000 and the agents’ (yes, plural) fees were £400,000.

Goodbye Mr. 10 percent, hello Mr. 250 percent.

There are 232 licensed FIFA agents, who each have to lodge a bond of £50,000, in England — more than double the figure in France.

Presumably, each and every one of then makes enough money to stay in what is a very lucrative business.

It is estimated that last year, agents made £46 million from Premier League transfers.

Bernie Mandic, who engineered Harry Kewell’s move from Leeds to Liverpool, ensured his company was paid £2 million of the £5 million fee, the Australian being scornful of the “lambs to the slaughter” that were the Elland Road directors.

Interestingly, the Australian is not a licensed agent but works for a company owned by someone who is.

A transfer is like a multimillion pound takeover and professional advice is required, yet commissions of £2 million (even more in the cases of Rio Ferdinand and Seba Veron) seem disproportionate to the work involved.

Still, it seems to be the going rate and clubs are happy to pay the even happier agents.

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