Football agents enjoy little in the way of popularity and much in the way of blame. But Athole Still, a man who can claim to be responsible for the appointment of one of his clients as the current England coach, believes his profession is a must in modern football and wants to clean up its image
Do footballers need agents?
Frankly, football is now part of the entertainment business. In the entertainment business worldwide, agents have been established for 150 years or so. So I would say everyone in football who has a desire to have a long-term career must have an agent and it must be one who is fully involved in football, who knows what’s going on. Some use a lawyer instead. A lawyer may do the contracts side perfectly well, but there is infinitely more to being a good agent than doing contracts. It’s much more important now in relation to things like the Bosman rule. At the start of this season, for instance, there were something like 530 players out of work: it’s now a bit of a dogfight, unless you’re a star. But less than five per cent of footballers are what you could call real stars. The vast majority of players need somebody with their ear to the ground who knows what’s going on.
From your earliest involvement, how surprised were you by the way football business was conducted?
Yes, football can be a funny business and I don’t mean funny as in humorous. That’s why I say you could have the best lawyer in the world, the best negotiator contractually in the world, but he would be next to useless in a football situation. Football has very often relied on close associations between former players and existing managers or managers and people they know. These people are the necessary conduit to getting into certain areas.
Have other agents inserted themselves into your deals?
Every agent has been in that situation. I won’t name the player – though it is a matter of record because I made an official complaint – but he was coming from a club in Greece. I went to see the sporting director of the club, knew they wanted to sell. I had an irrefutable signed contract to sell that player on behalf of that club. I put the player to a club I knew was interested, then there was silence. The next thing I know, I can’t contact the director, nor the player, and the purchasing club is dancing around and has something to hide. Then I hear the player is in England and that he’s signed a contract. Now I had spoken to the club about him, had sent them a copy of my exclusive mandate, yet they still went and did it with another agent. So, I sued, took the case to FIFA. It was settled in my favour, 100 per cent. But what did I get? The club got fined, I think it was 50,000 Swiss francs [£23,000], and I got nothing. I was on a reasonable commission for selling the player, something like five per cent and certainly not more than that. The player was shall we say a £3 million player, in that bracket anyway. So I lost a substantial commission but, technically, won the case. Totally ridiculous.
Would an outside regulator stop such incidents happening?
In football the important thing is to have enforced transparency in deals that are going on, over transfers and players’ salaries and so on. We’re moving towards that – in transfers clubs have to put in writing which agents are involved and though I don’t think at this stage they have to say exactly what commissions were involved I would be perfectly happy if that were the case. I’ve never taken a commission I wouldn’t be happy to see made public if it needed to be to prove transparent dealings.
Are we wrong to be outraged by revelations regarding business practices in football? Do people expect too much from football?
Football is a big business and you’re not being a purist to expect that it should be run in a correct, honest way, in a manner that indicates integrity. On too many occasions that seems not to be the case. The phrase has been used for a very long time in relation to football that too often it is “the economics of the madhouse”. Leeds United, for one, spending far too much money on players, paying far too much on salaries. And virtually without exception, who gets blamed? I’m not going to say that there are not agents who should be blamed, but the fact is that it’s far too easy to blame agents across the board. I’d ask the question, who agrees to pay the money? If somebody comes to you with a deal which is not a reasonable deal for your club, then you tell them where to go. If more chairmen and chief executives had done that, then football in certain areas wouldn’t be in the state it’s in.
Do managers tell players they won’t sign them unless they switch to a particular agent?
I can’t think of that happening to me. I’ve certainly heard of it. But all these cases are rumour. One can be 99.9 per cent sure it’s happened, maybe the player will say it to you, but unless you were there when the conversation took place, it’s hearsay – like so many dealings which have come into question in the football business, which look like shady dealings. Unless you have documentary evidence. That’s the big problem, the lack of transparency.
Are chairmen aware of such things but turn a blind eye until things go wrong for the team, then the manager gets the blame?
Clearly, in any business, if things are going well there is a temptation for the boss to accept practices he might not otherwise accept. And if things are going badly that’s when, as they say, the shit hits the fan. If you’ve lost fairly, you accept it, that’s what life is like. It’s when you lose when you know cheating has taken place that you get upset. You lose face because you didn’t do the deal, you lose commission and you potentially lose a relationship. You can be working 100 per cent ethically, by the book, and get screwed. That is the worst element of being in football. I did complain to one chairman about a particular transfer I was heavily involved with, had initiated and so on, and then it went in the other direction. I went to the chairman and said: “Look, you’ve got to know about this, it’s not right.” And he said: “Athole, the deal stinks.” His exact words. But the deal still went though, although suffice to say there was a sting in the tale a while later.
Should managers and players be allowed to invest in agencies?
It’s a clear conflict of interest. I’ve said this face to face to chairmen who are good friends. I said it recently to the chairman of a major club and he agreed, and I know he’s a major shareholder in an agency, not that it’s hidden. It’s particularly a conflict in view of what’s happened in the last year and a half because some major agencies have seen their shares decimated. Think of this: here is somebody in an important position, a chairman or manager. He’s invested £100,000 in a particular agency and his shares are now worth £10,000. What’s the obvious motivation for him if he’s buying players? He wants the company in which he has an investment to be profitable. I’m not going to say for one moment I know of examples of chairmen and managers who have specifically done that. But there is a clear conflict.
Agents’ fees in relation to a transfer are often paid by the club rather the player they’re representing. Isn’t this wrong?
Nowadays most agents do work on a percentage, as in showbusiness, as I do for other sportsmen or the opera singers I represent. I took counsel’s advice a long time ago. FIFA say if I’m representing a player who is being transferred and I’m doing the negotiations for that player and I’m paid by the club, then there is a conflict of interest. My duty of care to the player has been undermined. But that is only true if you as a club are paying me a fixed fee. Not true if I’m being paid a percentage of the deal: the more I get for my player, the more I get for me and that is the basis for all negotiations, that we’re both benefiting. So, no conflict in spite of the fact FIFA still say officially you shouldn’t do that.
An agent can represent a player, a quite straightforward agent-client relationship. But an agent can also work for a club. I have been retained by clubs to sell players for them, particularly foreign clubs selling to the British market. I will be given a mandate for a specific period, have exclusivity to sell that player and so on. That’s a perfectly reasonable function for an agent.
Were you approached by the Football Association over the appointment of Sven-Göran Eriksson or did you go to them?
This may sound presumptuous, but I believe Sven would not be England manager if it hadn’t been for my initial contact to David Dein and Adam Crozier. The first contact was made when I was at the England-Germany game. Immediately after the game I heard Keegan had resigned and rang Sven to tell him and said, half joking to be blunt: “How would you fancy the England job?” He said to me: “There’s only two jobs I couldn’t refuse if I was offered them – Brazil and England.” And we had a laugh about it, but that was the initial conversation. But I started thinking and looked around the English candidates. No disrespect to any of them, but I like to think I know politically what’s going on and could see objections to all of them from within the FA. And it was then that I said to myself, they just might take a foreigner, and if they do why not Sven? I felt that taking a coach from say Italy or France, a big powerful football nation that’s a rival to England, might be seen as a problem, but Sven being Swedish, there might be a sort of neutral feeling about him.
Were you involved when he agreed to join Blackburn in 1997, then didn’t?
I’ve known him for 17 years but, with his other club jobs, in Italy and Portugal, he had his own agent. But I did the Blackburn deal, approaching them in the first instance. He had absolutely agreed to go there. That situation has been blurred and some of it is still confidential. All I would say is this: though a contract was in place, it is significant Blackburn made no compensation claim. So in that sense it was an amicable parting.
A lot was made of Eriksson’s secret meeting with Roman Abramovich. Do you feel parts of the media are out to get Eriksson and so make more of the Chelsea story than is fair?
That kind of agenda on the part of some sections of the press has largely disappeared because Sven has proved his commitment. You look at his record and it will not be denied. You’ll always get sniping, of course, and there are a couple of areas in the press where it’s not even sniping, it’s howitzers. But people are allowed their opinion and that will never change. Football is a rumour business, every day there are different rumours. As far as the Abramovich connections are concerned, there is no arguing with the fact that Sven was photographed going to a meeting. But what is also a fact is that was not, by a long shot, the first contact. I can say categorically there was no question of negotiations for Sven to go to Chelsea. Generally speaking, there have been things being written about Sven that have been untrue and unfair. I’m not even going to specify what they were. The rest, the sniping and the constant speculation about his private life, that’s just bloody annoying.
And there were links to Manchester United, too...
As I said publicly at the time, Sven and I have a very close relationship and I like to think the years prove it. There is no way he would do anything without my being involved in the negotiations. As I said, at no time did I speak with anybody at Manchester United or with any third party purporting to represent United about Sven going there and that’s exactly the same with Chelsea.
So you think Sven will be England manager in 2006?
He has a contract until then and I have no reason to believe that he’s not going to go to the 2006 World Cup. Because one of the things about Sven’s record – and this is something nobody says – he has never left a job without any trophy success. Sure, the England job is a bit different to the others, but every place he has been he has won something and he’s aware of that.
From WSC 204 February 2004. What was happening this month