THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Tom Bower's new book looks into the financial irregularities and running of football. Here he tells WSC why these issues will sooner or later shatter the game

The publishers make play of the fact that you are the first non-sports journalist to write on this subject. Do you consider that football journalists are too reliant on clubs as sources for stories to be adequately dispassionate on business matters?
I don’t criticise them for that. I think football journalists write brilliantly. I came to this as an outsider who didn’t read the football pages before. Their problem is they need access to the players and so it’s very difficult for them to do what I’ve done; it just comes with the turf. Where the failure has been is with the business sections of the newspapers. It’s regarded as just sport whereas in fact it’s a huge industry.

What sort of reaction has the book had from journalists? Surprisingly little comment so far on the broadsheets...
Most have been very complimentary. Harry Harris, for ex­ample, in the Express, even thought it was serialised in the Mail and there’s a war between the two papers. Some papers ignored it, the Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph for instance and one wonders why, but they’ll have their reasons.

Has the increasing amount of money in the game changed the level of misconduct, or just increased the sums involved?
It’s always been on the fringe to some extent. The temptation has grown enormously because of the amounts of money, while the presence of agents has completely contaminated the bus­iness. Football is more corrupt than business in general, for several reasons. Firstly, lying is quite common in football, among everybody – the agents, the managers, the players, the lot – and that is not true in business. Secondly, conflicts of interest are absolutely forbidden in normal business and absolutely accepted in football. Thirdly, there is no effective regulator in football and what there is is a pathetic charade, so I think football is unique – it is effectively lawless.

A lot of fans find the whole issue of corruption irrelevant. If their team is winning they don’t mind. Why should they be concerned by the allegations in your book?

Because in the end, if every institution which is successful, whether it is the City of London or British industries, ignores the basic rules there is a collapse of performance eventually. Arsenal, for example, are doing sensationally at the moment but they lost £22 million last year. For a club who did the double to lose that amount of money doesn’t make sense. And that’s the problem, eventually the immorality suffocates the success.

Alongside the stories of misdealings at clubs, you tell how New Labour promised and then failed to deliver serious regulation of football. Is there any prospect of this changing?
No, I think that’s over. The football authorities, effectively club chairmen, sabotaged any hope of there being an independent regulator. It comes down to whether there is a desire for the common good and in football there wasn’t. The Premier League chairmen decided they didn’t want anyone to tell them what to do; they wanted to run their businesses the way they liked and that was the end of it. If you’re rich you invariably don’t want to be controlled, so you can buy what you want without limitations.  The whole issue is that the FA is not 20 clubs in the Prem­ier League but 43,000 clubs. For the greater good a lot of money should be trickling down to the clubs below who may be nurturing good players. Instead of that the money is going to agents and foreign clubs and players and in the end the system must implode – it cannot sustain a vibrant Premier League, let alone a vibrant sport as a whole if everything is done in the interests of just a tiny minority. That is the tragedy.

Is there any realistic change that will make a difference? Or do we just have to accept that football is irreformable?
There is no willingness for change, to have a strong chairman of the FA who would discipline and do the rest. That was the whole problem with Graham Bean, the one-man compliance unit. He got no support when he discovered something was going wrong. Nic Coward [now one of the FA’s joint acting chief executives] is as his surname suggests.

The Task Force went after problems that no one could disagree with – rights for disabled fans, kit rip-offs, racism – but did they duck the harder issue of investigating the bung culture?
No, I think the Task Force, although it started on the easy stuff like anti-racism, actually fought a bitter battle over the issue of a regulator. The reformers, those interested in an honest sport, lost and that was the end of it, there will be no second chance. In the end the game will suffer because the money will dry up and the foreign players will disappear and it will be a really shabby shadow of what it has been.

The likes of Atkinson, Venables and Redknapp have this reputation for wheeler-dealing that people find an admirable quality. The implication is that they are just lovable rogues...
People like that. That’s the comment of Tony Banks in the book: “I wouldn’t let Venables handle my pension but in the end it’s a sport.” That comment is a terrible indictment. It’s not just a sport, it’s much more. It is part of the religion of this country. But like everything else here, people always turn a blind eye if it suits them. That’s why the City of London has crashed and is all owned by foreigners, why there’s no coal industry or shipbuilding industry in Britain, because incompetence and corruption and stupidity have destroyed it. It’s unbelievable that no one stands up and says we’ve got to do something about football. No Members of Parliament have picked up the cause. There’s Richard Caborn, the Minister for Sport – and he’s done nothing.

Is there any justification for the level of payments to agents? Should it be illegal, rather than just against football’s rules, for an agent to be paid by more than one party in a transfer?
Footballers should have agents, just as authors or actors do, because they are young blokes who need to have their interests protected. What is totally wrong is that the agents should be paid by the clubs and that they should represent both the clubs and the players, and that the players themselves shouldn’t have a full disclosure of what the agents are earning in commissions. Also the club themselves are unable, and this is quite unique, to monitor the bungs that the agents are paying to the managers, but that is very often because the club chairmen in some instances aren’t interested, because it will undermine their reliance on the manager. There are conflicts of interest laws, that’s the whole story of the Deins (David Dein’s son Darren works for the agent Jerome Anderson and has been involved in Arsenal deals) or Nicky Eaden (who received a demand for money from Phil Smith after his new club, Birmingham City, had already paid the agent). It’s just they’re not enforced.

Your earlier work played a substantial part in Robert Maxwell’s downfall. Is financial wrongdoing in football today on a comparable scale to that which Maxwell perpetrated in his wider business career?
Maxwell was known to be a crook and the establishment turned a blind eye. I exposed him as a crook in his lifetime and he pursued me with lots of writs and when he died the truth came out and confirmed what I said. I went into football with a very open mind in the sense that I didn’t know really what I was going to find. A couple of sportswriters encouraged me and kept saying I’d find things. Going back to what was said about there not having been as much comment on the book as you might have anticipated, it was the same with Maxwell. The vested interests don’t like being told by an outsider like myself that their business isn’t savoury and the best way of dealing with bad news is to ignore it. I’m used to that. It happened to Richard Branson, too. I exposed him as a crook and people didn’t like the thought but he’s pretty much disappeared from view. I hope people will read Broken Dreams, take on board the real story and think, well, we’ve got to do something.

From WSC 194 April 2003. What was happening this month

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