Though considered a relatively recent phenomenon, Matthew Taylor throws light upon the role agents have played in football through the years

Alf Common didn’t make much money when he moved from Sunderland to Middlesbrough as the first £1,000 footballer in 1905. In fact, it is not clear that he ­ben­efit­ed at all. The Teesside club acquired a powerful ­cen­tre-forward who helped to keep them in the First Division and the Wearsiders received a hefty cheque in return. Restricted by the maximum wage law, all Common officially made out of the transaction was his £10 signing-on fee. Things would have been different, one suspects, if he had had an agent.

We are sometimes led to believe that footballers’ agents are a strictly modern phenomenon, a product of the game’s increasing subservience to matters of business and finance. But their presence is no recent development. Agents emerged as a feature of British football in the decades immed­iately foll­owing the legalisation of pro­fessionalism in 1885. Initially, they were small-time entrepreneurs ex­p­loit­­ing the lack of organisation in early professional clubs, who had yet to est­ablish independent recruiting and scouting net­works.

These agents were involved in the basic service of providing clubs with players. JP Campbell of Liverpool boasted a string of clients in March 1891 including five “well-known League and Association men”, while his offer of “a few very good moderate men, suitable for small and second class clubs” ob­viously catered for the lower end of the market. Explicitly targeting club management, one of Campbell’s advertisements in Athletic News concluded: “Secretaries, now’s your time to introduce new blood, drop out the weeds and strike in your teams for next year. You will find it both cheap and safe to engage your men through me. My agent in Scotland is hard at work and I expect some tip-top men from him next week.”

The use of agents declined in the early years of this century as clubs began to take responsibility for their own recruitment. The FA’s mor­al disapproval was also a factor. The governing body set about banning agencies and individuals who attempted to make money as the go-betweens of clubs and players. But although their operation was illegal, there was evi­dent­ly still a demand for the ag­ents’ ser­vices. The minute books of the FA show that clubs were regularly warned not to deal with notorious agents. Some proved difficult to root out. HJF Sims, for example, a West Ham player, was sus­pended in 1904 for acting as an agent, but six years later was discovered operating under an assumed name in East Ham.

Despite their bad reputation, agents were important figures in the development of the game. They performed an invaluable role in the growth of the international transfer market. Many of the British players who moved to the American professional league in the 1920s and the French league in the 1930s dealt with intermediaries rather than the clubs themselves.

Perhaps this was more easily acc­epted because few of these “agents” came from outside the football world. Players themselves would often act as middle men in negotiations. Charlie Mitten certainly attempted to per­suade other British stars to join him in Bogotà at the beginning of the 1950s and the Lincoln City player Jock Dodds was banned by the Foot­ball League for acting as a British-based agent for another Colombian club. Gigi Peronace was similarly in­strumental as an agent for Italian clubs in the transfer of numerous British players after the Second World War.

However, these were not agents as we would recognise them today. Crucially, they represented clubs rather than players. Until recently, footballers have not had anybody to advise them professionally in transfer deals or contract negotiations. Indeed, the very idea of a player’s agent called into question the fundamental power of club management over transfers.

The movement of a footballer from one club to another has never been a simple matter. Outsiders (not to mention many insiders) have always been perplexed by a sport whose regulations require an employer to agree to any of its employees leaving and entitles them to a monetary fee in recompense. From its introduction in the 1890s, a club’s right to retain a player or receive a fee for transferring his services was justified on the basis that teams were thus equally balanced. No club, it was thought, would be able to monopolise the best talent.

But, above all, the retain-and-transfer system, as it became known, was about the power of a club to con­trol its workforce. Players rarely had any say in whether they stayed or went. Unlike other workers, they were not able to change employers at will. A retained professional was the property of his club and re­mained so whether he was off­ered a contract or not. Sim­ilarly, though he could re­fuse to go, in reality a player had little choice if his club decided to sell him. Re­fusing a transfer could lead to months without pay, or even be­ing forced out of the game entirely.

Critics of the system regarded it as little more than a form of slavery, but few were prepared to challenge it openly. Those that did were invariably forced to back down. In 1931 the Scottish international Alex James conducted a one-man strike by refusing to re-sign for Arsenal. Almost 20 years later, Middlesbrough’s rejection of Wilf Mannion’s transfer request famously led to an eight-month stand-off between player and club. Mannion finally returned but was never properly for­given for standing up to the authorities.

In Nick Varley’s re­cent biography, Mannion admitted that an adviser or an agent would have helped his cause. “You needed an ag­ent to do your work really, you shouldn’t be on your own because they [the club] would take advantage.” Alf Common might well have made a similar comment.

Now that footballers are regarded as professionals rather than workers and the game has become part of the entertainment industry, the increasing significance of the agent should not really surprise anyone. Rather than bemoaning their influence, clubs and administrators should perhaps recognise the agent as a symbol of how far the labour relations of football have progressed since the last century.

From WSC 153 November 1999. What was happening this month

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