Mark Brophy looks at the emerging trend of former player agents becoming directors of football at Premier League clubs
If a Blackburn or Newcastle fan were to feel dismay towards recent personnel changes at the heart of their club, it might not be the sackings of Sam Allardyce or Chris Hughton that were exercising them. Supporters might find the growing influence of men who previously were in the business of promoting players infinitely more worrying. Jerome Anderson, a prominent agent, has been advising Blackburn's new owners (see WSC 288) and Kia Joorabchian, best known here for his role in Carlos Tevez's career, has reportedly also begun to act as an advisor to Mike Ashley at Newcastle. Chelsea fans needn't be smug either: super-agent Pini Zahavi is a member of Roman Abramovich's inner circle.
It's a trend which justifies a certain amount of concern. The director of football role has traditionally been viewed in England as unnatural and puzzling. That was when the role was populated by football men, steeped in the game and dedicated to the long-term progression of their club towards success, using scouting networks and contacts built up over a lifetime to improve the staff. Now people who have built a career through being dedicated only to the bank balances of themselves and their clients are being placed in a position at clubs above the manager or head coach. Effectively they are in that director of football role, being consulted on everything from which manager to appoint, to what the club's transfer targets should be.
Joorabchian is neither an FA-licensed football agent or a lawyer and so is not allowed to be involved in player transfers under FA rules. Not only is he not allowed to represent players or clubs in a proposed transfer, he is also not allowed to introduce players to clubs, arrange transfers or even talk about the proposed deal to the protagonists. He does have a history of third-party ownership of players which is now also outlawed by the Premier League. Media Sports Investments (MSI), which was founded by Joorabchian, took control of Corinthians of Brazil in 2004. The club then proceeded to sign players who had been paid for and were owned by MSI.
Joorabchian might claim this strategy allows clubs to sign players they could not otherwise afford, and indeed Corinthians won a Brazilian national title this way, but by the time the arrangement collapsed they owned hardly any of their own playing squad and were relegated soon afterwards. Zahavi acted as a broker to MSI in this period. He became involved in third-party ownership with Javier Mascherano and, more recently, was reputed to have owned a portion of Ramires before his big-money move to Chelsea, a deal which must have been smoothed by Zahavi having the ear of Abramovich.
The motivation of clubs in seeking advice from people who have fundamental conflicts of interest in giving it can only be explained by assuming that the clubs in question are not only unworried by such a conflict, but positively welcome it. They wish to establish an arrangement with the advisor, gaining first refusal on the talent they either represent as agents or whose economic rights they own, despite FA regulations outlawing the practice of advisors acting for both player and club in a transfer.
This is an aim Newcastle, in particular, have pursued before. The loan signing of Nacho González in 2008 was purportedly as a favour to two South American agents, who would then look favourably on the club in future. Not only did this cost £1 million in wages for a player not expected to feature in the first team, they also felt it worth losing their manager, Kevin Keegan resigning in response. Quite a commitment to a scheme which has resulted in precisely zero signings.
The problem is that although gaining access to all these players without the need to build relationships with multiple representatives seems something of a coup superficially, the club is in fact restricting itself to a tiny fraction of those available, whether the deal is an exclusive one or not. If they wish to find a player who best fits the playing requirements and financial position of the club, they need their advisors to identify likely candidates. Unfortunately, if they need a left-back and the advisor has one on their books, he'll be the one they end up being advised to sign.
No one would argue that owners shouldn't seek advice if it's needed, but a fast fix like this is also a short-sighted one. If clubs won't help themselves, maybe it's time the FA began enforcing their own regulations.
From WSC 289 March 2011