Illegal payments are no laughing matter

"Bung" is a comedy word, close to bungling, an activity that generates derision, not to be taken too seriously. Bungs, as the Premier League inquiry established, are passed over in motorway service stations or transport cafes in plastic carrier bags or even, in one case, on an Icelandic trawler. It is a pity that ‘bung’ has become the standard shorthand phrase for corrupt transfer dealings in football because it trivialises an activity that can often involve huge sums of money changing hands.

When managers and officials take backhanders from players’ agents and ‘consultants’ they are stealing, quite knowingly, from their own clubs and from the supporters who put money into those clubs in the first place. ‘Bungs’ belongs in a comedy sketch: this is fraud.

The FA made a big show of taking the matter seriously when they instigated their investigations four years ago. Yet the FA committee’s findings are to result in only three men – Brian Clough, Ronnie Fenton and Steve Burtenshaw – being charged with misconduct. “This is the end of the matter so far as the Premier League is concerned,” said a spokesman.

What a neat little package it is. The worst the misconduct charge can lead to is a life ban for Brian Clough, who has not been involved in football for over four years and who, even if he wanted to return, would appear to be incapable of holding down a job again anyway. But if the outpouring of sympathy for Clough in the newspapers is anything to go by (he was “an icon who has given more to our football than he could ever have taken out” according to Jeff Powell in the Daily Mail), the FA will make a big show of letting him off in view of his service to the game, thereby appearing to be lenient and strict at the same time and in fact being simply weak.

We are supposed to believe that ‘bung culture’ begins and ends with Rune Hauge’s fiddles with Steve Burtenshaw and George Graham at Arsenal (George is in the clear because he gave the money back, and, bless him, he still can’t understand what the fuss was about) and one man wielding more power than was good for him at Nottingham Forest.

Certainly Clough was unusual in the amount of power he held. These days managers at the top level at least defer to club secretaries or financial managers when it comes to talking transfer terms and arranging contracts. But lower down the League, at clubs where the backroom staff only take up a handful of places in the pre-season team photo, managers still have large sums of money placed in their trust. A cursory glance at a typical week’s comings and goings around the League would show that large numbers of players, especially foreigners, seem to be getting brought in and then shipped out with indecent haste at present. Perhaps it is simply that clubs are employing managers who regularly exercise bad judgment in buying players. But clearly there has never been a better time to be an agent.

Among other names notable by their absence when the misconduct charges were announced was Terry Venables, the man whose comment that Clough “liked a bung”, revealed during his court case with Alan Sugar, started the whole thing off. Venables agreed to pay Clough £50,000 to smooth the transfer of Teddy Sheringham from Forest to Spurs but the inquiry concluded that he didn’t stand to benefit directly from the payment. But surely it is obvious that he would benefit. He held a 20 per cent stake in Tottenham at the time that the club bought an international striker whose presence, they must have assumed, would help them win trophies. The more success Spurs had, the more Venables’ stake in the club would be worth.

But Venables, as has been proved time and again, leads a charmed life, helped still by the fact that he was selected as England manager by the football authorities now so keen to close the book on bungs. The more trouble Venables gets into, the more doubt is cast on the judgment of the people who appointed him to replace Graham Taylor, and we can’t have that.

Football seems to be forever investigating scandals and dropping clues that certain illegal practices are endemic. Swindon’s demotion for illegal payments to players in 1990 and Spurs’ 12 point deduction for financial irregularities at the start of 1994-95 were both said by pundits at the time to have been a tip of the iceberg, tricks that other clubs had got away with previously. And fires are being put out all the time often before some observers have even noticed the smoke – the Sir John Smith enquiry into football finances, covered elsewhere in this issue declared that no, players don’t actually bet on the outcome of matches or the times of the first throw in, but it needed to be made clear that such activities would not be tolerated just in case they were thinking about it.

Football is keen as never before to show its public that it is doing something to prevent illegal practices while stressing that shady goings on have involved relatively few people and, most importantly of all, that they are in the past. So a figure from the past must carry the can. Brian Clough will get a public rebuke and private sympathy and it will be a while before we discover whether any lessons were learned.

From WSC 133 March 1998. What was happening this month

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