As a survey reveals the extraordinary sums the game has paid some people for doing very little, Barney Ronay hopes one man can be persuaded to put a little back

As Woody Allen once said, money is better than pov­erty, if only for financial reasons. English foot­ball currently has both in equal measures: the League is rife with talk of exactly how many clubs are toting around life-threatening debts; meanwhile, the Sunday Times Pay List 2003, published last month, reveals that, of the 500 best-paid individuals in the United King­dom, 56 made their money from football, 44 of them players.

The top football earner, quite frankly destroying the field in this one, is David Beckham, with total earnings of £20.5 million, £5m up on the previous year. The vast majority of his income may be derived from commercial deals with sponsors, but ace face Beckham is still the biggest earner in British sport, ahead of second-placed Lennox Lewis. Not that money is very fussy about these things: Beckham’s nearest football challenger is Ken Bates, a man currently showing no sings of be­coming a global style icon, or of finding himself name-checked on the new Jay-Z album (“I kick game like David Beckham,” apparently). Bates has, however, sold the majority of his stake in Chelsea to Roman Abram­ovich, earning £17.5m in the process.

The usual suspects make up the next rank of last year’s high earners, among them Michael Owen, Roy Keane and Juan Verón, all of whom were paid what now seem like fairly unremarkable fortunes, given their status as global stars in a global game. Manchester United are most heavily represented, with 12 including Beckham and 13 including their manager. No surprise there, given that United boast the largest turnover of any club in the world. In terms of pay, however, Chelsea look set to overhaul them. The List lists the Blues as paying a total of £43m to 11 players, excluding recent signings Hernán Crespo and Claude Makelele, not to mention the January hordes set to storm their way down the King’s Road once the  transfer window opens.

There may be no repeat of last year’s more bewildering entries – among them Benito Carbone and Fabrizio Ravanelli – but certain names still stand out. Everybody’s favourite modern footballing absurdity, Winston Bogarde, is present as expected. Despite not starting a Premiership game for almost three years at Chelsea, the Dutchman still earned another £2.1m last year. Bogarde may have his fans in this respect – but how about Duncan Ferguson? Everton paid Ferguson £1.75m last year. He used to play football, you know. Also stretching credibility are Dwight Yorke (£2.5m), Emmanuel Petit (£2m) and the wretched Robbie Fow­ler, one-time golden boy and friend to the striking docker, who last year earned £4.5m and, according to newspaper reports, currently owns more than 80 houses as part of his investment portfolio.

Leeds United’s yearly losses of £50m have been described as a “black hole”, but the List throws some light on this particular mystery. David O’Leary’s earn­ings of £3.95m last year were made up mostly (£ 3.7m) of compensation payments after his sacking in June 2002, while Terry Venables’ £2m Leeds pay-off helped him to number 20 on the List. Peter Reid doesn’t make it this year, but will surely be one to watch in 2004. Incidentally, anybody wondering where the next candidate for financial meltdown might come from may find a few clues in the List: Manchester City (you heard it here first) have four players earning a total of £12.5m a year, David Seaman’s £1.75m pay packet perhaps explaining his heroic refusal to throw in the towel after the travails of the World Cup.

As ever the List is well stocked with administrators (Peter Kenyon, Douglas Hall and Trevor Birch all ap­pear) and even the odd manager, among them that nice Mr Eriksson who picks a football team every few months and gives a couple of interviews. The real stand-out, however, is surely number 44, described as “Bernie Mandic (Liverpool)”. Mandic, the only agent on the List, earned £2m from the transfer of Harry Kewell, ample reward for making a few phone calls and telling his man which dotted line to sign on.

Notts County, one of the League’s oldest clubs, face extinction if they fail to raise a similar amount within the next few months. For football this is the most moronic of the paradoxes the List throws up. Agents aren’t very popular and perhaps rightly so. In time, as was once the case, they may find their footballing  activities severely curtailed. So go on, Bernie: put your hand in your pocket, ask County to name a stand after you, and give us all something to cheer about.

From WSC 203 January 2004. What was happening this month

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