It was my agent’s idea

Though far from ever-present, agents have been around longer than you might think. John Harding  charts their changing role back to the days when they built whole teams

The term “football agent” first entered the language in the 1890s, as the professional game began to expand. The main purpose of the agent was to place players with clubs. For a time, they did good business: in 1893, Middlesbrough Ironopolis had its playing strength built up from scratch in about three days by one unnamed agent. But clubs soon became suspicious of the ties developing between players and “outsiders”. Control was all-important and, once the maximum wage was instituted in 1900, along with the contractual straitjacket called the retain-and-transfer system, agents faded away. The scout was soon providing clubs with as many players as they needed for a fraction of the cost.

For the next 50 years or so, players’ earnings would be controlled to the penny. When agents did appear, it was always from abroad. In the 1920s, North American soccer clubs employed them to lure away players, such as Scotland’s Alex Jackson, as did certain French clubs in the 1930s.

Between the wars, little money could be made via endorsements, but that changed soon after the Second World War. Denis Compton ap­proached journalist Reg Hayter in 1949 for help in organising his chaotic postbag. When Hayter discovered lucrative newspaper offers Compton had failed to spot, he introduced Arsenal’s glamour boy to Bagenal Harvey, who became Britain’s first sportsman’s agent, setting up the famous deal in which Compton slicked down his hair and became forever identified with Brylcreem.

The transfer of top British players to Italy in the Fifties and Sixties saw agents become ever more closely embroiled in player/club negotiations. John Charles’ move to Juventus in 1957 was notable for the intervention of Teddy Sommerfield, whose regular clients included TV celebrities such as Eamonn Andrews. It was the first time a British player had employed an agent to hammer out a transfer deal, but Charles was moving abroad. The involvement of agents in domestic  transfers and wage deals was still a long way off.

England’s 1966 World Cup stars Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst, for instance, shunned offers to join Mark McCormack’s international organisation, preferring instead the services of a loyal West Ham club servant, Jack Turner, whose principal expertise was buying and selling houses. Although Turner formed Bobby Moore Ltd with himself as a director, he later admitted: “Moore should have got away from me and been handled by someone like McCormack.” Hurst was frightened off by the American’s 20 per cent fee.

George Best, meanwhile, employed Denis Law’s agent, Ken Stanley, who worked from a couple of rooms in an office in Huddersfield. Stanley had originally run a table tennis hall in Burnley before joining the sportswear firm Mitre. Although Best claimed to be happy with Stanley, one senses that ads for Irish sausages and modelling assignments for the Great Universal Stories catalogue were hardly appropriate for the game’s first international superstar.

By the late 1970s, with firms looking increasingly at global markets, players such as Trevor Francis, Britain’s first £1 million player, were marketable be­yond these shores, giving agents such as Francis’s Dennis Roach a deal more to exploit. Roach explained: “The tag of being the first £1m player opened up avenues not previously available to footballers.”

The next couple of decades saw a gradual loosening of the tight contractual grip clubs exercised, climaxing in the Bosman ruling of 1995, which saw complete freedom for players once their contracts expired. Now clubs had to deal face to face with players’ representatives, intent on negotiating the best possible contracts for their clients as well as for themselves.

British agents came into the business from many directions. There was Hayter, a sports journalist; Roach, at one time the most powerful and well con­nected agent in Europe, got into the business after meeting Johan Cruyff on a family seaside holiday; Eric Hall crossed over from showbiz; and Barry Silkman, one of the busiest of a more recent generation, was a player with Crystal Palace and Manchester City.

In 1989, as a response to complaints about agents’ unscrupulous ways and lack of accountability, FIFA proposed a code of conduct, while the Professional Footballers’ Association offered a service for players at a fraction of the cost agents charged. (Nigel Martyn, the first £1m goalkeeper, paid just £200 to arrange his move from Bristol Rovers to Crystal Palace.)

Soon operators such as Jon Holmes claimed they were no longer interested in just hawking their men around for the highest price. “I wanted to follow [Mark] McCormack and be a manager and exploiter of talent, not some middleman trying to broker transfers and chivvy a few quid. The development of the client is what we’re interested in. That’s where you maximise earning potential, not through moves.”

The influence of the agent is, perhaps, waning. Top legal firms now pick up the biggest deals, due to the increasingly complicated nature of players’ financial arrangements, while the new transfer windows, the demise of ITV Digital, the halving of player values and the rapid increase in player unemployment have seen a substantial slump in the share value of many agencies. Some have already gone out of business.

Others have changed direction entirely. Roach became almost “establishment” as president of the FIFA-recognised International Association of Football Agents; Tony Stephens, agent for players such as David Platt, Alan Shearer, David Beckham and Michael Owen, edged away from transfer dealing to sponsorship creation; and Holmes, friend and manager of Gary Lineker, put his agent’s licence on ice to chair the consortium seeking to bring Leicester City back from the brink of financial disaster.

However, agents are here to stay. As Tommaso Angelini, a Scottish-based Italian agent, says: “Everyone in football has a specific job: director, admini-strator, manager, player. But since they are public figures, they need someone who can work out of sight. That’s the essential job of the agent. Without us, it couldn’t work.”

From WSC 204 February 2004. What was happening this month