The percentage game

Panorama's report into corruption and the impact it is having on the game

Is football full of corrupt people? We have no idea. Or at least we have no proof. But with plenty of agents and managers saying that bungs – that is, bribes – are rife, we do know that the alternative is that the game is full of liars.                  

One of the difficulties in writing about this subject is that you have to take great care with what you say. Lawyers have been parked on sports desks all over Fleet Street. Reaction to the Panorama programme of September (covered on page 18 of this issue) was liberally dotted with words such as “allegedly” and “claimed”, and care has to be taken to stress the denials of all involved.

Some commentators were receptive to the claims made, but the programme was frostily dismissed by others as simply a pile of hype and innuendo with no real substance. By all means let’s see real evidence of dodgy goings on, they said, but let’s not have respected figures within the game besmirched like this.

It was true that some elements of the programme simply couldn’t have worked as a newspaper investigation, notably a sequence in which the reporter posing as an agent waited in a hotel room with a suitcase full of cash for a manager who didn’t turn up. But one reason why bribes are often made in cash is precisely because that makes detecting the wrongdoing harder – as well as helping people evade tax. This point was made in the Panorama film by agent Charles Collymore, though he has subsequently claimed that he made up the whole story to see what the man asking the questions was up to. But Mike Newell stated that Collymore was the agent who offered him money – and, though we don’t know which, only one of the two can be telling the truth.

Most of those featured in the programme have threatened to take legal action and may all be vindicated in court. But within a few days of the broadcast, several well placed insiders, including three club chairmen and the England manager’s agent, agreed that corruption is widespread. Lord Stevens then announced that there will be further investigation into 39 of the 362 Premiership transfers over a two-year period up to January 2006, which were the subject of his official inquiry. It could be that all questions relating to the outstanding deals will be cleared up, though it does seem that the investigation may encounter obstacles along the way – 85 of the 150 agents approached have so far declined to co-operate. Even a former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police doesn’t have legal powers to force anyone to show him the books. And, again, the difficulty of tracing cash transactions means that just because Lord Stevens has “cleared” 89 per cent of transfers, no one has proved that nothing was wrong with any of them.

Whatever the findings, we can safely say that there is going to a lot more bad blood spilled. Every once in a while a bright light is shone at the strange, insular world of professional football and some don’t like it. Steve McClaren’s agent Colin Gordon claimed that “tens of millions of pounds” had been taken out of the game by corrupt agents and was swiftly the subject of a couple of accusations himself. Those making these claims may have been doing so for impeccable reasons, but the stories did coincide with Gordon making inconvenient claims about the football ­business.

Jeff Stelling asked Sam Allardyce if he had ever been offered a bung. While everyone talked about Sam’s reaction, Sky scarcely replayed what was sure to have been a popular item (how many times have we seen Kevin Keegan telling us how much he would “love it”?). It was reported that Bolton were given an apology for the asking of a straightforward question at a time when agents are saying their peers hand out bungs out and managers such as Mike Newell say they have been offered them.

Sky’s reluctance to risk damaging relationships within the game that is the company’s cash cow has been exposed before – notably by their initial cover-up of the footage they had of John Hartson attacking Eyal Berkovic at West Ham’s training ground in 1998. And anything that tarnishes English football damages their investment.

We don’t know who is telling the truth. But we do know that if any bung allegations are proved then it will be deeply inconvenient, not just for those in the dock. And if they’re not proved then that won’t mean that Newell, Gordon, Sven-Göran Eriksson and all are definitely liars.

From WSC 237 November 2006. What was happening this month