11
Jul 04

I’ve been thinking some more

TMFDPost a comment • 206 views

I’ve been thinking some more about the whole issue of player agents.

A friend who works in football said ‘why would a club pay a player’s agent?’ I thought about this, and the only answer I could come up with was because its easier to say yes and pay them, lest they lose the player. Just like its easier to say yes and agree unsustainable wages, because at some level, it’s ceased to be seen as real money. (yeah yeah, real money, symbolic exchange to thread etc) It’s more like monopoly money, or perhaps more properly, football tokens.

I’m not saying that everyone has a devil-may-care, bugger tomorrow attitude, but if the hard reality of treating the money as finite and spending it wisely is at one end of the spectrum, then the sad fact that many just don’t do it suggests that at the other end there’s an attitude which sees the entire game as, well, a game. The people making the decisions – if they’re executives – are handsomely rewarded comparative to the turnover. Sometimes a board will sanction the spending, but it’s often the bank’s money. Who cares if goes wrong? The Board will be out of there like a shot leaving the mess to be cleared up by someone else. The more messy, the more debt-ridden, the more likely that someone else will the Supporters’ Trust.

But spending money to pay for someone working for someone with whom you’re negotiating is really no more ridiculous than betting the house on a single player, spending 200% of turnover on wages or borrowing 60M over 25 to fund a few player purchases. Indeed, so weird are many practices within the game that after a time, I suspect people have become inured to them and shrug their shoulders. After a bit, they’ve stopped asking hard questions, raising puzzled eyebrows at contractual demands and instead laugh in a conspiratorial way. Isn’t that the real meaning of being a good football man?

This moral ambivalence and acceptance of another world with different mores and practices reminds me of nothing than the Mafia as revealed in Goodfellas (or even better, in the book the film was based on – Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi), especially as described in Tom Bower’s Broken Dreams.

In the Mafia, the phrase for passing tributes to everyone involved in a deal was called ‘wetting your beak’ According to Bower, Ron Atkinson used to say ‘will I get a good drink out of this?’. A good football man knows how to reward his friends, knows where to spread the largesse, and crucially, knows to keep his mouth shut when journalists or the authorities ask questions. An agent might cause a player to leave your club, but you don’t rat him out to the FA. You might want to use him to steal one of their guys later on. Just like the Columbo family might be furious that the Bonnano family pulled off a lucrative job, they won’t call the cops.

He’s a good fella, the good football man. The GFM also knows how to keep the press and TV guys sweet through denying access and granting ‘exclusives’. It’s not the same as having judges and cops on the payroll, but the effect is the same.

It’s a money-go-round, with people apparently getting some form of kickbacks from everyone else. The only people who don’t get a kickback are the people who provide the money – the fans. But whilst we are the little guy at the bottom, we bear some responsibility.

There’s no violence underpinning this system to enforce discipline and so there’s another reason it carries on. Many fans, I suspect, wouldn’t mind the club giving a kickback if it helped secure the services of a great player they thought might make a difference. I suspect like many people working in the game, the issue is the level of the kickback. They don’t mind agent’s fees as long as they’re not too excessive. It’s a matter of degree, not principle, which irks.

But how do you find a ‘realistic’ level for something that’s irrational and unnecessary? A truly British compromise – throw the agents to the wall in a populist hue and cry. Yes, many are disreputable, greedy and dishonest. Just like many of their clients and many of their paymasters.

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