Most football fans tend to regard football agents as, at best, slightly dark and a little dubious. At worst, dangerous parasites only interested in sucking as much blood as possible from the game of football. In spite of the continuing public contempt for their profession, leading football agency Proactive Sports Management seem to be doing nothing to dispel this opinion.
As well as being perhaps the most prominent football agency in Britain, Proactive now boasts some of the nation’s top managers amongst its shareholders. Current Premiership bosses with an interest in the agency include Kevin Keegan, Graham Souness, Bobby Robson and Howard Wilkinson. Management figures argue that every transfer deal they are involved with through the company they partly own is undertaken with the best interests of their club at heart. But when the portion that the middle man takes from a deal reflects the potential fortune of either or both managers involved, it is difficult to argue that a level playing field exists.
The transfer of Jermaine Jenas from Nottingham Forest to N******** is a shining example of mixed interests. A fortnight before Jenas moved to Tyneside his ‘handler’ at the Ambition Management agency, Jamie Hart, joined Proactive. Days later, Jenas dumped Ambition in favour of Proactive and, a week or so later, signed for N********. In an absurd web of connections, Jenas’s move was carried through thanks to Proactive shareholders Bobby Robson and N******** United FC and Proactive employees Jamie Hart (son of Forest boss Paul Hart) and Kenny Shepard (son of Freddie Shepard). Ambition Management claim that they missed out on a £250,000 cut as a result of Jenas and Hart’s shenanigans.
While there is no reason to suggest anything other than proper behaviour on the part of any party involved, there can also be no doubting that the whole affair stinks of something that isn’t roses. If the individuals that are doing the buying and selling of assets have a personal interest in the amount that the ‘man in the middle’ takes then they are not acting in the best interests of the clubs and, ultimately, the fans. Hopefully, the day that transfers take place on a totally even keel is not too far away, but steps must be taken to prevent the potential of hidden agendas when transfers take place.
Many of Proactive’s high profile shareholders are no strangers to controversy. Derby boss and Proactive shareholder John Gregory is currently under FA investigation after the game’s governors received a tip that all the numbers may not have added up in the transfer deals he conducted whilst at Aston Villa. The Rams’ current manager left his post as Villa boss in January of 2002 when the club were in seventh position and a falling out between Gregory and controversial Chairman Doug Ellis was cited as the reason for his departure. However, there is (as yet unproven) speculation that Ellis knew that something wasn’t right and showed Gregory the door. The FA’s investigation is expected to last for months. Hopefully, for footballs sake, the conclusion will point to nothing more than an error in bookkeeping.
The FA have declined to comment on exactly which transfers are under investigation but it is believed that the deals which brought Juan Pablo Angel, Alpay and chiefly Bosko Balaban to Villa Park. Balaban signed for the Villains in August 2001 for £5.8m but has never started a Premiership game. Of the thirty-six transfers that Gregory oversaw in his time as Villa boss, the exact number that involved Proactive is unknown. Proactive themselves claim to have been involved in only four while some independent commentators have suggested that they may have been involved in as many as thirty-three.
Perhaps the most absurd story surrounding Proactive’s involvement comes courtesy of Sunderland Football Club and Peter Reid. In spring 2000, Paul Stretford – chief executive of Proactive – explained a case in question to a popular broadsheet newspaper. “I saw Milton Nunez play for Honduras in the Gold Cup and when Sunderland said they were keen I went into researching him. I found someone who knew someone who knew who his agent was. After a few days we cut through the ‘someone who’ stage to get to the source."
For those who aren’t aware of the full story, the tiny striker arrived at Sunderland on transfer deadline day of 2000 for £1.6m and went on to play a grand total of forty-four minutes of Premiership football. It transpired that, although Nunez was on loan at Greek outfit PAOK Salonika when Sunderland acquired his services, the Wearside club believed they were signing him from top Uruguayan side National Montevideo. After scratching under the surface (having already signed the player and agreed the fee) it transpired that he was actually a third division player employed by the similarly named Uruguay Montevideo.
Sunderland sued the Uruguayan club as they believed they had been deceived but a high court ruling stated that nothing untoward had taken place and that Sunderland were to stump up the remaining cash that they owed the ‘other’ Montevideo side. Justice Blofeld told the court: “Mr Stretford wasn’t directly told any lies, but gradually given the wrong impression. Just because Mr Stretford mistakenly considered them to be one and the same club doesn’t mean there’s a strongly arguable case for fraud.” The situation would have become a total farce if somebody’s trousers had fallen down. Unfortunately they didn’t.
Though ultimately a disastrous display of ineptitude from all parties the incident brought Proactive, already in the spotlight, to centre stage. Questions were bound to be asked when Peter Reid, who owned 125,000 shares in Proactive, paid over the odds through the company for a third division player who would never make the grade. Regardless of whether all parties are innocent of any wrongdoing, their very connection to the company is likely to arouse suspicion.
For the record, Peter Reid eventually sold his shares in Proactive – at a loss – after he came under fire for having a stake in the company when Sunderland paid £4m for another of their clients, US captain Claudio Reyna, in December 2001. In a statement, the former manager defended his decisions well: “I do not believe that such a small holding, valued at £31,250 out of a total share value of more than £25m at the time, could be regarded as significant and at no time did this ever affect or influence any of my decisions as manager of Sunderland AFC. My financial advisor purchased the shares at the time of the public floatation. The acquisition was made in my own name, so there can be no suggestion that this was concealed or of a lack of transparency as my holding was listed in the company’s share register, which is in the public domain.”
Having already paid the price of poor judgement when signing Nunez, Reid was burnt by the heat that touched him whenever he used the sports agency and had to get out of the kitchen. His conduct may have been good and proper but, to the football fan, any dealings of this nature will be deemed to be coming out of their pockets and, whether it is done intentionally or not, it is likely that the inevitable legal fees incurred will be passed on, as ever, at the turnstile.
And this is the bottom line. Even if nothing fishy is going on, in what other business would the people responsible for buying be allowed to have an interest in the selling parties? This is a blatant conflict of interests and, as per usual, it is the fans of the clubs involved, whose money is being used to fund these deals, that will suffer.