Corruption in English Football: A Field Guide

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Editor’s note: Brian, whose own marvelous Run of Play blog you really should be sure not to miss out on, will be bringing his brand of insight and irreverance weekly to Pitch Invasion.

In light of yesterday’s sensational arrests for fraud and corruption in football (scene: Police officers in riot gear swarm through the door of a modest Portsmouth home. MRS. HARRY REDKNAPP, clad in a nightgown, with curlers in her hair and a rolling pin in her hand, retreats with a shriek while her HUSBAND, flexing enormously, disappears under a mountain of policemen. Suddenly, a roar comes from under the pile, and Harry heaves them off, standing with a gleam of mad laughter in his eye as cops go flying) today seems like a good day to take a look at the state of the various corruption investigations in recent English football. I can’t keep them straight to save my life, but it doesn’t matter, because the first rule of any good corruption investigation is that you never worry much about the facts.

There are three basic levels of corruption in football: trivial, apocalyptic, and Italian. The lines of demarcation between these levels are extremely well-defined. Apocalyptic corruption becomes Italian corruption at the precise moment when a falling human body completes its descent from a seventh-story window. Trivial corruption becomes apocalyptic corruption when it happens within fifty feet of a reporter from the Daily Mirror. Of the three major corruption investigations in English football recently, all have involved merely apocalyptic corruption, although a full-scale Italian rating could still be achieved if someone makes Harry Redknapp angry at a sufficient height above sea level. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.


1. The Lord Stevens/QUEST Investigation

What prompted it? The airing last September of “Undercover: Football’s Dirty Secrets”, a responsibly constructed and sensibly promoted BBC Panorama report which alleged, among other things, that football agents like money and so does Sam Allardyce. Any evidence that football agents and Sam Allardyce had pursued their shared interest beyond the limits of FA regulation remained purely in the realm of conjecture.

Who did the investigating? One John Arthur Stevens, Baron Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, the former police commissioner previously known for his unsporting attempt to quash conspiracy theories after the death of Princess Diana. Assisting him was QUEST Ltd., a specialist flooring contractor whose aim is to provide the complete flooring solution. Why the Stevens Report could not have been called the Kirkwhelpington Report is apparently down to a conspiracy to crush all whimsy in the universe.

What happened? The promise of fireworks did not result in a fireworks show. Lord Stevens investigated 39 separate transfers involving 8 clubs, but announced in June, to a great deal of hoopla, that there was “no evidence” of irregular payments to club officials or players. However, 17 transfers were flagged for “outstanding issues” involving agents. These included the transfers of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, and Petr Cech to Chelsea. (Total value: £55.4million.) Somewhat less salaciously, they also included the transfers of Ali al-Habsi and Blessing Kaku to Bolton. (Total value: Less than I spent on lunch. And I didn’t eat lunch.)

Where are we now? Over and done with, essentially. Having tantalizingly crept up to the brink of concluding that football agents like money, the Baron of Kirkwhelpington adjourned, leaving the public to answer the question for themselves and the FA to pursue any disciplinary charges. So far the FA has seen no reason to bring Chelsea’s name into the mix so long as they can continue to pummel Luton (see below).

2. The Luton Investigation

newell.jpg What prompted it? The highly public meltdown between then-manager Mike Newell and the Luton board during 2005-06, during the course of which Newell winked theatrically at the press and elbowed them sharply in the side as he mentioned that the transfer dealings of the current board were entirely above board and would not bear looking into. Newell also spoke to the BBC Panorama program last September and heroically offered to expose anyone who had offered him money, ever, for anything.

Who’s investigating? The FA. High-profile members of the landed gentry are not that interested in League One clubs, evidently.

What’s happened? So far, the FA have handed down 55 charges, the majority relating to improper documentation of payments to agents made through Luton Town’s holding company…I know, you can’t bring yourself to care, and it’s brutal. Basically, Luton Town are owned by a parent company called J10. Various routine payments to agents during player transfers were made by J10 rather than by Luton. It’s sort of all the same thing, but if you don’t get your paperwork right the FA will crush you like a snake. (Two members of the Luton board have resigned and the club has gone into administration since the charges were handed down.) What’s worth noting, and what you probably missed in the hammering Luton took in the press, is that the payments themselves were largely not corrupt, only the way they were recorded. Burn in hell, Luton Town. Suffer the long night of the damned.

Where are we now? At an exciting moment, you’d think, as the parties have to respond to the charges tomorrow. But since everyone’s stopped paying attention to this story, it’s really anyone’s guess. As a piece of choreographed media frenzy, the moment has probably peaked.

3. The City of London Police Investigation

What prompted it? Mike Newell may have been doing some undercover work. It really isn’t clear. The scope of the investigation covers “allegations of corruption in football and its impact on investors and shareholders.” Striking a blow for the common supporter, then.

Who’s investigating? The Economic Crimes Unit of the City of London Police. It’s no Kirkwhelpington, but it will do in a pinch.

What’s happened? So far, a great deal of innuendo, a couple of high-profile raids, and the incredible arrest of Harry Redknapp. Because of the people involved in yesterday’s arrest, it’s believed that the investigation is focused on the transfer of Amady Faye from Auxerre to Portsmouth (where Harry was manager and his fellow incarceree Milan Mandaric was chairman) in 2005 and his subsequent move to Newcastle in 2006. Willie McKay, the agent who arranged both transfers, once bought Harry a racehorse called Double Fantasy. McKay was also arrested yesterday. Double Fantasy remains at large.

Where are we now? Right in the thick of it. Harry is somewhat bizarrely claiming that being arrested proves his innocence and Portsmouth are portraying the arrests (which also took in Pompey CEO Peter Storrie) as polite requests for assistance from the police. The Daily Mail (sorry) are claiming that “another high-profile manager” is being probed. It’s impossible to say whether this is all a media stunt by the police, as Harry has alleged, or whether anvils are about to drop on the heads of the rulers of Portsmouth. If you work as a travel agent, and Sam Allardyce wanders into your shop in the next few days to book a ticket for his long-dreamed-of vacation to Panama, please do contact this space.

Brian Phillips is accepting bungs all day long at The Run of Play.

12 thoughts on “Corruption in English Football: A Field Guide

  1. ursus arctos

    Nicely done (and good to see you posting here).

    I do hope you wouldn’t have made that crack about Pessotto if he hadn’t survived (it was the sixth floor, btw).

  2. Dave Boyle

    As regards Luton, yes, it’s a paperwork offence, yes it’s essentially trivial in corruption terms. But the problem isn’t that they broke the filing rules, it’s that in the absence of a charge on the FA rulebook of ‘being a dickhead in charge of a club’s finances’, this is the best they can be charged with. Whose money were they being so free and easy with? It turned out to be ‘not theirs’.

  3. Brian

    Dave – How was it someone else’s money? The payments were made by Luton’s own holding company. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me like the “corruption” angle here would be if they were making unlawful payments to agents and routing them through their holding company to keep the payments secret. But they were just paying the agents their normal fees. What difference does it make if the money comes from them or their holding company? Had everything been done by the letter of FA, J10 would have just transferred that money into a Luton account before they paid the agents. Same money, right? I agree that they should face some sort of fine for improper record-keeping, but the FA and the media are treating this like they were selling cocaine to children.

    Ursus – Glad you liked the post. I honestly didn’t have Pessotto consciously in mind when I wrote that joke — it just seemed to get at the high stakes of cheating in Italy. Maybe I would have been more sensitive had he not survived the fall, but let’s just say it’s a dilemma I’m glad I didn’t have to face.

  4. Dave Boyle

    Brian – J10 wasn’t a mint (as much as 30 years worth of Luton owners have wished it to be), so the money came from somewhere. It came from the club’s supporters.

    Why was it routed that way? Because they wished to subvert the club board as a forum in which corporate governance might be taken seriously (what with it having a supporter representative on it). It was no surprise they ended up in shocking financial state under the circumstances.

    I wish people booed players who had Willie McKay as an agent rather than people who had a stinker against Croatia. The money being filched from the game in bungs comes from supporters, but in the reporting of the stories, this aspect is rarely brought out.

  5. Brian

    Dave — I absolutely agree with you about the cost of bungs to supporters, but the money in the Luton case wasn’t spent on bungs, it was spent on normal payments to agents. As you know, agents receive fees when clubs sign players that are entirely standard and legal. As far as I know, there’s been no suggestion of bungs in the Luton case, just of those standard, legal fees being paid from the wrong account. I’ve been looking around online for corroboration and found a reasonably detailed account by David Conn at the Guardian Sport blog here:

    http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/sport/2007/11/21/the_book_thrown_at_luton_stops.html

    That said, I would be all for booing Willie McKay’s players. I’d probably boo Double Fantasy, if she was ever allowed to race.

  6. The Metrologist

    A very handy rundown. You’ve only missed the Psychopathic Power People!/Everything Is Wrong level, aka the footballisfixed level of graft. Which might be my favorite level of all, if only for the unending entertainment value I derive from its verbose amalgam of sardonic, conspiratorial whispers and MBA-program lingo.

    Conn’s thoughtfully circumspect and patient – which makes him one of the few, I guess.

  7. chris

    so we are saying that the deputy leader took an illegal anonymous donation that could have crossed the line between bribe, backhander, and gift… ooops, wrong story. Sorry.

    PS- good article I will link to this.
    footballisnotmygod.blogspot.com

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