The Stevens Recommendations based on their Inquiry Findings were projected as making the Game cleaner. The solution? A raft of regulations and a new “Football Transfer Audit Unit“. The whole mantra of his Inquiry is “Animal Farm“- esque, “Agents bad, Accountants good” which is hardly surprising given that the Quest team included Forensic Accountants whose bosses are no doubt hoping that the FA realise this is a function that they are incapable of fulfilling in-house. There is an air of inevitability that whenever Accountants get involved in reviewing matters that a paper trail will ensue but in Stevens case, some of it seems to be intruding into areas that have little or no effect; as David Byrne so eloquently put it, “We’re on a Road To Nowhere“.
Some of the basis for recommendations seem to be designed to regulate Agents from the game. Whilst this is a wholly laudable aim, in practice it is not going to happen. It is not even going to drive the bad apples out of the orchard unless the rest of the footballing world follows suit. Indeed, whilst the media have named one or two of the Agents whose paperwork has led to the 5% of badly handled transfers, Stevens only identifies one Agent that should not be fulfilling that function, The PFA. I am not sure why he has chosen this path to follow; The PFA as the Footballers Union is perhaps best placed to advise its members on Contract negotiations, and more to the point, the money that they earn from this endeavour remains to a large degree within the football. Sure, it contributes to paying their staff wages and that flows outwards. It does however free up other funds to enable them to pursue matters pertaining to their members welfare and their Football In The Community projects. Do not get me wrong; The PFA is not perfect as an organisation and makes mistakes but is its primary raison d’etre at odds with it being an Agent. I do not believe so.
Some of the arguments put forward for poor performance from Agents for too much money are based on somewhat spurious foundations. Commercial decisions by the clubs are blithely brushed aside, (point 1.3.10) “Clubs in justification of the size of the agent fee often provided the explanation “we looked at the the total cost (including the agent fee) and it was a good deal for the club” , being dismissed as “…agents having a greater bargaining power over clubs than might be considered healthy“. How they have reached that conclusion is not noted nor is their recommendation of any fee that should be paid to an Agent in negotiations, e.g. 1% for every £1m in the transfer fee.
The proposals include new Returns to be completed by Players, Agents and Clubs on a quarterly, half yearly or annual basis but it is not clear what is to be achieved by some of the Returns. For example, asking a player to tell the FA how much they have paid an Agent in one year will achieve exactly what? Stevens believes this will help in Regulation but does not explain how. Elsewhere, Stevens believes that players should be the only ones to remunerate Agents for their involvement in transfer negotiations. It was widely believed that clubs paid the Agents in some cases for this so this will put an end to this practice. Until of course, the players signing on fee increases by roughly the amount his Mr 15% takes grossed up for tax purposes. And becomes payable in one fell swoop as opposed to being over the course of a contract.
Agents have been widely known to represent two or three parties in any deal, Stevens believes this should be banned in future. Perhaps that is a good idea but Stevens belief that three people should handle it is entirely wrong. Maybe a better one would be to make the buying club responsible for the payment of Agents. The transfer fee goes to the selling club and the buyer pays the Agent for his role in the deal, a “Finders Fee” if you like. The Agent can then make any disbursements that he sees fit to those who have helped in completing the deal. And it is at this point, I diverge from Stevens view on Agents. If an Agent has agreed a fee with the club and it is paid, then the Football Authorities should be advised of how that fee is split and to whom. Other than that, what do they think is going to happen? If someone is taking a kickback, the Agent is not going to record it anywhere other than money taken for his own personal use. The Tax Authorities may review his records and investigate otherwise but the football authorities have no legal power to do so making their attempts at Regulation laughable.
The recommendations are not all bad. Indeed, it is unbelievable that some are not already in force. Football clubs should for example be provided with and have their own explicit rules on how transfers are handled says the Report. If these are not in place already then the owners are asking (and perhaps deserve) to be ripped off. Clubs should complete a Return (which doubles as a checklist – we accountants love ’em) and submit to the FA so that all documents are properly recorded. They aren’t already? How do the FA confirm a transfer is made correctly?
Some are also downright ludicrous. A Managers Agent cannot act on behalf of any players at a club. Why not? The Agent will have undue influence within the club says Stevens. Not so, say I. A Manager is going to pick the best players available to perform in each match, irrespective of their Representatives. Anyone who does otherwise is shooting themselves in the foot and facing a short jog to the Dole Office.
The overriding feeling with this is not of whitewash but opportunity missed, a methodology that will lead to more regulation but less chance of catching wrongdoing. More jobs for the boys if you like. I like and will be first in the queue offering my services at a hugely extortionate salary, my Agent will handle the negotiations for me.