The summer transfer window closed yesterday in the usual flurry of last-minute deals. The sums spent by football clubs during the close season are eye-watering: last year the 20 Premier League teams splurged more than £1.25 billion between May and August. Fifa, world football’s ruling body, limits trading between clubs to 12 weeks in the summer and the month of January. It was introduced during the 2002-03 season with the intention of creating an environment where the big, wealthy club could not bully small rivals with money and buy up opposing players during the course of the campaign.
Terry Venables, the former England manager, was one advocate. He believed that it would lead to teams trying to improve by coaching, rather than just buying new players. The sport is awash with cash – at least at the highest levels.
It is not just those who play the game who are raking in huge amounts of money. Registered intermediaries who represent clubs and players take a significant slice of the pie.
To be able to work in the transfer business, individuals need to register with Fifa. Between February 2018 and January this year – two transfer windows – top-flight clubs paid agents £260.6 million in fees.
Anyone can become a registered intermediary. Until four years ago agents were required to take an exam, which meant that fewer than 500 were accredited in the UK. After deregulation those figures mushroomed. Now more than 7,000 people are in the business of representing players. Agent is a useful shorthand for the role but for the football authorities everyone is a registered intermediary. That means football is full of shadowy figures eager to crowbar their way into a deal.
There is little transparency in transfer transactions and few of those involved are keen to talk openly about their roles. Not all players have agents; some represent themselves or have a family member negotiate for them. The best agents put their client’s wellbeing first and frequently advise them not to chase wealth but focus on personal happiness. The worst of them simply pursue riches.
Tortoise spent the summer with an agent who spoke freely about his activities on condition of anonymity. The man started his career as a player at one of England’s biggest clubs, spent years in scouting and coaching and had moved into representation in the past five years.
His stable of 20-plus of clients included globally-recognised names and potential superstars. His intimate knowledge of the sport has been gained by working for clubs at elevated levels so he knows how both sides of the deal work. Football had provided a good living for him but he does not flaunt the trappings of wealth. He revealed a world where there are huge potential rewards but where deals can collapse in an instant or a rival negotiator can swoop in at the last moment with the intention of seizing the commission.
17 May. The transfer window opens
“You can be working on deals for months. Obviously you know where your own players are in terms of their contract and if they are coming to the end you are talking to potential new clubs from early in the year. Most contracts finish on June 30 so you need to have agreements in place before that.
“We have a young player at a Championship club who was in demand. He could have gone to Celtic or Norwich City but the best offer came from Juventus. He could have gone to Italy for £200,000, which made it a bargain for Juve.
“That meant the Serie A club could pay relatively big wages. More than double the money he could get elsewhere was on offer at Juventus. We had loads of meetings and were flying to Turin to thrash out the agreement. It cost a lot of time and money and there were Italian agents involved.
“When the season ended, the kid got cold feet and decided he couldn’t move abroad. He ended up staying put and everyone lost out. But you have to let the players do what they think is best for them. It would have been stupid to have railroaded him into a move he didn’t want to make. In the end you play your best football when you’re happy.”
“You spend a lot of time talking to people to find out what clubs want. I’ll probably make at least a thousand calls to clubs – do you fancy this player, do you want a full back, a midfielder? But you’ve got to be realistic.
“You can get wrapped up in being a busy fool. Clubs or agents come to you to see if you can move a player. You think you can make a million on a deal but the only reason they come to you is because they couldn’t make it happen themselves. In that case you probably can’t make it happen, either.
“The calls start early in the morning and go on until late at night. One club contacted us about a goalkeeper. They wanted him out. They said ‘we’ll pay you well if you can move him on’ but if there was any demand they would have shifted him themselves. It was impossible. You can waste a lot of time and energy on potential moves that are never going to happen.”
18 June Under-21 European Championships
“One of our clients was with England for the Euros in Italy. We rented a villa for his family, booked all their flights and made sure that everyone was happy. He didn’t need distractions so we made sure the accommodation was just right. The last thing you need is relatives calling the player and complaining about a dodgy hotel.
“How much we do for clients depends on them. Some of the young ones aren’t very streetwise and need lots of direction. Others are clued up and know how to run their lives.
“We’ll set them up with nutritionists to make sure they’re eating right, get chefs involved to show them how to prepare food. How they embrace it varies from player to player.
“Some of them want to be Instagram footballers – they want the rewards from the game but are not prepared to put in hard work.
“Mainly, though, we try to make life as simple as possible so they only have to think about football. We’ll get their schedule from the club and make sure that they’re where they should be at the right time. We’ll interact with the social media company running their accounts to ensure they’re getting the right profile. It takes up a lot of time.
“It’s not just the young players, either. I was working with an international and a senior member of his team. He was on an Asian pre-season tour when the phone company cut him off. We had to pay £2,500 to settle the bill. He said: ‘Yes I got the letters and just put them in the bin.’ He’s a down to earth, nice, mature family man but he couldn’t do anything for himself.”
“Sometimes it’s not about sorting out transfers but about keeping people where they are. We had a client at a club and he wanted to stay but they didn’t want him. We spent weeks trying to cut a deal and the club gave the illusion in public that they wanted him to remain but didn’t make any effort. There were six days left on his contract when it was announced that he was leaving. Then you have to find alternative employment. Again, months were wasted trying to sort out a contract that the club were never going to agree.”
“Agents from abroad call all the time. One said he had [Liverpool player] Sadio Mane’s cousin and wanted me to find him a club. I don’t want Sadio Mane’s cousin, I want Sadio Mane! Was he even related to Mane? I’ll never know.
“There are a lot of cranks and time-wasters who call and ask for the impossible. A dad will ring up and say ‘My lad’s been released by Oldham. Can you get him in at Liverpool?’ It’s not going to happen.
“Trust is important. There are lots of clubs where I’ve had long relationships. When we take a player to them they know he can’t be a dud. So you need to be sure of the player if you’re going to shop him around.
“But other factors are involved sometimes. We had a lad we were trying to get out on loan from a top-six club and no one wanted him. Then he came on for the last 10 minutes of a televised Champions League tie and the next day more than 20 teams called asking about him. It wasn’t like he was particularly impressive, either. You shake your head sometimes.
“We have a 19-year-old with a top-six club. Everyone wanted him for a while and then it suddenly went quiet. He’d improve lots of teams but when you get to the bottom half of the Championship and League One and Two they haven’t got the money to take a chance on players. You ring them and they know he’s not a dud but they’ll say ‘we’ve got a lad in that position who played 40 games for us. He’s reliable. Your boy might be better but we can’t afford to gamble.’ It makes things problematic and can lead to players being stuck at a big club where they’re never going to succeed because they can’t get opportunities elsewhere.”
“An agent with a bad reputation called and wanted us to do a deal he couldn’t do it himself because he’d upset the club at the other end. Working with certain individuals ruins your reputation. You need to distance yourself from the dickheads.
“We know what money we’ve got coming in over the next two or three years so we’re not chasing cash. Reputation means a lot in this business.
“Some people hand on a deal to someone else and stay quietly in the background. They’ll pay someone else to be on the paperwork and take their cut afterwards.
“There’s a lad who’s hopeless as a representative but because he’s not a threat some of the dodgier agents put him at the front of the deal. He’ll be the official dealmaker but he has to hand over a chunk of the cash once he gets paid. It’s a very murky world. You have to work with people you don’t really want to be involved with.
“You come across the same people all the time. Someone I hadn’t spoke to for four years called and wanted me to get a player into a club I’m friendly with. He acted is if we were really good mates. Some have no shame when it comes to chasing money. They’ve screwed you on a deal but they’ll call and ask for help when they need it. But you soon learn who to avoid.
“I sorted a deal for a foreign international to join a London club. He turned up to sign with an agent from his own country who had nothing to do with arranging the transfer. They were going to shaft all of us who’d been involved and take the money. Luckily the club didn’t let it happen.
“On the other hand, the same London club insist that payments are made to another agent on every deal even though he’s had nothing to do with them. This man gets £70,000 for every transaction without lifting a finger. It’s happened three times with people I know.”
“One of our clients had medical issues so we needed to liaise with the director of football at his club to make sure he was getting the proper treatment.
“We’re in regular contact with managers and training staff to make sure our players are meeting expectations and to see how we can help improve them. We also try to help with commercial ventures to make sure they are not making mistakes. There’s no point in them getting, say, £25,000 to launch a video game if it has a negative impact on their performances. The focus has to be on football and not all the add-ons.
“Most of our income comes from playing contracts. So far this summer we’ve only done five transfer deals and none of them involved our clients. Basically we were acting as brokers.
“You earn between five and eight per cent on contracts [these vary enormously. Young players can be on less than £10,000 a week; the agency’s most high profile client earns in excess of £10 million per year]. The commercial deals are more lucrative – between 10 and 20 per cent. We don’t take any money from boot deals but a lot of agents do.”
“Even though the window is open you still have to do all the nuts and bolts stuff. We’re very keen to make sure our players use their money wisely. The first thing you say when they sign their first pro contract is ‘buy a house’.
“We encourage them to invest and direct them to people who know about finances.
“I’m here to maximise their earnings from their career so we set them up with financial advisors. We don’t get a cut of that. Lots of agents take kickbacks from the people who set up mortgages and investments. I don’t like that. Paul Stretford [Wayne Rooney’s agent] had to pay an out-of-court settlement to a group of players because he took a percentage of the commission from the financial advisors he set them up with.”
8 August, deadline day: The transfer window closes in England
“In the last couple of days before the window closes you get badgered by other intermediaries who are desperate to get a last-minute payday. You ignore most of the calls.
“I’ll spend the morning doing a favour for a local lower-league club but you never know what the day will throw at you. Most managers prefer to do their deals early and get the players training with the squad but if there’s the sniff of a bargain before the window closes anything can happen. A madness takes over.
“But the window never really shuts for people like me. I’m already thinking about the next one in January and looking at possible moves. China is a lucrative market. Commissions there are ridiculous. One deal will pay for your holidays. And Christmas.
“It’s a constant flow. It never stops. That’s football.”