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Saturday, Sept. 23, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

Weak 'expose' on bungs proof issue is becoming passe


LONDON -- Panorama promised to "rock the foundations of football" but in the end we were neither shaken nor stirred by a program in which the so-called whistle-blowers proved to be the unscrupulous characters rather than the bung-taking managers they were supposedly "exposing."

Christopher Davies

Bolton's Sam Allardyce may be guilty by association in the eyes of some after allegations from agents that he took illegal payments for transfers -- denied by Allardyce -- but as ever, it was all innuendo and proving any wrong-doing is likely to be more difficult than Manchester City winning an away game.

The Football Association and Premier League have launched a joint inquiry, but the program was hardly helped by having generally unknown agents with little credibility making the allegations and then withdrawing what they had said, claiming everything was made up to test out the undercover team.

I have never, to the best of my knowledge, been victim of the sort of sting Allardyce and others were.

Had I been, I believe I would immediately leave the building and make an official complaint to the relevant authorities.

The agents went along with the Panorama investigators to discover what their agenda was and the day after the program was shown by the BBC the 20 Percent men said they knew what was going on, but wanted to see where it would all lead.

It may lead to the High Court because making a claim (and then withdrawing it) that a manager has accepted a fistful of dollars is one thing, proving it is very different.

Allardyce has denied everything and instructed his solicitors to take the "appropriate action" -- whatever that is.

The BBC will be aware that many such threats are made yet few become reality because of the horrendous cost involved, plus the fact that once in the witness box the legal piranhas will ensure the person has to reveal things he would no doubt rather not be made public.

It would be a huge gamble and it remains to be seen whether Allardyce will go all the way.

Earlier this year Allardyce was interviewed for the job of England manager and one suspects the Football Association was aware of Panorama's ongoing investigation, but of course the official line would be Steve McClaren was the best candidate to succeed Sven-Goran Eriksson.

We are constantly told that some managers take bungs but the previous football inquiry into illegal payments produced just a couple of low-level guilty people.

George Graham of Arsenal remains the only high-profile manager to be charged and he was fingered by an investigative reporter from Denmark in a book.

The problem, as the investigators discovered, was that the trail would suddenly stop and without proof there could be no charges.

What proof would be needed for a conviction?

Let us dismiss the idea of any confession, but even video evidence may not be conclusive.

And, on the assumption the bungs business is strictly cash in hand and no checks, tracing the money makes King Canute's task easy.

The scope for managerial backhanders is immense, especially with overseas transfers.

One way is that an agent contacts Club A and asks how much they would accept for the player.

Let us say £1 million for the sake of argument.

The agent contacts Club B and says they can have the player for £1.5 million.

Club B's manager agrees with the fee and the extra £500,000 can be distributed accordingly.

Graham believed the £400,000-plus he was given in a briefcase was "a drink" from a grateful agent.

As another manager remarked: "We all like a drink but George had the entire brewery."

Agents can earn up to £3 million for facilitating a deal. Clubs are willing to pay legal mega bucks to the middlemen to ensure they sign the player they want and blind eyes have been turned to "drinks" (large one) finding their way to the manager.

Tax regulations do not permit agents' fees to be set against liabilities by players, which is the reason clubs pay agents on players' behalf. While this may benefit players, it leaves clubs open to the possibility of corruption by their officials.

While in no way condoning the practice of bungs, it is not a topic that particularly bothers fans.

Listen to phone-ins or read the sports letters and bungs rarely feature. The feeling is that if their manager gets a nice little earner for signing a player who scores 20 goals a season, well, no harm done, no one hurt.

But it has become boring to hear agents talking about corrupt agents and managers saying other managers take bungs. It is always another agent or manager, just as only other teams have hatchet men or divers.

Allardyce's son, Craig, a former agent, did not come out of the program at all well. It is never a good idea for a father to have his son acting as an agent for players coming to his club, as Craig did until recently.

The allegation in Panorama was that money found its way from Craig to Sam -- denied -- and Allardyce senior said in probably the telling quote to come from the program: "As a father, of course, it is painful to watch your son talk tall and exaggerate his influence for financial gain."

If there are two victims from Panorama's inquiry it is the fallout between Sam and Craig.

On Oct. 2 the results of the Lord Stevens bungs inquiry will be published.

Around 20 investigators have been working on it full-time for six months, and if they come up with nothing we may as well give up and make bungs legal to save football the cost of further wild goose chases.

If the Stevens inquiry has the evidence to name names -- hopefully big names -- then the F.A. can act.

But just as we hear this singer is gay, that politician is a drunk or that guy on TV does drugs, we need proof beyond all reasonable doubt.

Panorama gave us nothing we had not heard before, and breath should not be held for the finding of Lord Stevens.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal, Chelsea and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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