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'I can count on one hand the number of agents I’d trust'

John O’Sullivan on why football at the top level is a cutthroat business.

File pic.
File pic.
Image: David Davies

FOR SIX MONTHS after I finished working in football, I was regularly contacted by players seeking advice or a chat to discuss offers from clubs.

Occasionally I’d meet one and let him bounce worries or ideas off me. I never really gave much advice; I’d usually play devil’s advocate or listen as the player talked himself into the deal he really wanted.

One player asked me if I’d represent him in talks with a club. I refused because I’m not an agent and I had no intention of ever getting into that side of sport, it’s a side that largely sickens me. In my time in football, I can count on one hand the number of agents I’d trust with a family member with a talent for football.

Even among the agents I like and respect, I tend to worry about their ability to survive in such a cutthroat business. Since football is such a short career with a limited opportunity to earn an income, footballers will have their heads turned by promises, from agents as well as clubs. I’ve seen a decent agent dropped because a player was unhappy when told an offer from a club was a fair one. An alternative agent guaranteed he’d get more from the same club. When the player switched allegiance, the agent’s demands were daft and the player ended up without any deal after the club’s initial offer was withdrawn.

There is always an agent without morals who will exploit a player’s worry about financial security, or who will play on a player’s vanity or naivety with promises of fortunes to be earned.

Sometimes the lack of morals can be mild, if potentially damaging. Some manifest themselves as roguish. A couple of years ago a talented young League of Ireland player was being watched by a UK club. An agent got wind of this and lied to the player, telling him he was the UK club’s chief scout and all their business went through him. Then he approached the UK club and lied that he was the player’s agent. His lies were found out late in the process, but he’d almost succeeded in putting himself in the middle of a deal with zero knowledge of the player or the interested club.

There is a more sinister side. During a conversation with Limerick FC, one UK agent boasted of his yearly trips to Africa where he would sign up a crop of talented youngsters for £1,000. If they ‘made it’ for that sum they had signed away a significant portion of their future football income and all their future image rights. It was considerable money to many Africa families but chump change to the agent who told us he only needed one Didier Drogba to make it all worthwhile, those players that wouldn’t make it, he wouldn’t care less about. I’m glad to say that he was left in no doubt that we would never work with him.

One young player I know is unlikely to ever play professionally unless he can get out of a binding deal that guarantees a huge payday for an agent on the signing of his first professional contract. The deal was signed while he was at a UK academy and his future was bright. However, after an injury caused him to be cut, he’s been moving from amateur contract to amateur contract without support from the agent he’s bound to, missing an opportunity to make money despite his talent.

To return to those players I mentioned in the opening paragraph, it was difficult to direct them towards good advice. There is a registered list of Fifa agents that’s a matter of public record, but below this there is a level of scouts and advisors who have paid relationships with UK clubs who act as agents, though cannot call themselves such.

The obvious recourse for players with concerns, and one I’d often point to if someone raised an issue, is the PFAI. Though when it comes to contract negotiations, it can be confusing for players and clubs that the Fifa agent list includes the PFAI offices in Abbotstown as a registered address, the motives of which is often questioned by clubs.

The sad truth is that agents are an unfortunate but necessary evil, players will always seek advice and they should. If agents didn’t exist I would not rely on the morals of clubs. For many involved in global football, footballers are a resource to be bought, used, traded and finally, once their usefulness is no longer evident, discarded.

The point at which football moves from being a passion to being a potential career is a scarier one for a young player than it should be.

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