Saturday 21 April 2018

Daniel McDonnell: Unscrupulous agents the scourge of schoolboy game

English clampdown on improper activity should be of Irish interest

Former player Danny Webber. Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images
Former player Danny Webber. Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

On transfer deadline day, the football agent is like a retailer on Christmas Eve. Most people who come their way are ready to panic-buy.

There is no Irish equivalent. Instead, the undignified scramble in 2017 will involve agents vying for the attentions of the kids who turn 16 this year.

Paolo Vernazza has been run foul of the English FA after breaking the rules relating to agents and young players. Photo credit: Mark Thompson /Allsport
Paolo Vernazza has been run foul of the English FA after breaking the rules relating to agents and young players. Photo credit: Mark Thompson /Allsport

That's the age where they are legally allowed to be represented. It's a time where strangers enter their lives promising big things. Unless, of course, they have already met them.

Across the water, the FA are in the process of trying to stamp out illegal approaches from agents to rising underage stars.

Earlier this month, ex-footballers Paolo Vernazza and Danny Webber were sanctioned for breaking the rules.

Webber was fined and banned for 84 days after being found to have approached an U-16 player.

Vernazza was suspended for seven months for trying to sign a contract with a minor, even though he didn't have the requisite clearance to work with them. His punishment was increased because the contract was not signed by the child's parent or guardian.

Vernazza and Webber both work for the Platinum One agency.

The practice is hardly surprising, given that clubs are willing to offer players substantial deals before their 16th birthday. A New York Times study last week named youngsters aged 13 and 14 who have arrangements with Nike or adidas.

Where there's money, there will always be third parties sniffing about.

Immune

It would be naive to believe that the Irish scene is immune to it. The problem is that it's very hard to get a handle on how many middle men are actually offering their services in the field here.

FIFA effectively deregulated the industry in 2015, removing the old agent's exam and leaving it up to individual countries to police their territory.

The changes allowed 'intermediaries' to come into the game without obtaining the old qualifications. All they need to do is meet the criteria set out by the national association.

'Traditional' agents were fuming, arguing it would create anarchy.

"I can see the bloke in the pub who knows a parent or a footballer's dad saying, 'I'll represent you' and then undercutting everyone," raged Mel Stein, Paul Gascoigne's one-time ally.

On their website, the FAI lays out comprehensive regulations that include Garda vetting clearance, character references and other checks and balances.

Curiously, it also lists their registered intermediaries for 2015/'16 - a grand total of two. They are Oluyemi Obasoto and Emmanuel Emeonye, who both have a social media presence.

The explanation is that many established Irish agents are registered with the English FA because that's the jurisdiction to where they move players.

However, there are some Irish-based intermediaries who feel that the FAI should be doing more to monitor the U-16 market.

Patrick Conliffe is a sports lawyer from the Full Contact agency who was recently involved in moving Dundalk defender Andy Boyle to Preston.

He is worried by developments in younger age groups and believes that parents and guardians are being encouraged to sign contracts without studying the implications.

"Agents shouldn't be anywhere near kids until they are 16," he says. "Parents might need legal advice but, otherwise, it's the scout's job to identify players and bring them over to the club.

"They don't need agents ringing them up offering this and that. There are some reputable ones that stick to the principles, but there are people in it for the quick buck who then move onto the next deal."

Conliffe says the FAI's regulations are promising but feels they have more to do to get a handle on all activity here. He welcomes the FA's clampdown and hopes that it has a domino effect.

Hurrying into an agreement can pose issues down the line. Whether it's an agent brokering it or friends and family becoming intermediaries themselves, the danger is that the colt can enter into a life-changing deal without considering the impact of clauses.

That can relate to issues arising from compensation payments, the small print of 'scholar' deals which may not actually guarantee a first year pro deal and the thorny area of benefits in kind which can become problematic if a player wants to leave early.

It's a tough job for the authorities as the idiosyncrasies of the Irish scene have always left open the room for wide-eyed families to be manipulated.

This is a space that needs to be watched.

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