Tuesday 24 April 2018

Richard Sadlier: The last thing that players need is more powerful agents

New FIFA guidelines will remove many of the protections for players, writes Richard Sadlier

Rory McIlroy arrives at Dublin high court. Neither the four-time major winner or Horizon Sports Management could have envisaged such an end to their relationship when they joined forces in December 2011
Rory McIlroy arrives at Dublin high court. Neither the four-time major winner or Horizon Sports Management could have envisaged such an end to their relationship when they joined forces in December 2011
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

I took a call from my agent the day after my retirement was publicly announced. There was a brief expression of sympathy, but the purpose of the call was something else entirely. He said he would take me to court if I didn't compensate him for loss of future earnings. You never expect things to go so sour when you first sign the contract.

Neither Rory McIlroy nor Horizon Sports Management could have envisaged such an end to their relationship when they joined forces in December 2011. It's a reality of life, though, that relationships change over time. The most you can hope for in a context like this is for regulations to be in place that support both sides. But given the upcoming abolition of the licensing system for football agents, I'm not sure footballers will be as well looked after as they feel they might be.

There are some forms of protection beyond the scope of written agreements. I was formally represented by five different companies during my playing career. That is, I signed on five different occasions with five different firms, each time believing it would be for good. Even signing a contract with each of them felt like an unnecessary formality. I was sure I had the right people in my corner and that no agreement would be needed to support that. I would learn the hard way how poor my judgement would be in this area.

I parted company with one agent mid-contract because he was too hard to reach and wasn't much use when I got him. I should have listened to my gut when he told me he hired a Jaguar for the day when he first came to meet me. There were other clues from his sales pitch to suggest we wouldn't be a good match. I'm not sure how I didn't pick up on this gem - "I know all the owners of all the big London nightclubs. Sign with me and you'll get in anywhere."

I left another because he seemed more concerned with impressing the chairman than representing me. He had a long-standing relationship with him and there were times when I questioned his loyalties. Again, perhaps I should have picked up something along those lines when I first met him. He showed up at my house unannounced and his opening words were, "The chairman sent me".

That said, finding the right person to advise you can be trickier than you think. I left one agent because the chairman refused to deal with him. He was barred from the ground after they fell out during negotiations and talks wouldn't resume until I replaced him. There was no way I could have seen that coming.

The messiest break-up almost landed me in court. After giving me a signing-on fee as part of our initial agreement, the agent threatened legal action if I didn't repay it in full when I retired.

I had apparently denied him the chance to earn it back by my 'decision' to end my career at 24. The PFA intervened and it was settled out of court.

The point is that disputes are unavoidable. There is no way of knowing how a working relationship will develop. You go with your gut and you hope you're right.

After that you hope you are sufficiently protected by the rules if things don't work out. That's where the trouble may come for many in the very near future.

From April 1, the system of licensing football agents is to be abandoned. All existing football agents' licences will cease to have effect and the practice of acting as an intermediary in contract negotiations will be open, in theory, to everyone. Any person or company can do the job. Accountable to nobody and licensed by no-one, if you have a written agreement in place with the player, you've got the job.

The current maximum term of two years for an agreement will be abolished. The current minimum age of 16 will go too. As long as you don't charge for work carried out while the player is under 18, you can offer a player a representative contract at any age for as long as you like. Once the legal guardians sign the form, it's legit.

FIFA have recommended a cap of three per cent commission for negotiating any deal but that's arguably unlawful under domestic and European competition law. This isn't an area they can centrally control so it's up to the negotiating strengths of the player to agree on a fee.

So with no minimum age and no maximum term, there will be nothing to stop a person with no experience whatsoever committing a 12-year-old child to a 20-year contract on rates of commission far higher than anything McIlroy agreed with Horizon. That would have been disastrous for me if it had been in place when I was a player. Limiting the term of an agreement is good for both sides.

The FA have yet to publicly commit to their own set of regulations, but following FIFA guidelines will leave many players vulnerable. Of all the things needed in professional football today, significant deregulation of the agency industry is certainly not one of them.


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