'He bollocked me for denying him future earnings'
'Right, stop fucking about. What amount of money do I have to write on this cheque for you to allow us to represent you?'
It was one of the most uncomfortable lunches I've ever had. I had met an agent who was trying to get me to sign with his firm. He was aware I was flying to Manchester the following day to have a similar meeting with Paul Stretford.
Anxious that Stretford's pitch would impress me more, he did his best to ensure I wouldn't go. I was told I was being given a fee which would demonstrate the commitment his company was willing to make to the long-term success of my career.
"Twenty grand?" No, honestly I'm going to meet him. The flights are booked. "Thirty grand?" Seriously, it's not going to come down to money. And it was you who introduced the money thing, not me. "Last offer. I'll write forty grand on this cheque and you sign with us. That'll be that".
I went to Manchester as arranged the next day and was shown around the offices of Pro-Active Sports Management. I was ushered into Kevin Moran's office for a chat with him, and Kenny Dalglish was assigned to do his bit over the phone. A PowerPoint presentation was put together by four or five members of their staff. Each explained in the clearest of terms that all my needs would be met if I was to sign with them -- contract talks, media relations, travel arrangements, legal advice, financial advice, commercial deals, concert tickets -- basically, they were prepared to run my life if I was happy for them to do so.
I spent the afternoon with Stretford in his office, thanked them for showing me around and flew back to London to think things over.
It turns out that the practice of players receiving large sums of money from agents seeking to represent them is more common than you'd think. I wasn't sure though, so I asked around. My manager said it was perfectly above board. Their logic was straightforward -- they believed they would make so much from deals over the course of a normal career, any amount would represent a sound investment.
In the end, I was given 50k to sign with the first agent I had met. I knew Stretford was willing to match it, but I was happy enough with my choice. I signed a document acknowledging receipt of the money and never thought of it after that.
The motives and behaviour of agents have again been called into question by those concerned by Wayne Rooney's decision to originally turn down a deal at Manchester United. Fans resent them, managers suffer them, but the fact is players need them. It's hard for people to accept the growing power of the very best players in today's game.
But a quick chat with anyone who played before agents were around would instantly convince you of their value. Clubs had it their own way for too long, and shafted players freely as a result. Some agents act in ways which bring shame to their industry, but many others do exactly what they are hired to do, and they do it very well.
When I signed with the agent that time, I hoped it would mark the beginning of a professional relationship that would see me through the remainder of my career. I was only 23 at the time, and despite picking up a relatively minor hip injury a few weeks earlier, I felt things were going pretty well. I was right on one front, I suppose. I remained with that agent until the day I finished.
The reason we parted company was the call I received on the morning my retirement was publicly announced about 18 months later.
He was livid that he had not been informed of my decision to call it a day (I was retiring on medical grounds, and as he had no medical expertise whatsoever, I never sought his input) and demanded a full refund of the money he gave me. He bollocked me for denying him the opportunity of future earnings by not playing on longer, and informed me he would take me to court to ensure he got paid. All this on the morning I retired.
Agents have a very important role to play in the lives of those they represent. Some players choose to limit their involvement to contract discussions, while others avail of every service they are willing to provide. Players want their earnings maximised in the relatively short time available to them, and agents are all too happy to assist where they can. It will always be this way, and so it should be.
In 2004, the FA found Stretford guilty of breaching nine of the rules governing agents. He was fined £300,000 and banned from practising for 18 months. Rooney stood by him throughout his ban (and his subsequent departure from Pro-Active in 2008) and must feel pretty glad now that he did.
I never spoke to Stretford again after I left his office that day, but a client of his has just become the highest paid player in the history of Manchester United. I've a feeling he's moved on by now.