Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Bung to Rights?

The whispers about last night's Panorama investigation into corruption in English football had promised revelations that would 'rock' the game; judging by this morning's reaction from many football supporters, it seems that many were instead 'rocked' to sleep by the program.

The general response to the BBC's undercover investigation underlines the widespread perception of the current ethical state of the game: a dirty business, but someone's gotta do it. It seems that while the program failed to catch a manager in the dastardly act of accepting a 'bung', the heavy inference of Sam Allardyce and Harry Redknapp's openness to accepting such 'sweeteners' has caused little in the way of shock among football supporters.

We knew it went on anyway, always had an idea of who might be involved and, most likely, will now carry on about our business regardless, perhaps keeping a closer eye on the findings of the Lord Stevens inquiry, announced on October 2.

Does this reaction, however, say more about our ethical laxity when it comes to big money dealings in football and in business in general than it does about a prissy, tale-telling media, anxious, in the 'fake Sheikh' era to reveal scandal and misdeed where most of us see only business practicality?

Behind the 'much ado about nothing' response to last night's revelations lies an attitude of everyday tolerance of corruption and stroke-pulling which has come to assume a cosy legitimacy in our free-market world, where anything which oils the wheels of 'business' is perfectly legitimate. Ethics in business are an illusory concept, as many of the executives being wined and dined at the K Club this weekend will delightedly testify.

Mike Newell, the Luton manager who earlier this year publicly declared his knowledge of 'bungs' in football and on last night's show identified two of the agents involved as having offered him such inducements in the past, can be seen as the classic do-gooder figure here, subject to the patronising admonishments of his colleagues 'in the game', whose savvy and, to paraphrase one of the agents on the Panorama show, 'like of a deal' make them the conduits for most of these arrangements.

Newell's central problem with this culture is that it involves, ultimately, the misappropriation of supporters' money. One way of doing one of these deals involved a manager agreeing to give the agent a larger percentage of a transfer fee as his cut - say £130,000 instead of £100,000 - the difference then being paid back to the manager in return for his cooperation in the transfer. £30,000, even at today's prices, represents quite a few season tickets.

Whether the money is siphoned from a club's coffers into their manager or chief scout's offshore account, or comes from a shady millionaire backer (as in the case of the Panorama investigation's sting operation) the other compromise to the purchasing club's integrity is in the fact of a manager's signing policy being influenced by the potential benefits of dealing with a certain agent and the player he represents. That player may indeed be the ideal one for the club at that time, but the conflict of interest involved is clear.

While the show failed in its ultimate aim of finding a manager with his nose in the trough, the claim of one of the agents, Charles Collymore, that "four or five" managers would be worth approaching in the execution of this 'business plan' was interesting: if there is nothing much wrong with what the bent bosses are up to, then why isn't everyone at it? And the obvious secrecy in the manner of the dealings (the show's inference of the significance of Craig Allardyce's 'closeness' to his father in business terms got me thinking of Tony Soprano's desire to delegate the running of the family to his trusted nephew, Christopher Moltisanti - okay, steady on, this is Bolton we're talking about here...) doesn't give the impression of de facto legitimacy within the game.

The investigation's least successful portion was the revelations of 'tapping up', which implicated Chelsea in particular in being open to the clandestine recruitment of a Middlesbrough youth player. While 'tapping up' remains against F.A.'s transfer regulations, it is one misdemeanour which carries little weight in the wider world, given the necessarily secretive way in which most of us would seek to find a new employer in the event of dissatisfaction with our existing one.

Ultimately the Panorama investigation fell short of its claim that it would "blow the lid off football", but only in the sense that the seedy inner workings of the game are so well-known to most of its followers that it felt like we knew exactly what was under the lid in the first place. Indeed the fact that so few managers were implicated suggests that ethical standards do exist, and that perhaps those who like a 'bung' for their buck are more the rogue element than we hitherto thought.


Blogger Tom the Tim said...

Fair comment, Tom. It appears that once again Panarama have gone off half cocked, like their "lifting the lid" on Scotland's Shame, their exposé on the sectarianism in Scotland.

The BBC is rapidly becoming discredited in it's ability to produce factual, balanced, investigative journalism and is opting more frequently to red top sensationalism, which is decidedly not, in any form, sensational.

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