This is a frustrating book. Unfortunately Tom Bower’s previous experience as an investigative journalist isn’t enough to overcome his lack of knowledge about professional football. He has built his reputation writing about a series of famous people, and has usually managed to uncover information that his subjects would rather have keep quiet. Most famously, his book about Robert Maxwell proved a bit too close to the mark, and as a result was only widely available after the tycoon’s death removed the threat of legal action. Subsequently he has turned his attention to other subjects including Mohamed Fayed, Richard Branson and Gordon Brown.
Bower‘s problem here is not a lack of material, but rather the fact that he is obviously not a football fan, and so his attempts to put all the dodgy stuff into context falls rather flat. This could easily have remedied by getting the manuscript checked by someone who knew something about football, but no-one seems to have bothered to do that. There are countless references to players and matches that betray Bower’s basic lack of knowledge and interest in the game itself. The problem is that these are not throwaway lines, but are used to support the arguments he is putting forward, and so when he obviously doesn’t understand why a particular player might command a high transfer fee you wonder how much else in the book is based on incorrect assumptions. Given this problem, Bower would have been far better to stick to unpicking the deals and skullduggery, and left football fans to draw their own conclusions about whether players were over-priced (which, in any case, is almost always a matter of opinion).
The second problem for me (and, I suspect, many other football fans) is that I have no illusions about the professional game, so this book certainly didn’t shatter them. Perhaps Bower was surprised by what he discovered, but I’m afraid I wasn’t – I was already very cynical about football and was already aware (at least in general terms) of what was going on.
Professional football is a very strange world, to put it mildly. A few thousand players make a very good living out of football (at least for a few years), but for every highly-paid pro there are dozens more who earn a decent living but no more, and an even larger number who signed up as schoolboys and presumably had high hopes of success, but failed to get into the professional game. Having focused on football since their early teens, most professionals have probably neglected their education and have only a limited idea of “real life”. If a player is successful, he will end up with an agent. This gentleman will take a percentage of their earnings in return for negotiating contracts and offering advice on what they should do. The problem with agents is that they aren’t acting in the interest of the club that employs the player, and may not even be doing what is in the player’s best interests. An agent almost always earns more if a player is transferred to another club rather than staying where he is, and yet a young platyer
I remember watching “The Manageress” on Channel Four many years ago (it was a drama series starring Cherie Lunghi as a woman who becomes manager of a top English team). Her biggest problem (apart from the obvious one) was the endless difficulties she had with her top players and the demands of their agents. It may have been a fictional drama, but that part of it was undoubtedly true.
So it’s no surprise that managers such as Terry Venables, George Graham and Harry Redknapp have made it their business to work closely with certain agents. Bower makes much of this, and provides several examples of dubious deals where agents, managers and players have all profited, apparently at the expense of the football clubs involved. The problem for the average fan is that what really matters is whether your club ends up with good players, preferably at a reasonable price. If it was a good deal for the club, who really cares where the money ends up? If it was a lousy deal, is it any consolation that it was totally legitimate? Not really. Obviously if the manager is profiting and the club is suffering, then something has to be done, and that is why fans of several clubs (Tottenham, Portsmouth, Palace and Leeds, to name just four) will always be deeply suspicious of Terry Venables. However, who would bet against a desperate chairman turning to Venables to rescue a club in trouble?
Ah, the chairman. The reality is that most owners of football clubs are never going to make money out of the game, but that doesn’t stop them trying, and most fans are deeply suspicious of them as a result. Many are property developers, and there is always the thought that the land would be worth a great deal more if there wasn’t a pesky football club there. Sometimes the ownership of the ground and the club get separated – Charlton had many unhappy years as a result, and Wimbledon fans rue the day that Sam Hammam sold their Plough Lane ground to developers. Ironically, Crystal Palace, who hosted both these clubs for several seasons currently don’t own their own ground, which still belongs to former chairman Ron Noades (another property developer, of course). It remains to be seen how that one will get resolved.
Robert Maxwell deserves a mention if we are talking about dodgy chairmen. His madcap scheme to merge Oxford and Reading, or his unwillingness to spend any money when he owned Derby made him one of the most loathed chairmen of his day. He’s only mentioned in passing in Bower’s book, but the equally unpopular Ken Bates (now in charge at Leeds) gets his own chapter. The problem again is that fans don’t expect chairmen to be totally scrupulous, just as long as they do what is right for the club.
So it’s strange to see how critical Bower is of David Dein (vice-chairman of Arsenal). Perhaps he has trod on a few toes and upset a few agents along the way, but when Bower himself has demonstrated how ruthless agents can be, who can blame a football club for playing them at their own game? Dein is judged on the success of Arsenal and not whether he has treated agents fairly!
Whilst Bower is critical of Dein, he is sympathetic to Alan Sugar in his struggles with Terry Venables. However, you have to remember that Sugar later appointed George Graham (of all people) as Spurs manager. Bower finds this puzzling, which again serves to underline his limited understanding of the game of football. Yes, of course it is strange, but the reality is that successful managers are always in demand and past misdemeanours are easily overlooked.
Tom Bower has obviously done a lot of research and assembled some convincing evidence about what is wrong with the professional game, his lack of understand fatally undermines the book. Football is not always logical, and if you don’t understand the emotional aspects of winning and losing it is certainly hard to make sense of a lot of what happens. Clubs spend a fortune on players knowing very well that many will turn out be a waste of money, but also that one success story can make all the difference. It’s easy to ridicule managers for over-paying for players, but everyone has 20–20 hindsight! For example, Bower seemingly thinks that Arsenal made a mistake in buying Richard Wright rather than Jerzy Dudek, but the only really odd thing was that Liverpool ended up buying Dudek for much less than Arsenal has offered. He also says that Sun Jihai was “not suitable” for Crystal Palace (when he was signed by that man Terry Venables). In fact, he is a good player, contrary to what Bower seems to believe, as is demonstrated by the fact that he is now back in the Premiership with Manchester City (and has signed a new contract even though he is currently injured). Incidentally, Bower also gets the chronology of Venable’s brief second spell with Palace hopelessly wrong, believing that he tried and failed to save the club from relegation whereas in fact he joined after they had been relegated. Sadly the book is littered with basic errors like this.
Perhaps I am being a little harsh. Although there is not much in this book that is really new, Bower put forwards a fairly compelling case against several well-known managers and provides plenty of ammunition for anyone who is dubious about the amount of money that agents take out of the game of football and the influence they have in transfer deals. If you are interested in football but don’t know much about what goes on behind the scenes when players switch clubs, this book might be an eye-opener.
Bower is also on solid ground when he criticizes the Football Association for failing to sort out the mess, and in particular for allowing agents to earn such enormous sums from the game. However, his lack of understanding about professional football prevents him from diagnosing the cause of the problems or offering any solutions. Which is unfortunate, because football really does need to put its house in order, but this book is unlikely to help to bring about any changes.