Dear oh dear oh dear. That was a bit of a shambles, wasn’t it? Yes, I am talking about the short, sharp culmination to ‘Big Sam’ Allardyce’s reign as England boss, no prizes for guessing. In the space of just six crazy days we’ve witnessed the Daily Telegraph undertake a mind-blowing and borderline-illegal dissection of the footballing industry, proving the power of the media can cause what will go down as the most heart-breaking and shocking fall from grace of an England manager in history, along with the second domino falling in the case as Barnsley assistant manager Tommy Wright was another to fall victim to the savage entrapment of these ‘journalists’. In fact, just as I was writing this on Thursday night, it was revealed that another figure was being toppled as Southampton assistant manager Eric Black was about to be featured in the next edition of ‘who do we want to target today?, followed up by Harry Redknapp just this (Saturday) morning.
While it can only surely be a positive move for the game to expose the criminality of some of its main proprietors and prophets, you can’t really help but feel what those at the Telegraph have done goes beyond the line of what is just, as they decided to prioritise shifting papers and unleashing a public tirade over using their information to simply inform the FA. But I suppose in these modern days of slow print media sales, a story like this, catching the manager of the England national team red-handed and forcing him out of the hot seat is what those at the newspaper had to do to get their yearly bonuses. Anyway, I suppose the main point of this unparalleled and unprecedented leak is not that it lost Big Sam his job, but rather to expose that football is full of crooks at the top, and that there are many who we should naturally trust, but who turn out not to be the people we thought they were. But didn’t we always know there were people who were in the game for all the wrong reasons? Why didn’t we expect something like this to come around? Overall, I suppose the bigger question is; can we seriously still be having any trust in the game we love?
Where to start then? Well, I guess I should detail my thoughts on the whole situation before we go any further (‘but isn’t that what the whole blog is going to be about?’ I hear you cry), as there is certainly plenty of evidence to be analysed in these cases. First of all, I was entirely taken aback by the revelation on the news on Sunday that the Telegraph had taken it upon themselves to release this incriminating and potentially career-ending evidence to the world on Monday morning, and that of anyone in the game, Sam Allardyce had fallen for their ploys, looking to make a quick buck on the side of his England commitments. I was quite dismissive at first; I thought this wouldn’t have any major impact on his job stability, just a written warning from the FA or something, as it hadn’t caused mass public hysteria by the time the news had hit the front pages on Monday morning, just widespread confusion really. But as the pressure grew and grew like a steaming sauna on the FA, sweating from every orifice as the public awaited a response, they took a long, hard look at themselves. They asked themselves ‘could we survive as a credible organisation if we let our senior team manager get away with even considering (not actually practising, it’s vital to note) the very actions we come down like bricks on if anyone else involved in the game carries out?’. In the end, it turned out the answer, after almost two days of deliberation, on Tuesday night, was no, no in reality they couldn’t. In all honesty; they took it far more seriously than any of us did as football fans, as we saw the side that Allardyce was a decent, hard-working, honest manager implementing a new approach into the national team, whereas the FA, as his employers, had to critically analyse the behaviour of their best-paid employee, deciding that it wasn’t acceptable.
Their decision was made on non-footballing matters, rare for an England manager, but looking back at it after a few days’ analysis and deliberation, it does seem the fairest, and best decision for the game. From the FA’s perspective too, they would much rather be sat here explaining themselves sacking a manager who so unfortunately early into his reign made a fatal error of judgement, rather than defending their decision to back a manager who had only scraped a win in his first game in charge and was caught making illegal third-party deals behind their backs. They would look like utter fools if they did that (not to say they don’t anyway), and the better decision for the future of the FA has been bravely taken by Greg Clarke, also newly installed into his reign as Chairman.
So there’s no denying Allardyce did the wrong thing. It was foolish of him even to respond to the messages offering him a role in the whole side-stepping of the FA’s very own third-party rules - preventing agents, sponsors or management agencies holding power of a player’s rights - with these undercover reporters, whom he thought to be businessmen looking to make a good deal in the Asian market. The icing on the cake, or rather the crowning glory to the blazing end to Allardyce’s England legacy was the unbelievable small talk, revealing his less-than-perfect views of Princes William and Harry, his predecessor Roy Hodgson, ex-coach Gary Neville or HMRC, whom he ironically called ‘the most corrupt business in the world’. Right now, I wouldn’t bet against football taking that title considering the scandal that has come out this week.
The main thing to consider about this whole horror show is that it wasn’t just confined to Allardyce, Black or even Wright, who lost his job as a result of just standing in ahead of his manager to agree a deal to sign a number of players who were fictitiously owned by third parties. This saga is a slow-burner (luckily enough for the likes of me, as I thought I’d be too late to the story to conjure up any interest), sure to make millions for the Daily Telegraph and put dozens out of jobs in the footballing world. For example, with the full details of Jimmy Floyd Hasslebaink’s (QPR boss) and Massimo Cellino’s (Leeds United owner) cases yet to be revealed, with both club’s boards awaiting further information prior to making any final decisions. Harry Redknapp’s blabbing about his players openly betting on matches hasn’t improved the situation either, and with rumours of Premier League managers past and present also taking bribes to keep quiet about the goings-on set to surface soon, it is far from over yet. I’d think there’s going to be a few silent managers at this week’s press conferences and matches, unlikely to want to discuss anything about what they knew about it all. That’s even if those accusations were correct, as just yesterday the unlicensed agent Pino Pagliara came out in an interview with the BBC to refute his own claims that all those managers had promoted the third-party method. Although, with the fact he’s already been proven a liar and a fraud in the past, it’s very difficult to believe him now, as he attempts to play down the whole situation possibly for the sake of his reputation and career, as no one is going to want to work with a man with such loose lips, revealing secrets to people who later turn out to be undercover journalists.
At least we have some moralistic guys involved in the game though, as Wales manager and all-round infuriatingly great man Chris Coleman broke his silence to call for life bans for all found guilty, whilst long-time Stoke City chairman Peter Coates bravely admitted he had seen much worse in the game over his decades involved in the running of the club. It’s nice to know you can trust at least a handful of people in the game today who are in it for the right reason, although it shouldn’t have come to this, with them having to apologise on behalf of the industry for the unforgivable mistakes of others.
On the part of the undercover journalists who carried out the exposé though, the whole situation reeks of double-standards if you ask me. If the Telegraph wants to target anyone for bribery and corruption, I don’t think they should be doing it as a right-wing newspaper against a sport, rather than the governments of notoriously manipulative, money-laundering states such as Nigeria, South Africa or Brazil, who have far more of an effect on everyday global life. There are plenty of routes around paying full amounts of tax that certain Conservative MP’s take, as well as I’m sure ex-Editors or Columnists for the paper, as they are not as clean as I’m sure they want us to believe. While yes, it did make progress in removing people who were sticking their middle finger up at the rules behind-closed-doors, I think that the way the journalists used the technique of entrapment, posing as the very criminals they attempt to expose in their investigation, was immoral and honestly unfair on otherwise good men such as Allardyce, who have spent lifetimes building up to this point of their career, only to be torn down by some smart journalist. Imagine having everything you’ve worked your life to achieve ripped away from you by accusations of fraudulence or even worse, tainting your reputation and surely damaging your mental health. It wouldn’t feel good, even if you accept you should’ve known better, would it?
One of the main emotions that I suppose the newspaper was trying to evoke from us as a football-obsessed nation from this investigation though was disbelief; shock at how this could be going on in what we now thought was a changed sport to the one in which Sepp Blatter laundered millions through bribes between equally corrupt officials. But once the first wave had washed up on the shores of our press, it has all seemed a little too predictable, with mainstays of the game, albeit far less well-known ones, losing credibility and hard-earned positions at their respective clubs on the daily, the Telegraph seemingly having a whole arsenal of evidence. But instead of using this evidence to the benefit of the game; handing it over to the FA to use to either have a stern word with those involved, they have decided to plot the downfall of a number of managers who in all honesty were just looking to recruit players or make a quick buck on the side of their day job. Obviously that’s not me saying it’s acceptable to do something like that – especially not in the case of Allardyce, who should’ve kept his wits about him to spot when something sounds too good to be true, and when you don’t want to follow in the example of other ex-England bosses whose personal lives have been targeted before. It’s just that I think it was an opportunist and irresponsible attack on the football industry, kicking off a civil war within after the release of the evidence. Oh yeah, I just think it’s worth mentioning that with this ongoing exposé, the Telegraph have probably ensured their survival as a relevant national paper for a few more years now, as they can live off the money made this week for a good period of time. But obviously they never did it for the money and attention, just for making football fans and organisations aware of immoral things going on behind closed doors, right? Yeah mate, keep telling yourself that.
Let’s be honest though, it’s not like any of us seriously thought football in 2016 was as clean and completely perfect as it would lead us to believe, as it had only been a matter of months since Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini were served their effectively-lifetime bans from returning to any positions at the top of the game. The work of the FBI, Swiss Officials and numerous other national organisations to get to that point in the summer of 2015 (it seems longer ago, doesn’t it?) was ground-breaking and a vital flushing-out of the truth at FIFA, the ultimate government of the game, as it brought real change, with the Ethics (not Essex) Committee finally put to work. So there was bound to still be some lingering issues, the product of outdated and soft penalties to offenders, across the very widespread global network of the game. Maybe the thing was that we didn’t expect them to be in our own back yard, with our national manager put to shame and a number of other well-paid officials caught out by fairly simple, but effective, investigating. But there is so much going on behind our backs these days in the multi-billion pound industry that is British football that anything could be happening really, and it would be left for some brave reporter or informant from inside the business, like Chuck Blazer at FIFA, to change anything. It’s cut-throat enough as it is, without even knowing the extent of third-part deals between agents and managers, as if you are working in the industry you will be expected to either turn a blind eye or fail in your aspirations, depending on whether you accept the immorality of it all or dare to speak up.
With the money involved at the top level these days as well, we could’ve expected those who are prepared to keep a secret to carry around some loose change, let’s say wads of about £5,000 in the case of what was handed to Tommy Wright, or even £50,000 if it is a truly serious secret, to keep those in the know shut up. For the sake of those in power, this is an imperative thing to do, as it makes sure the already-dented reputation of football is protected from further damage, at least for a while, until the word gets out. In fact, I’d say the respectability of the top level of football is like a battered boxer, complete with cuts and bruises all over, on the ropes at the moment, just another big hit away from crumpling to the ground right now. No matter what happens though, there will be those of us who support this fighter until the very end, while for those who aren’t as obsessed, it will continue to just seem unbelievable how loved the game is despite its many, many faults. But I think that’s how football has always been; never widely accepted as fair or blemish-free, still loved by large sections of society nonetheless. Possibly it’s because once we witness the ball being kicked around again on a Saturday afternoon, all is forgiven, as we are far too thankful for the top-class entertainment we receive, but I think we as fans have let FIFA and organisations such as the FA off the hook far too easily in the past for awful crimes.
Maybe, we just pass it off as society’s problem, rather than football’s, when in reality it is the sport which is stuck with the ball in its court, forced to take the initiative if it wants to fix the fractured trust between dangerously loyal fans and the bosses at the top. If football is to make itself respectable and set a decent, honest example for people both wanting to get into the industry or just follow it, they need to get serious and have a real crackdown, not one of their phoney wars on wrongdoing that they have carried out in the past. With more education coming into the game, you would’ve thought problems like these would’ve been cleared up by now, but obviously not as the sport continues to go through another embarrassing period of drama. Still, I guess it keeps the sport interesting, and maintains the importance of journalists, doesn’t it?
The thing is; there will always be naturally greedy people in life just in it to make a quick profit, they make the world go round after all, but for football it’s just how to catch them and make an example to the industry that they will not stand for that kind of behaviour. This is certainly the test for the FA in the coming days and weeks. They’ve got to show that the beautiful game isn’t full of greedy officials, just in it to make their money, and that is a tricky thing considering the evidence we’ve seen during this revolutionary, telling and altogether strange week. From the start, this was never a story about Sam Allardyce, Tommy Wright Eric Black or Harry Redknapp, it was about the backhandedness, immorality and cold-heartedness of the business that is football in 2016, and how it is ruining what should be such a positive thing; sport. If one thing can be taken from this whole saga; for me it would be that you should never expect anything from football, as it always surprises you. After all, a huge shred of trust in the game we love has been carved away this week, and the wounds will take time to heal. As long as the FA, PFA and respective clubs do their work though, I’m sure things can be fixed in time. It’s not like football hasn’t faced daunting trauma before; in fact it has made a reputation from recovering from it. Oh, and if you’ve been wondering, my choice for England manager would be Arsene Wenger as I explained before, but I sense that wasn’t really the point of this blog, was it?
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!