In over two decades at Manchester United, Alex Ferguson has crossed swords with some of the biggest personalities in the game – Arsene Wenger, Rafa Benitez, Jose Mourinho, Roy Keane and Sepp Blatter, just to name a few.
He’s dealt with all of them with that same stoic, authoritative swagger, so it’s kind of sad to see him having to meekly conform to the schemings of a pudgy, greedy vacuum-cleaner salesperson over Wayne Rooney, one of his favourite sons at United.
Make no mistake, and ignore everything you read in the tabloids that might suggest otherwise – the whole saga over Rooney wanting to leave United was completely the doings of Paul Stretford, the vacuum cleaner salesperson-turned football agent extraordinaire.
Think about it: Rooney hasn’t said a single thing since the whole thing blew up. Everything came out in the form of extremely well-worded statements, and we all know the Roo-natic ain’t the most articulate bloke. It was all orchestrated by Stretford.
The role of football agents today is to make sure everything is taken care of for their young, multi-millionaire clients – contracts, endorsement deals, branding, PR – so they can get on with playing football. Rooney, 25, would be no different, having relied on Stretford ever since he was 17 in all matters involving his career.
So all that public posturing about United not having enough “ambition” was just a ploy by Stretford to get Rooney, and ultimately, himself, the most money he could out of the deal.
And Ferguson (and probably Rooney himself), sadly, had no choice but to play along. There was no room for him to come out swinging against Stretford, having come to terms with the power that agents hold in the modern game. Instead, he played the contrite, heart-broken father pleading for Rooney to reconsider.
Thankfully, when the time came to actually put pen to paper, Rooney was more than eager to dedicate his future to United, contrary to what he had been “saying” all this while through those statements.
Everyone from Wenger to David Beckham to Gerrard Houllier has come out since saying they weren’t surprised by the news at all, probably because as people in the football industry themselves, they knew it was just Stretford trying to play hardball with United. Even before Rooney had signed, Mourinho was already 100% sure Rooney wouldn’t leave and even laughed off the whole affair; but then again, when is Mourinho not 100% about anything?
You have to hand it to Stretford, though. His job is to make sure his clients earn as much money as they can in their relatively short careers, and he seems to be darn good at it.
One of his earlier clients, former United striker Andy Cole, signed with Stretford after he promised that Cole would “never have to work again after football”. Stretford would go on to engineer Cole’s seemingly impossible and ultimately highly lucrative move from Newcastle to United, fierce title rivals at the time.
There is, however, the morality of it all. In England, football clubs are institutions. They are a part of people’s lives, part of the very fabric of their society, and the players in those clubs are local heroes.
But agents like Stretford conveniently ignore all that in the name of their duty to add zeroes to their clients’ bank accounts, as well as their own. They muddy the waters between clubs and players in their never-ending quest to squeeze every penny out of the club, holding them hostage to ever-increasing wage demands for players – from which the agents will be entitled a cut.
According to reports, Stretford stands to earn around £2.5mil (RM13mil) from representing Rooney on his new United deal.
With so many millions at stake, the fight to represent Rooney six years ago between Stretford and the footballer’s former representatives quickly turned ugly. It involved blackmail, gangsters and lawsuits – just a murder short of a CSI storyline.
It’s a long and complicated story, but Stretford was found to have broken seven of the Football Association’s agent regulations by the end of it, and slapped with an 18-month ban from being an agent. That’s how desperate he was to represent Rooney.
And that just goes to show how unimportant football can be to agents, how meaningless the relationship between their clients and their clubs can be, as well as how important it is to the fans, when there can be millions of pounds to be pocketed.
It’s no surprise that former England manager Graham Taylor once asked that all football agents to be “lined up against a wall and shot”.
Stretford and Rooney’s case might be an extreme example, but it’s a growing problem, and Stretford’s latest bit of business would have set a dangerous precedent.
Wenger, the most financially sound manager in the world, has, like Ferguson, grudgingly accepted this new world order, saying last weekend that there’s no telling how high players’ wages could go now.
Speaking about whether his players would now compare their wages to Rooney’s, Wenger said: “The players always compare.”