If bungs help improve the team, who cares?
Ignore the media handwringing over Allardyce’s alleged backhanders: football isn't the only institution with a 'bung culture'.
Undercover: Football’s Dirty Secrets was billed as the programme that would ‘rock football to its foundations’ by lifting the lid on corruption. However, apart from a few obscure football agents boasting about managers trousering backhanders, the BBC Panorama programme was distinctly underwhelming.
‘There’s managers out there who take bungs all day long’, boasted wideboy agent Charles Collymore to an undercover reporter. But, despite the best efforts of the Panorama team actually to entrap a Premiership manager with a suitcase stuffed with bank notes, nobody was caught on camera actually taking a bung. Football might not have been rocked to its foundations by Panorama’s rather flimsy evidence but Sam Allardyce’s reputation has taken a battering. The Bolton Wanderers’ manager faces the most serious allegations of having accepted irregular payments channelled through his football agent son Craig. But even the case against Allardyce, which consists of unsubstantiated claims made by three agents, is far from conclusive.
The allegations of tapping up against Chelsea’s head of youth development Frank Arnesen and Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp were even more risible. In both cases it was the agent Peter Harrison who was doing the tapping up or, more precisely, the illicit touting of players. Arnesen was offered Nathan Porritt, a 16-year-old Middlesborough academy player, of whom Harrison claimed ‘it was 99.9 per cent sure he’s leaving Middlesborough’, while Redknapp was asked if would be interested in taking Blackburn skipper Andy Todd. Discussing a player’s transfer without the permission of his club might technically contravene the rules against ‘tapping up’, but it’s hardly a hanging offence. As I’ve argued before on spiked, the tapping-up rules are an anachronism, the residual remnants of the old ‘retain and transfer’ system in which footballers were tied to their clubs like bonded serfs. These feudal rules should be scrapped and footballers should be allowed, like any other employee, to speak to prospective employers without their current employer’s permission.
What, then, of the more serious charges of bung-taking, a practice often described as ‘football’s worst kept secret’? Surely the acceptance of under-the-counter payments is fraudulent and should be rooted out of the game? Personally, I can’t see what all the fuss is about. I don’t know the extent of the so-called ‘bung culture’ in football but I do know that financial inducements are not exclusive to football. In the world of commerce, bungs or sweeteners – whether illicit or legitimate – are part and parcel of normal business practice. What is corporate hospitality if it isn’t the provision of sweeteners to help facilitate business deals?
The allegations of bung-taking inevitably lead to calls for statutory regulation of football, but the government itself isn’t averse to using sweeteners to lubricate the wheels of industry. What are tax breaks or export credit guarantees if they aren’t legalised bungs?
The problem with bung-taking in football is that, although it breaches football’s own rules, it is not regulated by the state. In the not-so-distant past, when football was sniffily derided as a ‘slum sport for slum people’, few people outside the game gave a monkeys about football managers taking backhanders. But all that has changed. Football today enjoys an exalted social status, the dominant cultural institution of our times. Such is football’s overinflated significance that players are no longer regarded as mere entertainers, but role models for children. Witness, for example, the absurd spectacle of Harry Kewell, a player who is almost permanently injured, being unveiled as the figurehead in the Australian government’s fight against obesity.
It is in this context that we need to understand the overblown moral furore over bung-taking. As football has increasingly been co-opted as the sporting arm of government social policy, so the crusade against sleaze in public life has migrated into football.
The sleaze-busters would have us believe that bung-taking managers are stealing ‘our money’. But football fans have always been relatively ambivalent when it comes to bung allegations. Does it matter if the gaffer likes a backhander as long as his transfer dealings benefit the club? Former Spurs chairman Alan Sugar famously declared that ‘Cloughie likes a bung’, and yet, despite persistent rumours of illicit payments, Brian Clough is still held in great affection by Forest fans and neutrals alike.
Terry Venables is another manager who has been dogged by allegations of financial malpractice. He was accused by the Department for Trade and Industry of a whole raft of shady business practices and disqualified from being a company director in 1998. And yet, such is the high esteem in which Venables is still held as a football coach that there were no howls of protest when he was hired as Steve McLaren’s assistant in August.
In the recent Channel 4 drama All in the Game, Ray Winstone played a bent football manager who took a bung in return for signing a crocked player. This type of transfer deal was meant to epitomise all that was wrong with football’s bung culture. But do we really need tougher regulation to deal with this kind of scenario? Football is a ruthless results-driven industry and any manager foolish enough to be bribed into buying duff players would be out of a job before long. If, on the other hand, a manager gets a kickback for signing a 20-goal-a-season striker, who’s complaining?
Cloughie may well have ‘liked a bung’, but he won the European Cup twice – and for that I’d gladly turn a blind eye to the odd brown paper bag stuffed with bank notes.
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