Fair Game?

“Tapping”: football’s incurable malaise – and everybody’s doing it.

As of late, much has been made in the footballing media, and the like, of the practice of “tapping”; in it’s simplest form, a process by which one interested club makes an “illegal” approach towards a targeted player while said player is still under contract his current club. All this, of course, without the knowledge, or permission, of the player’s contracted club.

The most recent case in point has been that of Ashley Cole, where it has been alleged that the player himself was in attendance at a covert meeting.

Under normal circumstances, the player is advisedly kept at arms length from such meetings, with the initial approach being made, to the targeted player, by an agent representing the interested (buying) club. Every professional club, whether at directorship or management level, has one or two agents they believe they can rely on: and will therefore utilize the services of one of those “trusted” individuals to quietly initiate the process.

As many of you will be aware, this procedure is openly known – and accepted - as “headhunting” in the normal business world. However, in the case of football, where young, impressionable, players are easily swayed at the thought of another few thousand pounds topping up their wages, it is generally perceived that “tapping” can have a notably unsettling effect on such players. My experience of football only leads me to concur with this.

Unfortunately, in a sport where a Manager is rarely judged on anything more historical than his last three or four results, the pressure on those same Managers, to ensure that the team’s performance is maximized, is relentless. Therefore, most managers have little choice but to jump onto the “tapping treadmill” - otherwise they risk losing out to their competitors, in trying to secure any new signings. That can mean also risking their job!

Fact: it is sadly the case, in respect of football agents that the “good guys will probably finish last”.

Ask yourself this: why, by their own admission, did Manchester United disburse £750,000 in agents’ fees, relating to the transfer of Louis Saha from Fulham in January of 2004, when that lad would have crawled up the M6 on his hands and knees (on broken glass!) to play at Old Trafford?

The answer is this: those considerable fees were paid much less for the agent’s involvement in negotiating Saha’s deal at his new club - than for the same agents’ involvement in ensuring that the player’s path to Old Trafford was cleared of any unforeseen obstacles and that the player was well aware, beforehand, of the deal on offer. It doesn’t look good for Manchester United – or any club for that matter – when news breaks of their interest in a player, only to find that the deal stalls beacuse of the player’s personal financial requirements (i.e. salary, signing-on fee, bonuses, etc.).

In this particular case, I suspect the tapping was of a very sophisticated, clandestine and almost professional nature – but “tapping” nevertheless.

So, can it be stopped? I’m afraid that – as sure as night follows day – the practice of tapping will never be eradicated from the professional game.

From the point of view of damage limitation however, severe penalties should be handed down to players who are found to have had a direct involvement in any discussions with any interested club, while they are still contracted to another club. Fining Liverpool a mere £20,000 in connection with the tapping-up of Christian Ziege hardly constitutes a future deterrent!

You know, players love (and live) to play. Ashley Cole was indeed shown to have been present at that now well-publicised meeting, allegedly with Peter Kenyon present, and was fined £100,000.00, along with his agent Jonathan Barnett. The only course of action – if the footballing authorities seriously want to discourage such practices from continuing – is to levy a four-week salary fine on the player and a three point deduction to the “poaching” club.

Some might argue that Ashley Cole should also have been suspended, if proven to be complicit, but why should Arsenal suffer? They can’t keep their players chained up twenty-four hours a day. Unless less it’s a dominatrix?

If all this whets your appetite to delve a little deeper into football’s darker side, then be sure and pick up a copy of Tom Bower’s excellent book “Broken Dreams: Vanity, Greed and the Souring of British Football”. You’ll be aghast at what has gone on – and what still goes on- in the game.

The fact that some of the more unsavoury characters that feature in the book have never announced any intention to sue Tom Bower, pretty much says everything. The chapter on Harry Rednapp is particularly illuminating.

Bless the true football fans that unwittingly fund the game’s excesses.