"Bungs", Corruption, and the Cult of the Manager in Club Football

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"Bungs", Corruption, and the Cult of the Manager in Club Football

Though it has largely been buried amid the fallout from Sam Allardyce’s shock exit a mere 67 days after taking charge of the English national team, the Telegraph’s follow up story on widespread managerial corruption is arguably more damning than the paper’s initial revelations that Allardyce had abused his station for personal gain.

The full report can be read here. It features a cavalcade of football agents speaking glibly of rampant corruption among several current and past Premier League managers, each taking their cut from various player deals. The Indepedent’s Ian Herbert also piled on today, revealing how previous allegations of corruption among English club managers in 2006 was met with total apathy from both the Football Association and FIFA.

It might be tempting for fans to dismiss this as unfortunate but expected “business as usual,” an ugly-yet-commonplace practice in European leagues increasingly flush with TV money. After all, with the lifespan of a manager getting shorter and shorter each passing season, can we blame them for trying to cash in while the going’s good?

This sounds vaguely okay until we consider precisely what these allegations imply—that a few managers allegedly helped broker million pound deals for players to come to their clubs, not necessarily for the good of the team but because it could help line their pockets. It is appalling to consider that certain clubs are okaying deals with long term competitive and financial implications for the first team simply because it might earn them a couple thousand quid.

Perhaps this is simply the work of a few bad apples, something some better regulatory oversight from the FA might help eradicate. Yet this corruption is arguably the nasty symptom of a much wider problem, not only in the English game, but professional football as a whole (lest American readers think ‘this couldn’t happen here’, there have been unconfirmed whisperings of similar behaviour by coaches in America’s top flight for years now).

For many decades, professional clubs have bought into the “cult of the manager”, the idea that an all powerful gaffer is as, if not more important, than the skill and quality of the players themselves. Though that power has waned slightly in recent years as England has warmed to the “director of football” role to help in player recruitment, running professional clubs is still largely the purview of a small network of “old boy” managers who cycle in and out of the professional game. Many of these managers still insist over having final say in player transfers, despite the high likelihood the manager will be gone long before their signees.

In some cases this hardly matters, because their skill in this area is unparalleled—for example, though he was not faultless, Sir Alex Ferguson had a fairly decent record bringing in the right players at the right time for Manchester United. Other managers however are less discerning, relying heavily either on their team’s scouting reports, their “gut feeling,” a few players they personally fancy, or the ‘recommendation’ of a few well connected agents eager to offload their clients—all with mixed results.

In this latter instance, it should be said that many of these agents are professionals in every sense of the word, eager to help both their clients and the clubs to the best of their ability; nevertheless, as the Telegraph ‘sting’ revealed the system is clearly open to abuse.

All this comes at a moment in the game when both quantitative and qualitative analytics are coming to the fore, and front office executives are beginning to experiment with more decentralized ways of running club, including establishing ‘transfer committees’ and bringing in specialised coaches, nutritionists, data and performance analysts etc.

While managers are still at the forefront of the decision-making process, power in these clubs is more widely dispersed. These teams increasingly consider both the short and long term needs of the team when bringing in players, and recruitment involves the input of several departments within the club. There are fewer opportunities for single parties to earn a little on the side.

However this decentralization is largely the domain of the wealthiest clubs. Those teams with more limited financial resources are often reliant on the old “Manager is King” model. The irony however is that these clubs would arguably benefit far more from a more considered recruitment process than their richer peers.

Yet while smaller clubs may not be able to hire phalanxes of high priced consultants, there is still a ton of low hanging fruit for them to pick, simple marginal gains from simply deciding on and sticking to a coherent recruitment process which reflects realistic competitive and financial goals. The best person(s) however to put these practices in place however may not be the manager—a figure who is likely to see the door in two seasons, give or take—but those with ostensibly more skin in the game: owners and executives.

Unless owners, chairpersons and executives are more vigilant about the waste and corruption on their watch, there will be many more tabloid stings in years to come. And here you may think—what if some owners are just as self-serving as kick-back taking managers? All the more reason then to push for more Supporters Trust-owned teams.