Tom Bower admits he knew very little about the world of football before he started researching this book. The press release describes him as the first non-sports writer to take on the football giants. This has meant that he has had the advantage that, unlike pundits in the newspapers and on radio and television, he doesn't need favours in future from those running the sport. So he has been able to dig deep and tell it as it is. The book covers the period from the George Graham "bung" scandal, which led to his eventual dismissal by Arsenal in 1995, up to the forced resignation last year of the Football Association's chief executive Adam Crozier. It chronicles in great detail the many shady transfers in which the price of the player was inflated in order for everyone, including agents, managers and numerous go-betweens, to get their cut.
At one level, there is nothing new in this book to those of us who have cared deeply for many years about the standards of business probity in football. But what is new is the way Bower has linked the various problems in football to show how so many of them have been caused directly by weak leadership from within, coupled with an unwillingness from government to treat the football industry like any other multimillion-pound business. Unfortunately, the government did not treat football like other sports either, giving it special attention and prime ministerial patronage to gain "street cred" in the pubs, clubs and tabloid columns.
Bower has spent time with those who care about the reputation of the game; he gives special thanks to Mihir Bose, the Daily Telegraph's investigative reporter on sport and politics, who spearheaded the early exposures of transfer bungs (or illegal payments), for "directing him out of several dark corners".
The chapters on Terry Venables and his serious misconduct charges reminded me of the night, in January 1995, when I used the protection of parliamentary privilege to accuse him, as well as other managers and agents, of corruption. Speaking in the Commons, I said that millions of pounds had been syphoned off from the game in backhanders, bungs and fixes, and I called on the then Conservative government to set up an independent inquiry.
Bower charts how the football world closed ranks, showing no willingness to introduce self-regulation of its financial affairs. The same closing of ranks happened in parliament, too. Members of the all-party football committee were wary of confrontation. One MP, now in the Lords, angrily harangued me after my speech saying that, as a woman, I couldn't possibly understand the world of soccer. Well, now, anyone, male or female, who reads this book will certainly understand and gain an excellent insight into the murky world of agents who exploit the sport for their own ends, aided and abetted by managers seeking success at any price and a pathetically complacent FA.
Most interestingly, Bower traces the failure of the newly elected Labour government to fulfil the promises it had made to supporters of the game. In particular, the Football Task Force, set up immediately after the 1997 election and chaired by David Mellor, became a live political football, with Downing Street special advisers changing their minds over its recommendations on a daily basis. Behind the scenes, the Premier League and the FA used their contacts with Alastair Campbell in Downing Street to ensure that the task force's majority report calling for an independent Football Audit Commission to oversee the running of the game, and for an "ombudsfan" to deal with complaints, was not implemented. I saw all this and more from my position as sports minister. The then secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Chris Smith, took ten months to make a decision before opting for the watered-down self-regulatory system. Most of that time was spent arguing with Downing Street over who would chair the toothless body. Bower makes it all sound farcical, with departmental officials instructed to ring up celebrities to ask them to take on the job. It was more than a farce; it was a blatant attempt to prevent the one person eminently suitable, respected by supporters and clubs alike, from being appointed. Sir John Smith, the former deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, had been a member of the task force, and was the author of an FA-commissioned "bung inquiry" report. He had supported the majority report for an independent regulator, but Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, was determined to scupper his candidacy. He threatened that the soccer authorities would abandon co-operation even with the weakened body. I was still battling within government for our promises to the fans to be carried out when the 2001 election came and the new team at the culture department gave in.
But they did not win the race to host the 2006 World Cup. Bower accurately shows how the bid to hold the tournament in England influenced early decisions on the redevelopment of Wembley Stadium. Corners were cut and scrutiny of the £120m of Lottery money that Sport England allocated to Wembley Stadium was non-existent.
This book should be read by all who love the game. It proves, definitively, that an independent regulator is needed more than ever. Maybe the government will listen this time.
Kate Hoey MP was minister for sport, 1999-2001