Who needs a football agent anyway? OK, I admit it, I do

I had lunch last week with two agents who between them look after Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, David Beckham, Dwight Yorke, David Platt, Dion Dublin, Gary Lineker, Graeme le Saux, Gary McAllister, Emile Heskey, oh the star names go on and on.

I can't name one of the star agents, as he does not like any personal publicity, so we'll call him Mr S. The other is Jonathan Holmes, whom I have known for years. They have recently come together, in that their respective firms are now part of a much bigger organisation, the Marquee Group, which is ultimately American owned.

I haven't got an agent at present, for reasons too boring to go into. I have thought up and negotiated my last five books on my own, and found that it has saved me time and made no difference to the money. So who needs an agent?

They both looked at me pityingly. Everyone needs an agent, they said, especially when they are beginning. It's true I had one when I started out, but he retired through ill-health, selling his firm to another agency, then in due course this agent left that firm and I thought bugger it, I'll do it on my own.

Publishing and football are two very different industries, but Jurgen Klinsmann, when he was at Spurs, managed without an agent, and he didn't do too badly. Most unusual, they said. Though Klinsmann did have an adviser. There are at present 91 official football agents in Britain, looking after approximately 90 per cent of our players. They know it makes sense. Footballers need help and advice.

OK then, but why not just pay for advice, if and when you need it? I was always impressed that Gazza uses Mel Stein, who is a lawyer, rather than an agent, paying him per hour, per job.

Again, they looked saddened by my naivety. "A lawyer will still present you with a big bill, irrespective of whether you have made any money. Anyway, lawyers are not commercial people. And with one or two exceptions, they are not as close to the game as football agents."

They have both made most of their income over the years from the commercial side of a footballer's life, not his actual footballing life, handling things like advertising, sponsorship and personal appearances. One of them has never taken anything from a footballer's wage, or from his transfer fees. They pride themselves on this, pointing out that, unlike some agents, there is nothing in it for them to stir up trouble at a club or encourage a player to move. But naturally, they are there to listen to a player's moans about his club, his problems, his career, and give advice.

"When I take on a young player, I draw up a ten-year career plan," said Mr S. "I chart the likely stages, his likely income, the likely commercial benefits. I might make nothing personally for a few years, till he has reached the stage of being offered commercial work, then I decide what will be best for him, best for his career and image."

Both of them came into football sideways, when by chance they gave help and financial advice to two young players at the beginning of their careers, long before they were known. Mr S's first footballer was David Platt, back in his days at Crewe. As Platty progressed, got to bigger clubs and then into the England team, he recommended Mr S to other players.

In the case of Jonathan Holmes, he met and looked after Gary Lineker while he was still in his early days at Leicester. As Lineker progressed as a player, so did Jonathan as an agent, taking on rugby players and cricketers as well as footballers, all from his Nottingham base. At one stage, he was the agent for all three of England's sporting captains - Lineker, Atherton and Carling.

He has done a great deal to ease Lineker from football into the media, thinking up ideas for TV programmes. They both see themselves, if required, as being a footballer's agent for life, helping them into their next career, whatever it might be, even if it's just sitting at home and counting their millions.

Our top agents, of course, have done pretty well for themselves, capitalising on their years of hard work behind the scenes. "And we do work hard," said Mr S. "I work every evening and weekends and am always available, without any extra charge. Unlike a lawyer . . ."

Yes, you've made your point. Both of them realise how lucky they were, chancing on young players who turned out not just to be star players, but sensible, intelligent, un-daft people. Platty, for example, even wrote his own autobiography, something almost unheard of in football.

Where is Platty, by the way? Not heard of him recently. Waiting to go into management, said Mr S, sipping his glass of water. He then had to go off for an urgent appointment at a London club.

Jonathan and I ordered another bottle of wine while we tried to think of other players in living memory who have also written their own books without help. We only got to three - Lee Chapman, Garry Nelson and Eamon Dunphy.

What football really needs, I said, is someone who knows about football and can write about football. Now that you're branching out, Jonathan, extending the empire, becoming a transatlantic media mogul, I happen to know about this very good hack who hasn't got an agent at present, who could just be the sort of person you might like to represent.

Jonathan got up, suddenly remembering he had an urgent meeting as well. But he did pay the bill . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition