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Ominous signs of overt agent influence at Blackburn and Man City


There are times in football when you just despair. For Newcastle United to sack Chris Hughton was bad enough, but Blackburn Rovers' decision to part company with Sam Allardyce defies belief.

Hughton's dismissal left almost everybody sickened, appalled that a man who had gone about his business with such dignity and effectiveness could be treated so callously, but at least it was possible -- just about -- to spy the tiniest grain of logic behind the decision. You might disagree with the Newcastle board's assessment of capabilities of Hughton, you may feel they had some bond of loyalty toward him, but it is a fact that he has no experience managing a club in the top half of the Premier League. If the Newcastle board really felt that Hughton would have had Newcastle scrapping in lower-midtable and that his replacement Alan Pardew can lift them half a dozen places above that, then at least some sort of argument can be raised in support of their decision, ruthless and unpleasant as it may have been.

The same cannot be said for what Blackburn did last week. Allardyce is not necessarily a popular figure; there are those who criticize his style of football and those who are affronted by his bluntness, but it's hard to argue with his effectiveness. As Paul Tomkins' book Pay as You Play demonstrates, no manger in Premier League history has won his points for so little expenditure. To transform Bolton as he did from Championship also-rans to Uefa Cup qualifiers was an extraordinary achievement.

There is a perception that Allardyce's sides play agricultural, unsophisticated, football, but the opposite is true. It is hard to believe any English manager has ever paid such attention to the science of the game, and his use of statistical analysis has been genuinely innovative. The results may not necessarily please everybody's aesthetic sensibility, but there is a place for pragmatism in football, particularly at clubs such as Bolton and Blackburn who, thanks to their comparatively small fan-bases, are always going to be punching above their weight in the Premier League.

Probably no British manager has ever had such a clear idea of how his side should work, of the sort of player he needs to add to change the dynamic or improve certain aspects, so when a representative of Venky's, the Indian chicken magnateswho took over Blackburn last month, presented Allardyce with a list of targets for the January transfer window, ignoring the manager's suggestions, there was always going to be confrontation.

To an extent this is a very British issue; outside of Britain there are very few managers who would expect to have full control over transfers, and even within the Premier League the so-called continental model of sporting director and coach, as opposed to one overall manager, is beginning to take hold. Yet Allardyce surely has earned the right with his past record to make his own decision on signings, and where the alarm bells really should be ringing is in the presence on the list -- it's alleged -- of Geovanni and Kris Boyd.

"We wanted the games to be interesting and of course wanted to win and to have good players," Venky's chairman Anuradha Desai told the Lancashire Telegraph. "We want good football and Blackburn to be fourth or fifth in the league or even better." I'm sure she did, but bringing in an unreliable and aging Brazilian and a hit-and-miss Middlesbrough reserve doesn't really seem a step in that direction.

The thought that Blackburn could be fourth or fifth with the present squad and the present budget, frankly, is laughable. Perhaps Desai intended to give off an air of confidence, but she ended up sounding naive, while casting serious doubt on the credibility of her advisers. And that's where the Blackburn situation becomes really worrying. Venky's main consultants are the global sports agency Kentaro, who last year formed a partnership with the Sports Entertainment and Media Group (SEM), run by the agent Jerome Anderson; Boyd and Geovanni are clients of SEM.

Venky's has sought to play down the concerns, insisting that Kentaro are merely consultants and that the manager would have the final say. Desai even insisted that, contrary to initial reports, no names were ever discussed with Allardyce. It hardly allays fears about potential conflicts of interest, though, that Steve Kean, the coach who has stepped up to replace Allardyce, is himself represented by SEM.

Perhaps what has happened at Blackburn is simply a matter of coincidence, cleverly spun by parties close to an outraged spurned manager. Perhaps not. But the dangers of an agent becoming too closely involved with a club have been apparent in recent weeks at Manchester City in the saga of Carlos Tevez - who put in a transfer request last week, only to surprisingly withdraw that request Monday.

Given his difficult personal situation, with his daughters living in Buenos Aires with his former partner, while his brother serves a 16-year jail term for armed robbery, his homesickness is probably genuine, and may even be the main cause of his recent discontent. But another factor in the debacle is the deteriorating relationship between his adviser Kia Joorabchian and City's CEO, Garry Cook. "Garry Cook has an inflated opinion of himself," Joorabchian said in an interview in the Sun, over which he had copy approval. "I brought him in from Nike after he begged me to get him a job in football. I got him a job which paid him more than four times what he was earning at Nike and he didn't complain about me then but it's all gone to his head."

Suddenly the bizarre statement in which Tevez blamed "certain executives" for his desire to leave the club was explained. Now, whether Joorabchian is, as some have suggested, using Tevez to destabilize Cook, whether it's all about money or whether Joorabchian is simply making capital from his client's desire for more familiar surroundings is unclear. However, whatever the truth, the situation has been exacerbated by agent apparently aggrieved by losing the sway he once seemed to have at a club.

There may be nothing cynical or sinister about Kentaro and SEM's involvement at Blackburn, but the club has only have to look 26 miles to the south to see why the warning signs should be heeded.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.