French connection adds to agents mystery

A swift story - albeit one, eventually, with a point attached. Several years ago, myself and a photographer packed our bags for a little jaunt across the Channel.

A swift story - albeit one, eventually, with a point attached.

Several years ago, myself and a photographer packed our bags for a little jaunt across the Channel. In theory it was to gain a behind-the- scenes look at Auxerre Football Club, have a chat with the club's legendary manager Guy Roux and see what the Canaries could learn from this small, provincial football club that, from its original, non-league roots, was fast taking Europe by storm.

In practice, of course, it was nothing like that. Auxerre is in the heart of Burgundy, which has one or two more tricks up its sleeve than a football club. It is, after all, a mere 20 minutes away from Chablis country and we'd headed south with a great tip about this little vineyard a certain Canary director knew…

As for the interview with Roux, that was one of those where you instinctively knew you were in the presence of greatness, but given that he looked like some peasant farmer fresh from a successful truffle hunt - and had a command of the English language to match - we spent 30, less-than-fruitful minutes trying to work out the way to the beach. Very loudly.

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But, anyway. I've been to meet Auxerre. I've met Guy Roux.

Why that trip to Auxerre crossed my mind again this week came on the back of two different stories. One was Benjani Mwaruwari's switch from Auxerre to Portsmouth for a club-record £4.4 million - not, as the club's join-owner Milan Mandaric was quick to point out, the mere £4.1 million that had been widely reported.

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Not bad for a player who has scored one goal in the French First Division this season.

In fairness to the Zimbabwean international, he was in amongst the goals the season before and was South Africa's Player of the Year in 2001 before virtually disappearing without trace in 2001-2002 at Grasshoppers Zurich.

It was there that he teamed up ex-Grasshoppers technical director Erwin Zogg, who - according to a profile of the player on World Soccer News - then became his agent and persuaded my old pal Roux to give him a trial.

Again, according to World Soccer News, the wily old Frenchman was less than impressed and needed to have his arm twisted by one or two of his then first team stars to give Mwaruwari a go.

“In training we immediately saw that Benjani had something special,” said Auxerre's then centre-half, Jean-Alain Boumsong. In the event, Benjani was indeed handed a full-time deal and would duly make his mark as Djibril Cisse's understudy before the latter left for Liverpool in the summer of 2004 in an eye-watering £14 million deal - still Liverpool's record transfer fee.

Boumsong, of course, now plies his trade on Tyneside. He left Burgundy for Rangers on a free first, but joined Graeme Souness' band of less-than-merry men for an equally eye-watering £8 million after playing just 18 games for the Glasgow giants. Given the esteem with which he is held by the Geordie faithful, the five-year, £55,000-a-week deal he is reported to have signed in on the opening day of the 2005 January transfer window is likely to reduce many a grown man to tears.

By my sums that's a £12.5 million commitment in terms of wages; £20 million if you include his transfer fee.

Now the interesting part. Rarely reported in England, French magistrates are currently investigating the transfer dealings of eight French football clubs, one of which is Auxerre. As part of that process, the homes of nine agents were raided last March as investigating officers - in the words made famous by Watergate - looked to “follow the money” amid claims of illegal transfer payments. Among the nine premises raided were those belonging to a non-FIFA licensed agent by the name of Richard Bettoni - the man understood to have been one of Cisse's agents in his £14 million switch to Liverpool - and that of Monaco-based 'super-agent' Willie Mackay. Liverpool - long cleared of any wrong-doing - are helping French magistrates with their ongoing investigations.

Boumsong's free transfer switch to Rangers is also subject to the magistrates' microscope; his agent is Willie Mackay. As for the third member of the Auxerre connection - Pompey's new record signing Mwaruwari - guess who is now his agent? Willie Mackay. Laurent Robert - who sealed his £9.5 million switch to, funnily enough, Newcastle United and from there on to, guess where, Portsmouth with his toys and pram in tow? Willie Mackay.

After a week in which the Football League has rightly seen fit to publish its latest set of agent payment tables as each and every one of its member clubs reveal exactly how much they paid by way of agents' fees in the six months up to December 31 and a second Championship manager - QPR's Ian Holloway - joins Luton's Mike Newell in claiming the whole 'bung' culture is alive and kicking in the national game, the view from the top of the game is, at best, non-committal. Re-read Holloway's claims and, in the light of the numbers mentioned above, what is the biggest thing to strike you?

Holloway said: “I thought I was getting a certain player on a free transfer. His agent then came back to me and said 'my fee is this amount and you will get that from it'.

“I went back to the board and said 'You must be joking'. I earn my money through my contract, not any other way. I've nothing to hide.

“There are agents out there with whacking great wheelbarrows who say, 'Fill that up with money'.”

Blackburn was swift to back Holloway's claims.

“Ian called me and said the agent of the player we were interested in wanted £50,000 - and Olly (Holloway) was going to get £30,000 of it. We didn't think the player in question was worth £50,000 - never mind that amount for his agent. In the end we settled on a £4,000 handling fee,” said Blackburn.

“I heard stories all the time when I was chairman. I'm very disappointed the game has to endure this.”

What strikes me is the tiny sums involved - an odd, £10,000 here, a few thousand there. Stuff, in short, that you could still conceivably fold up into a dog-eared brown envelope and plonk on the table of a Little Chef.

To those of Boumsong's ilk, £50,000 is but a week's wages. It is highly unlikely that Holloway and Newell will have stumbled across an £8 million transfer deal in their time managing in the Football League. The money that swills around the corridors of Loftus Road and Kenilworth Road is peanuts compared to the figures that lie on the table of their Premiership counterparts.

And yet the Premier League still refuse to follow the League's lead and publish its own table of agent payments - a club-by-club guide as to who's paying what to the game's super-fixers.

Likewise, few people have had anything to say on the whole Newell-Holloway front. Observe the deafening silence from the real powers-that-be and you'd think the 'bung' claim from the lower ranks, the below-stairs oiks from the Football League had nothing to do with them, when in every reality it has everything to do with them.

Back in deepest Burgundy, Guy Roux retired last summer after 45 years of doing the lot at Auxerre - from bottle-washer to the boardroom and everything in between. He still helps out with the club's famous youth academy after guiding Auxerre, with a population akin to that of Dereham, to their fourth French cup success in his final act of a truly remarkable managerial reign.

But times have changed. Auxerre, I suspect, has changed.

One final point. Quiz time. Fill in the blanks.

Senegalese midfielder Amdy Faye left _________ to join _______ before moving on to ________. His agent is _____ _______.

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