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Everything’s a Little Too Cosy in Football’s Game of Family Fortunes

Everything’s a Little Too Cosy in Football’s Game of Family Fortunes

Thursday, 7 March, 2019 - 07:30
Andrea Mancini (left), son of Roberto, in friendly action for Manchester City; Anthony Pulis (centre), son of Tony, making a rare League Cup appearance for Stoke; and Paul McKay, son of the agent Willie, playing for Leeds in the FA Cup. Composite: Man City FC via Getty Images; Action Images; AMA/Getty Images
London - Daniel Tylor
By now, I expect you might have seen that old video clip of the time Harry Redknapp was hosting a question-and‑answer session at West Ham and taking a bit of heat from someone in the audience who seemed to suspect they might have taken their reputation as a family club a little too far.

The irate fan didn’t seem to care when Redknapp said the 18‑year‑old sitting to his right was destined for the “very, very top”. That player was a young Frank Lampard. “Not good enough,” complained the punter. Why, he wanted to know, was Lampard getting a game? Why had the manager’s nephew been fast-tracked into the team when a better player by the name of Scott Canham had been let go for peanuts?

All of which can probably be filed alongside that great line from the Chelsea-supporting Tim Lovejoy – “Oh, it’s OK, it’s only Ray Parlour” – as a Sky fanzone commentator seconds before Parlour scored for Arsenal in the 2002 FA Cup final.

Canham had joined Brentford and went on to play for Leyton Orient, Chesham United, Woking, Farnborough, Grays Athletic and Thurrock before quitting football, aged 32, to start a car repairs business. As for Lampard, well, whatever became of him?

Easy to scoff, knowing what we do now. Yet, in fairness to the bloke with the egg on his face, would it really have been so outlandish if he had suspected Lampard might be viewed more favourably because of his family connections?

Football does, after all, often tend to work that way. Sometimes, as with Lampard, it all makes sense. Other times, not so much. Unless Roberto Mancini seriously believed his son, Andrea, might break into Manchester City’s side when he signed him in 2010 (optimistic, you would have to say, given that Mancini Jr is now at Francavilla Calcio 1927 in Italy’s fourth division). Or there is another reason why, of all the players Tony Pulis has encountered in his 27-year managerial career, there is only one I can recollect who has signed for him at three different clubs: the player, coincidentally, who happens to be his son.

Anthony Pulis was taken on by the old man as a trainee at Portsmouth, where he made one appearance as a 90th-minute substitute, then followed him to Stoke City in 2004. When Pulis Sr was sacked by Stoke and appointed by Plymouth he re-signed his son on loan. Then the manager went back to Stoke for a second spell and handed him a new contract. Anthony made two appearances in four years at Stoke, then drifted around the lower leagues and eventually turned up at Orlando City, who just happened to be a feeder club for Stoke.

It happens in all walks of life, granted, and football has some way to go before it catches up with one sport in particular. As the columnist Norman Chad, aka Couch Slouch, once wrote in the Washington Post: “In case you forgot, the ‘N’ in NFL also stands for ‘Nepotism’. Skill can go a long way, but nothing beats having your father hire you.”

Rather stunningly, Chad had worked out that almost a quarter of the NFL coaches at that time employed their sons in prominent coaching roles. The Seattle Seahawks had even created two positions on behalf of Pete Carroll for the coach’s sons, Nate and Brennan. Though still not quite as impressive, perhaps, as Bill Belichick appointing his own flesh and blood, Steve, as his assistant with the New England Patriots. At 24, Steve’s sporting qualifications involved some lacrosse at Rutgers University and a year as their long snapper. The equivalent, as Chad noted, of scrawling graffiti on the wall of a Greyhound bus station before getting hired by the New Yorker as a senior correspondent.

Football, too, likes to keep it in the family, in all sorts of different ways, and there is no doubt it can make a lot of people rich in the process. Just consider the number of agents with familiar surnames, usually the sons of managers or senior boardroom figures, who have made a killing from the sport. Or some of the other relationships that have made sure, when it comes to all the different branches of football’s family tree, that the entitled apple doesn’t fall far from the entitled apple orchard.

What possibly was it, for example, that qualified David Sharpe, then 23, to take over as chairman of Wigan Athletic in 2015? Apart from the obvious, perhaps: that Dave Whelan, the club’s owner, was his grandad. Sharpe had initially been in charge of the family’s fish‑and‑chips restaurant, Sharpy’s, before it was boarded up because of a lack of customers, costing Whelan £1.3m in the process. Not many 23-year-olds take over a Championship club.

Even more perplexing is the story of Billy Davies being appointed as manager of Nottingham Forest in 2013 and the club’s then owner, Fawaz al-Hasawi, being daft enough to let the Scot’s adviser, Jim Price, take over as general manager, in effect running the club on a day‑to‑day basis, as part of the package.

Price, the manager’s cousin, was previously a solicitor at Ross Harper in Glasgow but had been suspended by the Law Society of Scotland as part of a five-year investigation into the alleged financial irregularities that led to the law firm closing down, resulting in him being found guilty of professional misconduct and struck off in 2017. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has not worked in football since.

Yet Davies, I imagine, was grateful to have his family member in such close proximity. Amid many strange goings-on at Forest under their regime, the manager was handed a bumper new contract when he was only eight months into his initial three-and-a-half-year deal.

On a different theme, you might have seen the headlines recently about the agent James Warnock’s close links to Cardiff City. How close exactly? Well, pretty close. James, a representative of Unique Sports Management, is listed by the FA as being directly involved in deals relating to the club where his father, Neil, is the manager.

USM certainly does well out of Cardiff (six transactions from February 2017 to January 2018 alone) even when Warnock Jr is not involved and the point to note here is that the FA does have rules, under Section E4 of the Working with Intermediaries Regulations, to specify clubs and agents should not do business with one another if there is a family link.

How stringently the FA follows these rules is another matter, possibly, because a look through the archives suggests little has changed since it was decided the regulations needed updating. To quote the Guardian’s article from 24 October 2006: “The new regulations will extend the existing rules outlining ‘conflicts of interests’ to outlaw a repeat of the situation that has allowed David Unsworth, whose agent, HN Sports, employs James Warnock, the son of the Sheffield United manager Neil, to sign for that club.” So, how that did that work out then?

This is not to imply even a whiff of wrongdoing, of course, but perhaps it would be cleaner all round if Cardiff did the same with the Warnocks as Manchester United did with Sir Alex Ferguson and his son, Jason, then an agent with 13 players from Old Trafford among his list of clients, and announce it would not be doing business that way any longer.

Equally, I would be just as intrigued to learn what it was that prompted Cardiff in January last year, going for promotion to the Premier League, to recruit Paul and Jack McKay, twin brothers whose careers until that stage could be politely described as, well, slow-burning.

Recognise the name? The McKays’ father, Willie, is a big-time football agent, the kind many clubs want to keep happy, and part of the complex web of middle men, along with his other son, Mark, in the Emiliano Sala transfer. Paul and Jack had previously been together at Doncaster Rovers, where Willie had got himself an exclusive two-year consultancy to handle transfers, and also spent time without anybody really noticing at Leeds United under the management of Steve Evans.

In both cases, it is fair to say they were some way below the required grade, meaning a series of loan moves involving Ilkeston Town, Gainsborough Trinity and Airdrieonians. They are 22 now. One is on loan at Chesterfield, the other at Morecambe, and somehow I don’t imagine either player getting a single minute of first-team football for the club that gave them, very generously, two-and-a-half-year contracts amid a promotion chase to the top division.

All of which reminds me of the curious story of Myles Anderson, who was awarded a two-year deal at Blackburn Rovers, then a Premier League club, in the days when his father, Jerome, the agent Sir Alex Ferguson once said “couldn’t pick his nose”, had been trusted with a leading role at Ewood Park, as an adviser to the club’s Indian owners.

Anderson Jr had previously made one appearance as a professional footballer, for two minutes, as a substitute for Aberdeen. Yet Steve Kean, a client of Jerome Anderson, memorably said we could be looking at another late developer in the mould of Chris Smalling. Not quite: Blackburn’s new recruit did not make a single appearance for the club and his contract was terminated after 16 months. Funny business, football, just not always in an amusing sense.

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