Of all the people that have come to encircle modern football in recent years, few have received the levels of vituperation that players’ agents have. It often feels as if nothing good comes from their involvement in the game, but this hasn’t stopped their influence expanding dramatically in recent years and it seems more likely than not that this sphere of influence will continue to grow as contractual matters between players and clubs become more and more complex. This week, however, a great leap forward in the influence of the agent has been made with the news that one such agent, Willie McKay, will be in charge of the transfers in and out of Championship club Doncaster Rovers for the next two years.
McKay’s involvement with the club may certainly explain the curious exit of manager Sean O’Driscoll last month. Club chairman John Ryan had, just a couple of days earlier, stated publically that O’Driscoll’s job was safe. His replacement, the former Wrexham manager Dean Saunders, is a client of McKay, and the handling of the removal of O’Driscoll and his replacement by Saunders certainly raised eyebrows in South Yorkshire at the time. The question now is one of whether McKay’s radical “experiment” (at least, we can console ourselves, he has stopped short of calling it a “project”) will save the club’s season, or whether it will merely serve to alienate Rovers supporters, as they watch a team that isn’t so much a “team” as a collection of individuals brought together as a shop window before moving on to other clubs.
The agent is almost disarming in his honesty with regards to his motives for being involved at Doncaster, having stated that “I’m doing this to prove it can be done and I’ve been honest enough to admit I’m only here for the money”. His plan is to use his contacts within the game to bring players to The Keepmoat Stadium, allow them to demonstrate their capabilities to a wide audience and then sell them on as quickly possible, presumably while making sure that he gets his cut. What he doesn’t answer, however, is a number of questions over how this policy will play out over time. What happens, for example, should the two years of the contract that he has signed for the club expire and he decides not to continue to be involved in it? If a player is out of sorts at another club, then what is to say that he won’t bring the problems that have caused his career to run aground to the club with him? And, perhaps most intriguingly of all, how can Dean Saunders reasonably be expected to build a team in an environment in which the squad is in a state of perpetual flux: especially one which is, if McKay’s comments are anything to go by, to be expected to be challenging for a place in the Premier League.
It is claimed that Doncaster Rovers need to halve their wage bill, from £8m per year to £4m per year, but McKay’s involvement doesn’t on the surface, address this issue. The players that Doncaster Rovers already have are under contract and will still have paid, unless they can be moved on to other clubs. The problem here for Doncaster is that of whether the players that they already have under contract will want to move on because the club wants to replace them, even if it is with cheap loan players. If those players have been under-performing for Doncaster, why would another club offer them the same contractual terms for a move during the January transfer window or during the summer? This policy also fails to take into account any semblance of the importance of team-building or squad building in successful teams. Great teams are usually more than the mere sum of their parts. How can a great Doncaster Rovers team be built if, every time a player shows signs of promise, they are shipped out at the next available transfer window?
We should also consider the amount of control that this agent now has over the club. He states that Saunders will have “a right of veto” over new players, but adds immediately that, “but is he seriously going to turn down Mahamadou Diarra, a guy who’s got 150 games on his CV for Lyon and 120 for Real Madrid?”. What is critical for those that actually own the club is that they continue to control its day-to-day operations. If this were to go wrong for Saunders, though, who would be appointing the new manager? Ryan or McKay? Saunders won his first match in charge of the club against Crystal Palace, two days after taking control of the club, but they have lost their last two matches and remain in the relegation places in the division for the time being. Having someone in such a position of control within the club at what remains a delicate time for it feels like a gamble, and only time will tell whether it succeeds or fails.
To be clear, it is impossible not to have complete admiration for the achievements of Doncaster Rovers in recent years. This is a club that was dead on its feet after appalling mismanagement and managed to pick itself up, find itself a new, modern home and take not only a place back in the Football League but a place in the Championship. This was achieved through sensible management, but in the last year or so the club’s wage budget has clearly spiralled to an unsustainable level. In the broader scheme of things, what matters is that Doncaster Rovers continues to exist, even if this may not indefinitely be at the level at which they compete now. Perhaps the question that supporters of the club should be asking themselves today is that of whether a player’s agent with no previous connection to the club is, for all the names in his address book, the right man to be playing an active role in ensuring that. If things should start to turn sour, it seems difficult to believe that someone that is “only here for the money” would be a positive influence.
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