Sport

How did Gillingham become the only EFL club not to pay agents a penny?

When the Football Association released last week the latest sums paid to agents, eyes inevitably moved towards the headline figures: Premier League sides stumped up a record £272m in a year – they have shelled out more than £1bn over the past four seasons – with every top-flight club spending more on intermediaries than the whole of League One combined, including Gillingham, the only club in the top four divisions to not pay a penny.

Championship clubs spent more than £40m in the 12 months to the start of February 2021, League One £3m, League Two £1m and National League clubs almost £275,000, with Guiseley spending £450. Over the past six seasons Gillingham have, according to the FA, spent £86,457 on agents’ fees, a figure eclipsed by fourth-tier Salford City in the last year alone. Across that six-year period Manchester United have paid intermediaries £125m, and Liverpool’s £143m spend is enough to buy Gillingham’s £600,000 record signing Carl Asaba 238 times.

Gillingham are an anomaly in an era awash with super-agents and overspend. They will not pay agent fees unless they “absolutely have to”. “I don’t aim to pay zero,” says the club’s owner, Paul Scally, who celebrated 25 years as chairman last summer. “There are occasions when I have to pay an agent but I try and avoid it and do it very rarely. I don’t like agents. I don’t like their business, their trade. We managed before agents came along and it was probably a better world.

“For the first 10 years I dealt with players or their families, sometimes a solicitor or a representative, but most of the time I dealt with players. They would come in and we would agree a contract. Since agents came in it’s gone downhill from there. I think they either don’t bother coming to us because they know I don’t like agents, I’m not going to pay them a fee or will fight them over a fee … or they realise that they’ll get their player in the shop window, we’ll develop their player, their player will then have more worth and if they get sold to a Championship club they will get more money.”

Playing hardball does not mean Gillingham struggle to get players through the door; since last summer they have loaned a dozen and made 11 permanent signings, seven of which, according to the FA, involved agents. “If an agent represents a player, then the player should pay the agent,” says Scally, whose annual budget is about £2.6m. “I shouldn’t pay the agent. In times of austerity, such as we are, I’m looking at every penny to keep the business going. Why would I waste money on agents? We don’t need them in our industry.”

Shrewsbury, Gillingham’s third-tier opponents on Saturday, coughed up £95,000 in agent fees and the league leaders Hull City £543,238. By Championship standards Wycombe (£126,053) and Millwall (£255,715) paid a pittance, but why do more clubs not resist paying vast sums? “Because the people that make those decisions are weak,” says Scally.

“The people that make the decisions to pay the agents are often not the owners; they are often people working on behalf of their owners. They are weak because, invariably, it is not their money and they think the money is just going to keep on coming, keep on coming. They think bringing these players in is going to guarantee them success and promotion. That is why the Championship is in such a mess, because of this frenzy to get hold of the Premier League money.”

The millions spent by top-flight clubs, four of whom have used the government’s furlough scheme, particularly rankle. “It’s absolutely pathetic. It is all money that should have stayed in the game and should have been fed down into the pyramid. When League One and League Two asked for some help [to combat the impact of Covid-19], they all cried poverty. So we ended up with a £30m grant and £20m loan. We are going to them with begging bowls when they are paying that kind of money to agents.

“When you talk to fans generally, they are sick and tired of the nonsense at their club, the waste and the money they are spending on wages, agents etc. The average man cannot relate to the sums of money that are being wasted in the Premier League and, to some extent, in the Championship.”

Mehmet Dalman, the Cardiff City chairman, has said the game requires a “Big Bang” to reset financial order and Fifa is pressing ahead with plans to introduce controversial regulations for agents. The dizzying numbers have made Scally question his future across a challenging 12 months but he has been encouraged by emails of support from fans since detailing some of his observations in a 14-page open letter last month. Gillingham remain fiercely competitive despite operating within rigid parameters.

“There are people who have supported us for 40 years saying: ‘We’re never going to be a top, top club, we’re never going to be glamorous but we’re still going and we love what we’ve got because it’s real,’” Scally says. “If the Premier League and the Professional Footballers’ Association don’t get their heads out of their backsides and start realising the way they are going there is no sustainable long-term future, it is going to be a very rocky road ahead.”