Football’s original super-agent on the art of making deals
In our exclusive interview, Jon Smith – who has worked on thousands of transfers and once represented Diego Maradona – reveals how big-money moves happen.
Jon Smith has been making deals for more than 30 years. He is English football’s original super-agent.
Having negotiated thousands of transfers, there is nothing he does not know about the process of buying and selling players.
The biggest deals, for example, usually start "three to four months" before the transfer window even opens.
"Unless you get to the middle of August and someone’s just bought your left-back," says Smith, who founded his agency, First Artist, in 1986.
"If that wasn’t on your radar, then you have to jump some hoops very quickly."
What about tapping up? That practice is supposed to be illegal, yet it’s clear that clubs never have any trouble finding out whether a player wants to join them or not.
"Technically, what should happen really is club to club," says Smith, who represented Diego Maradona when he played for Napoli, who are in the football betting to win Serie A.
"The club should phone the licensed agent, who should speak to his player, and inform the club where the contract is in situ at the same time.
"But, as you know, in the real world… if you work for the BBC, and I’m at Capital Radio and I wanted you, then I’d talk directly to you.
"Technically, that shouldn’t happen, either. I should use a head-hunter, I should talk to your employer. In the real world, that’s not what happens."
What normally happens is this: "The agent is the first person to hear, and he or she is the one who, ultimately, ties the dots between the two parties."
At what point, then, does a player tell his current employers that he wants to leave?
"A player should never really say that,” says Smith, who chronicled his career in last year’s acclaimed book, The Deal.
"If he says that, potentially he loses any signing-on bonuses he may have, because it’s deemed as a transfer request.
"In the course of the conversations, if it’s not going well, then the player may say: 'Look, boss, it’s been fun, but I don’t think the team’s right for me, I don’t think the tactics are right for me, I’ve always wanted to live in Middlesbrough' – those sort of things."
That, though, is not the same as asking for a transfer.
"Let your representative do that," says Smith.
During the transfer window, it’s common for supporters to become anxious about their club’s supposed inactivity in the market, unaware that these big-money deals take time to complete.
"There’s so many things now," says Smith. "Overseas travel, sometimes housing – although not so much in this country – the image rights, the bonus schedules.
"Very often, now, you get bonuses for playing 60 minutes in a game, if you come on before the 60th minute, after the 75th minute, and there’s all sorts of these.
"You get more money for Champions League than you do the League Cup. It’s really quite complex."
What isn’t complex is how clubs now bid for players, with everything completed via an online exchange system.
This was introduced after Andrey Arshavin’s 2009 deadline-day move to Arsenal – a transfer Smith worked on – almost fell through because of dodgy fax machines in Russia and England respectively.
But while that deal eventually got over the line, there is normally one common denominator in the ones that don’t.
"I’ll tell you where it very often falls down," says Smith.
"The last thing to be agreed is the agent’s commission. Inevitably, that doesn’t get agreed because they [the club] have spent all their money on the player. So the agent says: 'Sorry, the deal’s off.'
"Most of the time it gets sorted, but it’s just bad from the club and the agent not to have done this in front of time, because that’s the one item that just hangs in the air.
"That’s because, these days, it’s a big number. It’s not something that people can take lightly. It’s not every time, but that’s one of the spikiest issues at the very end of the deal."
To casual observers, it seems like agents can literally demand as much commission as they want. Is that really the case?
"On the big stuff, pretty much," says Smith. "You can kind of name a price.
"Five per cent is the rule of thumb, and it’s written in regulation.
"But, if you’re acting for the selling club and the player, which you shouldn’t do but people do, there are other third parties involved: lawyers, accountants, tax advisers.
"Everyone wants their pound of it, and it becomes a big number."
Sometimes it’s the player himself who is to blame.
"We had one where the deal was done," says Smith.
"It took six months, and he was coming across from Germany. He booked a ferry, and we said: 'Why don’t you fly?' He said: 'I’m bringing the dog.'
Smith explained to the player that the dog would need to be quarantined for six months. His response?
"'No, no, it’s all off then. If I can’t bring my dog, I’m not coming.'"
At least he pulled the plug before it was too late. That’s not always the case.
"We had one a long time ago where he signed the contract, got in his car and said: 'You know what, I don’t really want to be here,'" says Smith.
"He sat in the car for about four hours after and we tried to rescind it."
Footballers, after all, are real people with real feelings.
"It’s not like selling your house," says Smith.
"You’re talking about human emotions. If they can’t be channelled correctly, there’s no point them being there."
It’s the job of good agents like Smith to take care of those emotions, and ensure all parties are satisfied once negotiations have been completed.
"There are many component parts in a deal," says Smith. "When I was doing them I tried to side-load them all, so whatever the issues were, you tried to put them in better places.
"If you can’t resolve them, then you leave that behind and revisit them, because when you sort out the good stuff, normally there’s enough goodwill to sort out the other stuff."