The Liverpool tapping-up scandal could be investigated by MPs following the emergence of shocking allegations about the club’s conduct during the case.
Less than 24 hours after The Daily Telegraph exclusively revealed the lengths to which the Anfield club were allegedly prepared to go to conceal forbidden inducements made to an 11-year-old Stoke City schoolboy and his family, the chairman of the Culture, Media & Sport select committee called on the Football Association to commission an independent review into the saga. Liverpool deny any attempt at concealment.
Liverpool’s alleged transgressions, several of which the club denied, were compounded when the youngster’s parents were landed with a £5,000 debt in private-school fees and the boy – now 13 – was left unable to join another academy until former club Stoke are paid £49,000 in compensation.
Damian Collins, a leading campaigner for the reform of English football who in February secured a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the FA, demanded any review into the Liverpool case also examined the scale of the tapping-up of academy players in the game.
The influential Conservative MP told The Telegraph: “The FA should establish an independent review to investigate this particular incident – independently of the Premier League – and also to enable other families to come forward, with a promise of anonymity, so they can share other stories of inducements and tapping-up by Premier League clubs and other inappropriate contact with players.
“I’m going to be raising this with the members of the committee when it meets on Tuesday, to discuss what we can do to bring pressure to bear on this issue – whether that’s us getting directly involved with hearings or questioning the football authorities about the way they’ve handled the case.”
The Premier League last week banned Liverpool from signing academy players for at least a year for tapping up their unnamed victim, and fined them £100,000.
But there has so far been no redress for the boy, who was left in academic and footballing limbo after the club were unable to honour repeated promises to fund his private education.
That was following a rule change last summer severely restricting the practice, before which Stoke had been contracted to pay the boy’s school fees until he turned 16.
“The Premier League should pay the boy’s education up to the age of 16 out of the money they’ve fined Liverpool,” Collins said.
“That was promised to him and the family by two Premier League clubs. Through no fault of the family’s, that hasn’t been honoured.
“The boy’s education and football career are in jeopardy as a consequence and the family have got themselves into enormous debt.”
Collins said the Liverpool case raised questions about whether young players were mere “commodities” to Premier League clubs.
He added: “They’re using the draw of Premier League football, and the desire of families to get the best for their child, to encourage people to take steps that aren’t necessarily in their best interests.
“A lot of people will read this story and look at a club like Liverpool and the resources they have available and be very disappointed at the way in which this family’s been treated.”
Darren Gray, head of commercial litigation at Manchester law firm Clear Commercial, who represents the family along with media consultant Jonathan Hartley, welcomed Collins’s intervention.
“The family is pleased to see that the chairman of the Culture, Media & Sport select committee has taken an interest in this matter and expressed the views that he has, not just for the benefit of their child but for the benefit of the protection of the vulnerable in football as a whole,” he said.
“In my view, this unfortunate situation is the tip of the iceberg and I agree with the view expressed by many in recent days that, in all likelihood, there exists a culture of tapping-up and inducements. It makes commercial sense.
“There is a natural focus on investing in the best academy talent, and that, unfortunately, encourages the deplorable behaviour that we have seen in this case.
“Mr Collins mentions establishing an independent review by the FA. This has the family’s support and complaining to the FA is an option that we are exploring.
“I repeat, however, that I do not believe that the Premier League rules in their present state are fit for purpose. It simply cannot be right that this child and his family are left in the position that they are currently in and this needs remedying quickly.
“It is only due to the persistence of this family that this matter has been brought to the public’s attention and it is hoped that the interest now shown at a political level and the steps being taken benefit the sport as a whole and the protection of the vulnerable for the future.”
The FA declined to comment last night, as did the Premier League, which nevertheless is understood to believe it carried out its role to the full by punishing Liverpool after introducing tough new regulations last summer to prevent tapping-up.