19 March 2001
Maurice Watkins has arranged to meet me in the first-floor lounge of the Royal Lancaster Hotel. Unfortunately, my memory of what the senior partner of James Chapman & Co and the director of Manchester United FC looks like is fading fast, and I am confronted by a whole room full of businessmen sitting on their own.
After a couple of turns around the room, as Jane Austen would say, I spot a man who appears to be Watkins.
Tentatively, I ask whether he is Maurice. "No," comes the reply, "but I wish I were." Fortunately, when I eventually find the real Watkins he is much less smarmy and very patient with this slightly harrassed journalist. But then, he is used to journalists, albeit usually of the sports variety.
Watkins is unsure how to take me. Because I am not a sports journalist I do not have the huge pool of assumed knowledge within which he presumably works. So I am very carefully spoon-fed the basics of the deal and constantly urged to look the full details up on the internet. Unsure whether it is rude to cut him off to explain that I do read the newspapers, I let him continue.
To an extent, however, he is right. While I know about the deal and keep a weather eye on the wider world of football, I am by no means a football expert. So when he names Arnold Muhren as the player for which he has a lingering affection, to be honest I am none the wiser. However, further research tells me that he was signed from Ipswich Town FC in 1982 and left three years later for Dutch superclub Ajax. Working at The Lawyer, you learn something new every day.
The deals that Watkins works on are discussed in pubs all over the world, but the latest one he has helped bring together has surpassed them all for the amount of interest it has generated. Watkins has been locked in discussions with European Union (EU) commissioners and representatives from various football bodies for nearly six months over amended transfer regulations. During this time he estimates that he has taken around 100 flights to Brussels to attend the often fractious negotiations.
For those of you who follow neither football nor EU law closely, these discussions have come as a result of the now infamous Bosman ruling. Until 1995, football players were tied to a club even after their contract had expired and were able to move only when the club had negotiated a transfer fee for them. A little-known Belgian player named Jean-Marc Bosman challenged the ruling under the EU free movement of workers legislation.
The EU ruled that the system contravened European law, and this posed major difficulties for the football world. Transfer fees for players are a vital source of income for many smaller clubs and the movement of a star player creates major problems for a manager trying to put together a side. The problem was how to ensure the free movement of football "workers" within Europe without destroying the club system.
Finally, at the beginning of this month, an agreement providing the basic outlines of a new regime was signed. Unfortunately, if I reeled off all the details of the deal here, there would be no room to tell you about Watkins, but very briefly: contracts for footballers are now between one and five years long and protected for up to three years. If a contract is broken unilaterally, then the player is banned from playing for his new club for the first four months of the season and the new club is barred from taking on any new players for one year. The new club may also be forced to pay compensation.
An arbitration court made up of representatives from all levels of the sport will oversee the system. All these conditions apply only to transfers between countries, otherwise the country's own regulations apply. While initially greeted with grateful relief by the football-following fraternity, there has been concern voiced that the main beneficiaries will be the top players, who will now be able to command greater salaries.
But Watkins is philosophical about the deal, pointing out that not only did the agreement have to please players and clubs both big and small, as well as their representatives, but also different countries with varying attitudes to contractual obligations.
He cites the example of Belgium, where you cannot hold people to contracts of longer than three months, whereas in Spain they can only be broken on the payment of a substantial penalty fee. Watkins cites the example of Luis Figo, who last summer created a new world record football transfer fee when he moved from Barcelona to arch rivals Real Madrid for £38m. To get him out of the contract with Barcelona, a large chunk of that had to be paid towards the buy-out clauses.
Germany and Italy seem to be able to restrain workers from moving within their contractual period, while in the UK it is obviously difficult to hold someone to a contract that they do not want to be in. And as stressed by Watkins, the deal that has been struck is just the framework on which to hang the details, which will be finalised by June.
In addition, Watkins points out that if the top footballers start to break contracts regularly, clubs will start becoming wary of the hassle involved in taking them on for brief stays. "Ryan Giggs is a good example of a player who has been [at Manchester United] for a long time," he says. "Players like the comfort and stability of contracts, and it is wrong to think that this deal will lead to a mass exodus of good players."
The rules also apply only to trans-European transfers, so the majority of UK moves will still be governed by the Football Association's rules.
One party that left the negotiating table early was Fifpro, a body that purports to represent professional footballers. While other reports may have the organisation down as obstreperous and difficult, Watkins remains diplomatic about it, although when pressed he does admit: "I'd never heard of Fifpro; I had heard of the PFA [Professional Footballers' Association]. A lot of players aren't concerned about union issues."
Some football commentators have credited Watkins with the stamina which enabled the deal to go through. But, like any good striker, he points to the good teamwork behind the deal. "There have been times when people drifted apart," he says. "It's times like that when you need a bit of cement, and you get that by talking to everyone and bringing them back in. It's been a difficult situation, but I never thought it would be as hard or as long as it has been."
Watkins is a quietly spoken man, and you can imagine that in a room full of emotion he would be the steady hand. This quality seems to transfer itself to Watkins' relationship with Manchester United, the team for which he has provided legal services for 20 years. He advised on Sky's $1.6bn (£1.1bn) bid to take over the club, which was blocked by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
In an understandably cautious way, Watkins implies that he is not altogether sorry that the bid failed. "When the board recommended [the deal], they were very conscious of their duties as directors. What we felt personally about it was that Manchester United could stand on its own two feet - but you have obligations to your shareholders."
The club certainly can stand on its own two feet - in March last year its value rose to more than £1bn.
As well as retaining his cool in the boardroom, Watkins also manages to remain in control of his emotions on the terraces. He says he has always been a supporter of Manchester United, not a fan.
So what is the difference? "If you're a supporter, then if you lose you can survive and can shake hands afterwards," Watkins smiles. "They used to say that, in Trafford Park, an area where there is a lot of engineering work, that work stopped if Manchester United lost. It does mean a tremendous amount to some people and is a way of life."
Given the peaks and troughs of the average life of a football fan, this is somewhat of an understatement. But to be fair, Watkins does not seem the type to spend Saturday afternoons screaming at blokes in shorts.
"I think that sometimes you have to step back from a situation," he says. "I can't say that a fan can't make that move, but it's more difficult. But lawyers are usually more able to do it."
James Chapman & Co