It's a team of two halves

It was a classic conundrum for the legal department. Company A sold product X to Company B. The transaction went smoothly until Company C, the previous owner, claimed a proportion of the selling price. The flurry of faxes was the everyday stuff of lawyers' lives. The difference was that product X was an international footballer by the name of Andrei Kanchelskis. Company A was Manchester United, Company B its Premier League rival Everton.

At the centre of the ensuing legal argument was Maurice Watkins, high-profile solicitor for the multi-million pound Manchester football and business empire.

The £5 million transfer deal which strived to take Kanchelskis to Everton was put on hold while the legal minds decided how to handle the unexpected interjection from Kanchelskis' former club. Watkins, a partner in the Manchester law firm James Chapman & Co, said: “It was quite a complicated matter legally. There were a number of important points of law.”

But the unexpected hitch demonstrates the regularity with which football teams in the 1990s call upon their legal advisers. Clubs are now professionally-run commercial

organisations with massive turnovers. “There is more and more involvement,” Watkins said. “For the first few years one concentrated on a few managerial sackings or contracts, but since 1980-81, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of work.”

Raj Parker, a partner in City firm Freshfields, who acts for the FA, said: “It has grown incredibly, and as a result of money pouring in from merchandising, commercial revenues and broadcasting, there is great scope for conflict and disagreement.”

“Most of the leading clubs have a lawyer on the board or one very closely involved in their affairs,” said Adrian Barr-Smith, who heads the sports group at Denton Hall.

It has become a cliche to point out that sports law does not in fact exist. Rather, a number of conventional disciplines are moulded to tackle the plethora of legal problems which crop up in life on the pitch, course and track.

Football lawyers typically have a commercial or media law background. This comes in to play when conducting negotiations for merchandising or sponsorship transactions – some of the bigger moneyspinners for clubs.

However, a background in employment law is also useful for negotiating tricky transfer deals, commercial property is necessary in tying up construction contracts when the club's ground is being developed, and criminal law is useful should one of the team's young stars become involved in a scrape.

The joys of the job are obvious. Fun work from fun clients. The stresses derive from the high-profile nature of the work and the haphazard nature of the problems which arise.

A survey by the accounting firm Touche Ross last month showed that the English game had a combined turnover of £390 million in the season before last. This had increased 20 per cent on the previous season.

Since the formation of the Premier League three years ago, the financial stakes have soared with the enormous fees paid for television rights to the top matches.

However, football has not yet become the hunting ground for the money-minded. Most lawyers working in the field drifted in through a combination of relevant experience and interest in the sport.

Yet having become involved, the association strengthens as the clubs rely more and more on their lawyer, and the lawyer, in turn, becomes infatuated with their particular client. “It is very important to enlist a good lawyer, particularly on the commercial work and it is useful to have a lawyer there giving an overview,” said Watkins.

Trevor Nicholls, Norwich City solicitor said: “There is definitely more involvement. The management and running of clubs has become far more professional in the time I have been involved with it.”

Last year was perhaps the busiest year yet, with football constantly being called to account for extraordinary alleged misdemeanours including violence and irregular payments.

This year, even if the trend abates, there still promises to be more bread-and-butter work, with merchandising, television rights and the additional workload of England staging the European Championships.

But, some believe there is a bandwagon which has already become too crowded. Mel Stein, solicitor and agent for Paul Gascoigne, said: “There are some people now who are trying to do it who really don't know what they are doing. They think it's a doddle.

“We get loads of letters within the practice from starry-eyed kids saying 'I want to be a sports lawyer' because they see the high-profile side of it, but a lot of it is just very hard graft like any other form of lawyer.”