Rising transfer fees and the importance of homegrown players means that clubs and intermediaries focus an increasing amount of time and effort on young talent. However, working with minors (being players under the age of 18) can be a minefield.
We have already seen serious penalties imposed on Premier League clubs for breaching the rules relating to minors, and interestingly, the vast majority of recent FA disciplinary cases against agents involved breaches of the rules relating to minors. In 2018, one of the top agents of the Stellar Group was suspended from intermediary activity for three months and fined £50,000 for entering into a representation contract with a player who was too young. The consequences of such a sanction could be far-reaching. If you are suspended, then any other player you represent could be entitled to terminate their representation contract with you.
Therefore, intermediaries looking to explore this avenue should proceed with caution.
Before you begin you need special authorisation from the FA to work with minors (whether for a club or a player).
You will need an Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service check (an enhanced criminal records check), which the FA will review and approve – this can take about a month and you cannot approach a minor until you have the FA’s approval. Intermediary companies cannot apply to work with minors – applications can only be made in a personal capacity.
This is an essential safeguarding point, to make sure young players get the additional protection they need given their vulnerability – so do not overlook it.
When and how can you approach a minor?
The FA Regulations on Working with Intermediaries set out what you cannot do where minors are concerned, so if you’re going to work with young players you must familiarise yourself with these Regulations before you start.
You cannot approach a player before 1 January of the year in which they turn 16. A player is no longer a minor from their 18th birthday, so the rules do not apply from that date onwards. Therefore, it is the period between those dates that is critical for the purposes of dealing with minors. We’ll call it the ‘critical period’.
Only with the prior written permission of the player’s parent or guardian can you ‘approach’ a player during the critical period. If you then enter into a representation agreement with a minor, the parent or guardian must also countersign the agreement.
Importantly, the FA restricts both direct or indirect approaches and includes contacting a player (or a player’s family or friends) through email, text, WhatsApp or via social media. The FA can ask to see your records if they believe you have breached the Regulations.
So, now you’ve (i) been authorised to represent minors by the FA, (ii) approached the parent or guardian and been given written permission to contact the player, (iii) secured a representation contract with the player that is countersigned by the parent or guardian, and (iv) have negotiated an excellent employment contract for the player. All the boxes are ticked but…you cannot be paid for your work.
What? Did you say I can’t be paid for my work?
The Regulations prevent you from being paid during the critical period. However, so long as the representation contract isn’t terminated when the player turns 18, there is nothing to prevent you from being paid from that point onwards.
Alternatively, the Regulations allow you to be paid in instalments after the representation contract has expired, so long as the player’s employment contract extends beyond the term of the representation contract.
These issues are not straight forward, so ensure your representation contract is carefully drafted if you’re hoping to protect any payments arising from it.
What about when Wayne Rooney terminated his contract as a minor?
Under English law, when it comes to agreements with minors, intermediaries are exposed. The general rule is that unless a contract is for education, employment, or what are known as ‘necessaries’ (food, drink, clothing, medical services), anyone under the age of 18 is entitled to cancel a contract that they enter into unless they do something to ‘ratify’ the contract when they turn 18 (or shortly after). They can ratify the contract by words or actions that show they intend to be bound by it.
The leading case in this area involved a 15-year-old Wayne Rooney who found himself at the centre of a dispute between two intermediaries. In short, the court found that whilst a contract with a football intermediary may add value to a player’s career, it is not for ‘necessaries’, education or employment. This, the court found, is contained in the contract with the football club, which enables a player to train and earn a living. Consequently, Rooney was entitled to terminate the representation contract in question.
The things you really cannot do
It is widely acknowledged that some of the worst intermediary behaviour relates to minors.
A classic move is to get the representation contract signed before the critical period (i.e. before the 1st January in the year the player turns 16) and ‘keep it in the drawer’ until the player is old enough to have agreed to it. This is a breach of the Regulations and it is very easy to lose a player if you have taken this step. The player would not be bound by the agreement, and if they report you to the FA you will be sanctioned.
Another exploitative approach taken by some unscrupulous agents is to enter into a contract with the parents of a minor, under which the parents have to somehow ensure their child signs a representation contract with the agent in due course. The parents can face financial penalties under the contract if they don’t manage to get the player to sign. Steer well clear of this type of action.
And finally, there is the payment of inducements… this is bribery… a breach of the FA Regulations and a criminal offence. If you (directly or indirectly) promise money, pay money or give gifts to parents or minors in order to get them to sign a representation contract with you, this could be an offence under the Bribery Act 2010. If the parents ask for money or gifts, they could also be committing an offence. And if they accept a bribe then that is a criminal offence. Bribery offences could lead to imprisonment.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
Working with minors can be both rewarding and lucrative. You may share in the excitement of seeing a young player’s career develop – from training with the first team to making that debut appearance, scoring the first goal, getting an international call up; and, you may share in the financial rewards that come with that progression.
But you will have to (i) be willing to work for free during the early years, (ii) be aware of the risk that your work will be unrewarded if the player terminates the agreement at 18, (iii) be wary of other agents seeking to lure the player away if it turns out you are working with a hot prospect, and (iv) be on top of the rules and regulations to avoid being sanctioned by the FA.