While refs are often perceived as the bad guys, that is nothing compared to agents who get such a bad press yet are so important to every club in the world,” wrote Sam Allardyce in his autobiography Big Sam. “There are good and bad ones and my man Mark Curtis is one of the good ones.”
It is more than 20 years since Allardyce was sacked by Blackpool. Having joined Peter Reid’s coaching staff at Sunderland after Blackpool missed out in the Division Two play-off final, the former defender’s managerial career was at a crossroads at the end of 1996.
Allardyce had first met Curtis the previous year when he signed the goalkeeper Steve Banks from Gillingham. “Mark was quite naive football-wise at the time but a confident bloke who was one of the first mobile-phone salesman and had that seller’s patter,” he recalled. It was the start of a close relationship that has continued to this day, with Curtis demanding Allardyce be paid £150,000 to act as a keynote speaker for each proposed trip to south-east Asia when he was pictured next to the England manager during the Daily Telegraph sting.
Knowing Allardyce was unhappy with his role at Sunderland, Curtis made contact again in January 1997 to let him know the Notts County job was up for grabs. Despite failing to save them from relegation, Allardyce kept his post and led the club to promotion the following season before moving to Bolton Wanderers in October 1999. A few months earlier, questions over Allardyce’s involvement with Curtis first surfaced when the agent was fined £7,500 for improper conduct, which included an illicit payment, when the teenager Jermaine Pennant moved from Notts County to Arsenal for £2m. Pennant’s agent, Sky Andrew, complained to the FA the deal was done without his involvement.
Curtis continued to build his agency, Sports Player Management, mostly representing lower-division players, and in April 2002 he was paid around £1m when it was taken over by Premier Management. In an interview with the Guardian’s David Conn in 2005, Curtis claimed he had moved increasingly into brokering transfers for clubs, rather than acting for players.
However, Allardyce’s spell at Bolton was marred by the BBC’s Panorama investigation, which alleged his son, Craig, had taken illegal payments for transfer deals while employed by Curtis. In an interview in the Daily Mail, organised by his then-publicist Max Clifford, Allardyce was asked, sitting with Curtis, if he knew Craig had been paid on those deals.
Curtis was quoted saying to Allardyce: “You weren’t knowingly aware of it, not aware.”Lord Stevens’ inquiry found there was not enough evidence to prove the claims, with Allardyce promising he would sue the BBC over the allegations. “Obviously I’m denying all allegations that have been alleged against me. The matter’s in the lawyers’ hands and will be resolved by due process,” he said at the time. “I have instructed my lawyers to take the appropriate action.” Any legal action has yet to materialise.
The following year Curtis was one of six agents investigated by the FA after alleged breaches of rules in transfers at Luton. The first charge – for allegedly dealing with unlicensed agents – was dropped, although all six were warned as to their future conduct over a separate charge of “failing to have in place a written representation contract with Luton Town Football Club”.
Curtis retained his relationship with Allardyce throughout and was instrumental in his moves to Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers and then West Ham United in 2011. One of Allardyce’s first acts was to sign his former captain Kevin Nolan from Bolton, swiftly followed by the arrivals of Nicky Maynard and Guy Demel – all of whom were represented by Curtis.
They were joined in the next 12 months by Matt Jarvis, Jussi Jaaskelainen and Andy Carroll, whose £35m transfer to Liverpool in 2011 was brokered by David Bromley – registered as the secretary of a company called Direct Sports Management, which lists Curtis as its sole director.
At the time, Carroll was in a dispute with his former agent, Peter Harrison, who had been filmed telling an undercover reporter in the Panorama programme he did deals at Bolton by paying Allardyce’s son, Craig, although charges were never brought against either man. Harrison left the game after an FA arbitration panel found against him in a legal battle with Curtis, who has always denied claims of any wrongdoing.