All-singing sports agent will transfer attention to Olympic pool

The schools have broken up, everyone is setting off on holiday, but in his hill-top office just a free-kick away from the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace, Athole Still is busier than ever, yet never knowing whether his work will come to anything.

Athole Still, sports agent extraordinaire

“You could have five, six deals in negotiation, all looking very good, but at the end of it, nothing materialises and you are left with nothing,” Still says.

For, among many other things, Still is a football agent, and July and August is the most hectic time of year, the peak of the summer transfer window.

Athole Still is a very successful south London businessman who does not need a £1 billion property development, for whom “retailing” has never been the sole possibility, but whose enterprise has centred on speaking fluently in foreign languages and understanding how to negotiate. For him all that’s necessary to do business is just a reliable phone (or three), decent transport links and a high-speed and secure internet connection for emails to transmit the big-money contract details.

It was Still who organised the headline-grabbing transfer of Gianluca Vialli to Chelsea, who oversaw the multi-million pound deal that saw Sven Goran Eriksson become England manager, and who brokered Attilio Lombardo‘s move to Crystal Palace from Juventus.

As a former Olympic swimmer, the next couple of weeks should prove particularly difficult for Still. Timing is one of the things which he finds so difficult about the summer transfer window with big-money football deals interrupting his following of the Olympic Games. His football business may also prevent him paying too many visits to Glyndebourne for the opera.

Most people assume that football’s only, and stretched, connection with opera was Pavarotti singing Nessum Dorma for the BBC’s theme tune for the 1990 World Cup. Still defies that preconception. If it had not been for opera, Crystal Palace may never have got to sign Lombardo.

Still loves opera. After his swimming career – he competed for Britain at the 1952 Olympics, held the Scottish national record for 110 yards freestyle and won a Commonwealth Games silver medal  – the Aberdonian studied languages and music, and went on to become the principal operatic tenor with the Scottish Opera before getting a transfer of sorts to the same role at Glyndebourne.

Still started his management company, ASI (the I stands for International), nearly a quarter of a century ago to look after the engagements of opera singers. To this day, music comprises the bulk of his agency’s business, although he soon found himself looking after sportsmen: his first clients were Olympic swimming gold medal-winner Duncan Goodhew, Liverpool and England winger John Barnes, and oarsman Steve Redgrave.

Attilo Lombardo in his Palace days 14 years ago. Athole Still’s abilities to speak fluent Italian helped secure the player’s move from Juventus

Still also started representing the then Palace manager, Steve Coppell. Through regular opera business trips to Turin and Milan, and his ability to speak Italian, Still began to look into the football market. After working with Vialli when he left European Cup-winners Juventus for Chelsea, he returned to Turin a year later and, for a modest £1.6 million, oversaw Lombardo’s move to Selhurst Park.

According to a Palace fans’ website, “In terms of sophistication and vision it is unlikely that Palace have had anyone better than Attilio.”

Still says his business is different these days, because of the short transfer window in the summer, rather than the year-round transfer business that used to apply. That may be one reason he has extended his operations to work with coaches and managers, who are not so bound by such regulations.

His non-operatic client list has included past Scotland managers Craig Brown and George Burley, Celtic boss Gordon Strachan, Vialli, Coppell and Eriksson. Probably less favoured by Palace fans is Still’s involvement as agent for Gus Poyet, manager at Brighton. This summer, the former opera singer conducted the move of Paul Lambert from Norwich City to Aston Villa.

Still remains in contact with other sports and sports stars, too. His proximity to Crystal Palace is no coincidence – apart from easy rail links to Victoria (and thence the Royal Opera House) and Gatwick, there was a time when he was a noted swimming coach on poolsides around Croydon.

Then there was his work as swimming correspondent with the Sunday Times and, until the commercial channel abandoned its Olympic coverage in 1988, as ITV’s swimming commentator.

Paul Lambert’s move from Norwich to Villa as coach was negotiated for him by Athole Still

Still retained strong Olympic links, other clients including gold medal rower James Cracknell, ex-swimmers Goodhew and Sharron Davies, as well as champion jockeys Willie Carson and Tony McCoy, though these days his highest profile work is conducted at the ROH rather than at Wembley Stadium.

Still takes a more moral approach to the role of football agents than you might imagine.

“Most agents do work on a percentage, as in showbusiness, as I do for other sportsmen or the opera singers I represent,” he says. “I took counsel’s advice a long time ago. FIFA say if I’m representing a player who is being transferred and I’m doing the negotiations for that player and I’m paid by the club, then there is a conflict of interest. My duty of care to the player has been undermined.

“But that is only true if you as a club are paying me a fixed fee. Not true if I’m being paid a percentage of the deal: the more I get for my player, the more I get for me and that is the basis for all negotiations, that we’re both benefiting. So, no conflict in spite of the fact FIFA still say officially you shouldn’t do that,” Still says.

Always dressed on the elegant side of dapper, with a colourful handkerchief prominent in his suit jacket pocket, Still has seen enough transfer deals to know that at the lower end of football’s money scale, it is the selling club, often the club that had developed the footballer’s talent, usually gets a rough deal.

Nathaniel Clyne’s move to Southampton was not mentioned explicitly, but it would not be the first nor the last time that a Palace youth product moved on for less than many fans might have considered was his true worth.

“A packet of crisps,” was the angry reaction from the then Palace chairman, Simon Jordan, to the amount determined at one tribunal when John Bostock left Selhurst Park on a valuation set by a panel.

“It is normally the purchasing club who gets the better of the decision,” Still says, before adding a warning for clubs such as Palace about the system in Europe where “there is a set compensation level of just 60,000 euro per year that the young player has been with his original club”.

At which point, the phone goes, for probably the sixth time in half an hour. Still indicates that he needs to take the call in private. It’s a busy time of year for the all-singing sports agent.

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