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The wily old agent, Sala’s tragedy and the day Benjani missed flights to Machester

By Robson Sharuko

Twice, in just one dramatic day, he missed two flights to Manchester to compete the biggest deal of his career — a two-and-a-half year £11.62 million switch from Portsmouth to the Citizens, in one of the most bizarre deadline day transfers in world football history.

Former Manchester City striker Benjani Mwaruwari
Former Manchester City striker Benjani Mwaruwari

Benjani Mwaruwari is said to have slipped into a deep sleep at a Southampton airport that January day, in the winter of 2008 and, on two occasions, missed his two flights to fly north to Manchester to seal his high-profile move from Pompey to the Citizens.

Manchester City, then under the guidance of Swedish coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, had agreed to pay an initial £3.87 million to Portsmouth, while the remaining £7.75 million would be paid in three tranches, depending on appearances clocked by the striker. How and why Benjani ended up sleeping at the airport, and missing the two flights, remains a grey area of this affair to this day.

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But the former Warriors skipper later revealed he never wanted to leave his beloved Pompey, although he insisted this was in no way linked to issues related to his failure to take his flights to Manchester.

Eleven years after that bizarre affair, which ended up spilling into the corridors of the English Football Association, the Scottish agent behind that transfer, Willie McKay, is back in the global spotlight.

He has been sucked into the tragedy, which has triggered a global outpouring of grief, in which the light plane carrying Argentine forward Emiliano Sala crashed on the English Channel and killed the footballer and the pilot.

McKay, a controversial and decorated football agent, is one of the game’s ‘Mr Fix-It,’ with more than 400 deals under his belt, very strong links with many high-profile managers and a business formula that has landed him in trouble.

The Scottish agent has been revealed as the man who arranged Sala’s fateful flight from Nantes to Cardiff, which ended with the stricken plane plunging into the English Channel, although he says he wasn’t the one who chose the doomed light aircraft.

On Tuesday, Cardiff — who had agreed a US$19.3 million club record deal for Sala — were forced to issue a statement defending their manager, Neil Warnock, amid concerns about his relationship with McKay.

“We have seen people taking knives out against Neil and that is just nonsense,’’ Cardiff chairman Mehmet Dalman told the British media.

‘’I want to air my frustration with that behaviour and give my full support to what the team is doing. I am not going to pay attention to rumours and bad press. We just have to stay focused and do what we should be doing.

“I brought Neil into this club and I think he has done a tremendous job for us in more ways than one. The fans, the board, the chairman, the CEO and the owner are fully behind him as he strives to achieve the status of staying in the Premier League.”

Back in 2008, McKay was handed a suspended ban by the English FA after being found guilty of breaking their transfer rules during Benjani’s move to Portsmouth from French club Auxerre and from Pompey to Manchester City.

Pompey were fined £15,000 but Benjani was cleared by the FA. McKay was found guilty of flouting regulations which did not allow agents to act for two different clubs, in two consecutive transactions, involving the same player.

The commission ruled it was wrong for McKay to have acted on behalf of Auxerre, when Benjani moved to Portsmouth in January 2006, in a record transfer for Pompey, and for the same agent to act for Portsmouth when the Zimbabwean moved to Manchester City two years later.

The Scotsman dismissed the findings as a joke and, while he said he would not challenge the ban, he still felt he didn’t break the rules. “I think it’s a witch-hunt and I’m not going to deviate from that,” McKay told The Guardian newspaper. ‘’Portsmouth only asked me to do the deal because I knew the French market. Really he (Benjani) was meant to go to Marseilles or Lyon or Paris St Germain, and Manchester City came in and got him.

‘’That’s what happened.

“I can appeal it if I want, but it’s a month’s ban, a two-year suspended sentence. At the end of the day I don’t want to continue my life fighting the FA. I’m business as usual.’’

Portsmouth also publicly defended how they conducted themselves during that transfer. Four years ago, Harry Redknapp, the manager who brought Benjani to England and then sold him to Manchester City even when he was his team’s leading scorer, told his story about that transfer.

‘’It can be just as difficult trying to get a player to leave, as we found out at Portsmouth in 2008 with Benjani Mwaruwari,’’ he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

‘’We all loved Benji because he worked so hard but, if we are honest, he also missed a few chances. Benji always gave everything and was a great lad but I think he went the first 15 games at Portsmouth without scoring.

‘’The offer was a lot more than we had paid and way over our valuation but we had a problem. He did not want to leave.

‘’He was sat on his own at Southampton airport, two planes went to Manchester and he had not moved. I was begging him to go. It was really a case of pushing him out of the door, saying: ‘C’mon Benji, you’ve got to go. It’s a great move for you.” ‘’But he was saying: “I’m happy in Portsmouth, boss. I don’t want to go.” ‘’In the end, he got on the last plane but I have no idea how they got it through. I think the window had closed and it was about 1am when it finally happened.’’

Now, McKay is back in the spotlight. The Herald