It was the agent who exploited Rooneys, says QC

THEY are the millionaire footballer and his celebrity wife, their public appearances restricted mostly to the football field and the pages of gossip magazines.

But England and Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney and his wife Coleen are due to appear in the very different setting of a Manchester courtroom next week, being sued for 4.3m in a case which opens the door on a hidden world of football agents, multi-million pound sponsorship deals and allegations of exploitation.

Proceedings began yesterday with lawyers claiming the celebrity couple owe the vast sum in the form of commission payments to Proactive, a sports management company which agreed lucrative sponsorship deals with major companies on their behalf.

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The firm was paid up to 20 per cent commission on multi-million pound contracts signed by the Rooneys to endorse firms such as Nike and Coca-Cola, Manchester Mercantile Court heard.

But these firms' primary point of contact with the couple was Paul Stretford, Rooney's long-standing agent and a former director of Proactive.

And since leaving Proactive in acrimony in October 2008, it is alleged he has refused to authorise further commission payments to the firm – now worth 4.3m.

Ian Mill QC, acting for Proactive against both the Rooneys and Mr Stretford, said: "If one believes the quotes attributed in the Press, it appears Mr and Mrs Rooney regard these charges against them as exploitative and financially driven.

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"If by 'financially driven', they mean the claimant wishes to recover the substantial sums due to it, I would respectfully agree – but it is hardly a ground for complaint or for criticism. We simply don't understand how this can be their view."

Mr Mill said that for almost six years from July 2002, Paul Stretford had acted for Wayne Rooney through Proactive "with great success".

The footballer, then under 18, was signed up with the agreement of his parents as he burst on to the football scene with Everton. He subsequently signed for Manchester United in a 20m deal and both he and his now wife have become household names.

The footballer himself was quoted as saying he could not "speak highly enough" of his agent, who always got him the best deals.

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Mr Stretford looked after both his transfer dealings and his off-field business interests. He also represented Coleen Rooney, helping secure her TV show, Real Women, a regular column in Closer magazine, and sponsorships from Asda and Diet Coke.

But, Mr Mill said, such success must be "equally attributed" to Proactive for enabling the deals to happen.

The relationship between Proactive and Mr Stretford broke down over his involvement in a trial at Warrington Crown Court in October 2004, which Mr Mill said had an "unhappy conclusion".

The case involved Mr Stretford allegedly being threatened by "certain individuals" when Wayne Rooney left one firm to sign up with Mr Stretford. But Mr Stretford's evidence was called into question when the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case, saying they could "not rely" on him as a witness.

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The Football Association (FA) then brought disciplinary hearings against Mr Stretford over alleged rule breaches relating to his acquisition of the right to represent Wayne Rooney in 2002, and to his "false and misleading" testimony.

When the board of Proactive refused to back Mr Stretford's appeal, the two parted company in October 2008. Proactive claims he was dismissed for gross misconduct while Mr Stretford maintains he terminated his own contract. Since that time he has allegedly refused to authorise payments to Proactive amounting to 4.3m.

The FA subsequently banned Mr Stretford from acting as a football agent for nine months from May 2009.

Mr Mill said Mr Stretford has "constructed a series of absurd and unmeritorious defences".

"Where is the exploitation?" Mr Mill asked.

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"I would respectfully suggest if there is any exploitation, it's the exploitation of the Rooneys by Mr Stretford, who has used them to further his dispute with Proactive. In short, Proactive simply seeks the monies to which it is contractually entitled."

Paul Chaisty QC, for the Rooneys and Mr Stretford, suggested the young footballer's first eight-year contract with Proactive was "unsatisfactory" and his parents, then the teenager's legal guardians, although extremely well meaning and devoted, had not taken independent legal advice when they signed.

The case continues.