Interview: Tony Asghar denies ‘untoward’ dealings at Dundee United

The fund-raising for a statue of Jim McLean continues apace. The sum accrued to date includes a contribution from the new American owners of Dundee United. It’s a gesture that seems designed to show they care deeply about the club’s history, which is also mapped out on newly mounted boards in the corridor at the top of the stairs of the Jerry Kerr main stand.

Dundee United sporting director Tony Asghar alongside Tannadice chairman Mark Ogren. Picture: Ross MacDonald/SNS
Dundee United sporting director Tony Asghar alongside Tannadice chairman Mark Ogren. Picture: Ross MacDonald/SNS

This wasn’t a decree delivered from across the Atlantic. These smart additions were signed off by Mike Martin, the previous chairman and, briefly, club owner. It’s a sign of some turbulent times that the paint was barely dry before Martin’s own tenure could be marked up: “2018-2018” it reads.

The plan is that current chairman Mark J Ogren remains in situ a little longer than a few months. Tony Asghar’s fate will likely
hinge on this – in his then role as a specialist sports adviser, he arranged the marriage between the new owners and Dundee United in the first place. “They were a perfect fit for what they each wanted to do,” he says, confirming he was contacted by the club initially.

Asghar points to another board across the corridor chronicling every manager in the club’s history. His task is to figure out how to reach such high water marks as achieved during the Kerr and McLean eras. Early signs are that Robbie Neilson is the kind of manager Dundee United have been crying out for. His entry remains a tantalising work in progress: “2018 - ”

It’s unlikely Neilson will reach McLean status and warrant being immortalised on a plinth. The same goes for Asghar, whose sporting director role sees him installed as the conduit between Neilson and Mal Brannigan, the new managing director, and the Ogrens (Mark’s son Scott is also involved – the pair are next due in town ahead of the club’s AGM on 1 March).

What if it were all to go wrong? “Never mind statue, they will have a scarecrow with my likeness in the allotments,” laughs Asghar on the way up the stairs to the Tannadice boardroom. The 50-year-old knows he carries a large burden of responsibility on his broad shoulders.

Weeks into this new era, things aren’t going badly: United are six points off the top of the Championship and, a blip at Ayr United notwithstanding, seem to be getting stronger. They stand a game away from Hampden having reached the Scottish Cup quarter-finals and, earlier this week, the reserves crossed the road to hand Dundee a 7-0 thrashing in the wee derby.

It’s hard not to wonder what Jim McLean would make of this scene. An agent – one of the better ones, admittedly, and by better, laughs Asghar, this means he wasn’t very good at it since he allowed his clients’ welfare to trump money considerations – is now a kingpin at his club. McLean used to regularly rail against agents, now there’s one literally opening the door to Tannadice in order to welcome The Scotsman in.

Asghar has every right to query anyone who questions his credentials – he literally has the qualification to be a sports director after graduating with a masters degree in the subject from Manchester’s Metropolitan University in 2016.

“It’s creating this new movement of sporting directors who are now getting trained,” he points out. “Beth Tweddle is now on the course. Cricketer Ashley Giles, for example, who has won the Ashes, was on it. I was able to go to Loughborough to English cricket with him do work in relation to the various challenges they have. Everyone works in silos. There are opportunities to learn from other sports.”

Part of United’s player recruitment model is based on Bill Belichick’s strategy as head coach of the New England Patriots, the American football team. “He recruits not only on ability but also the mental strength for each player,” says Asghar. “It’s actually worked for us in this window.” United have signed leaders, specialists and those with potential: the Belichick model.

Asghar got into the football business by running tours and gaining the trust of managers over late night drinks in hotel bars. Football management is essentially “a lonely business” he discovered. Managers opened up to him, doing likewise with their contacts books (something helping him now). Gesturing to his hefty frame, he says it was also when he stopped eating properly.

Asghar also learned that creating a relationship with managers was often pointless, since come October, and high season for sackings, they were often out of jobs. He needed to court chief executives, directors of football, the real decision makers. The very structured model in place at Tannadice reflects this thinking.

“You and I were brought up with Jim McLean, Alex Ferguson, these types of people who run everything at a club,” he says. “For me, they were the prototype sporting directors of their day. Times move on, the world is moving fast. At 9am this morning there were 45 e-mails for me. If the manager was left to do all the work we did in the transfer window how would he coach the team? Robbie did have massive input but he has to be responsible for so many other things.”

Asghar has parked his Revolution Sports consultancy firm for now. It’s currently in the hands of colleagues. This has been a bone of contention for some United fans – is their club being used as a vehicle for player deals from which Asghar is feathering his own nest? Worse, are those such as Jackie McNamara, a discredited figure among some supporters since it emerged he benefited from player sales while manager at Tannadice, profiting also?

“I still am a company managing director,” he explains with reference to Revolution Sports, a large empire involving some familiar names, including Keith Wyness, the former Aberdeen chief executive. “It is getting run by someone else day-to-day. There are a number of people in the place.

“Jackie is a friend of mine,” he continues. “He started up an agency when I gave up my agency and I had a number of players who asked for recommendations. I gave them the opportunity to speak to Jackie. A couple of them decided to go with Jackie. He did some consultancy work for me at Revolution, as did other agents.”

When was the last time they spoke? 
“Seven or eight days ago,” he says.

“There is this issue when people talk about agents and football clubs as if something untoward is happening. The reality is that when it comes to signing and paying players, we have a head of football operations in Priti Trevedi, who is very experienced and very proper about all that. We would be naïve not to have relationships with agents. They are part and parcel of the game.”

Over 31 days in January, United signed 11 new players, with five arriving on deadline day. Asghar negotiated these deals from the opposite side of the table than was once the case. It’s the classic poacher turned gamekeeper scenario but then he was also once the starlet – or the prey.

As a budding player at Rangers, one from mixed Scots/Pakistani heritage, he has a particularly unusual perspective of trying to make it in the game in the mid-1980s. Few from this background prospered in Scottish football, something which is as true now as it was then. Asghar is quick to point out that his dreams were quashed for no more sinister reason than crucial shortage of talent.

“You’re killing me,” he says, when asked for the details. “It was prior to the Souness revolution. Jock Wallace was manager in his second spell. There were youth coaches like Stan Anderson, the head of youth, and John Chalmers. Colin Stein was manager. Only person to make it from the group was Gus MacPherson. Gordon Ramsay was a year older!

“I was a boy from Bearsden from an ethnic minority background. It was difficult for Rangers. At that time there was a bit of press about this Scottish Pakistani boy signing for Rangers – there was a wee bit of interest. But there was no issue. It was a very positive experience in fact. I was just not good enough. I was a striker. There were other players coming through like Gary McSwegan and John Spencer. Rangers had a decent youth plan at the time though that all changed when Souness came in. The high point for me was beating Celtic in the League Cup for the Under-16s.”

Asghar’s son Adam got slightly further. He was frustratingly denied a debut for Motherwell when Keith Lasley returned all bandaged up for a Europa League qualifying clash against Levante with the teenage Asghar primed to come on. He did later play for several lower division clubs, including Alloa Athletic and Annan Athletic. Now 24, he coaches at youth level at Motherwell. So when Asghar states he cares deeply about young players, and what happens if they slip out of the picture, he means what he says. He’s lived it.

“We have a transparent strategy of bringing players in from the academy at United,” he says, with Andy Goldie having recently been appointed new academy director. “Robbie wants it, Mal wants it, I want it.” A partnership with the Boca Juniors academy is in the pipeline due to Asghar’s relationship with officials in the Argentina club’s hierarchy. He was quick to drop links with some characters he met on his travels in South America. “Some of the agents there could have come from a Netflix show,” he says.

Asghar is certainly streetwise. He won’t stand for being messed about. “I read somewhere we were paying players £5,000 a week. I can tell you that is not the case. Even though new owners have come in Mark and Scott are prudent. They are successful businessmen. This is not a club that’s going to be throwing money at things. Robbie and I need to justify it to Mal, who will have to justify to the owner that we can afford these players.”

The new recruitment strategy has meant some tough decisions needing to be made. Club legend or not, there’s no room for Luggy. Paul Sturrock, brought in under the previous regime as head of recruitment, is now free to continue enjoying life in his Cornwall retreat. “I think there are still some contractual issues to get sorted,” says Asghar. “Myself and Paul have spoken. But he is no longer working for the club. We have spoken about it. It is a new direction. Paul is a big fan of the club obviously. He is a legend in a number of ways. But he does not work in the recruitment department now.

“He will always be welcome here. One of the conversations was, if ever you need something, just phone. We all have to move forward. This club has to move forward. We need some new photographs on the wall of new people.”

This isn’t the type of interview Asghar is familiar with. No one has been read their rights for a start. He’s not asking the questions and there’s no lawyer present. Brannigan leaves the room having brought the guest tea in a Dundee United FC mug.

Before he became a football agent, Asghar was in the police force – or, to be more precise, he worked for the intelligence unit of what was then the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency.

He explains there isn’t much difference between infiltrating organised crime groups and signing footballers: utilising intelligence is the key in both cases. “You listen to what the media are saying about players. You use your networks: both mine and Robbie’s. If I ask someone how a player is doing I have to ask myself: do I trust this guy and what he’s telling me? Also, what do the fans’ forums tell us? I look at absolutely everything.”

Asghar is the one currently under the microscope. He’s being watched – by curious, possibly sceptical, Arabs. He’s alert to this and understands why there’s wariness.

“It goes back to trust. It does not come overnight. It comes from people like you questioning me about my agent background and relationships I have. It is important to gain trust and be transparent in the way things are done – why players are being sold, why we are signing players. I have not been very vocal in interviews to date, I have kept my counsel until now.”

He’s an open book today. Very little remains off the agenda. Growing up in Glasgow, it would be difficult for him to claim he was brought up a Dundee United fan, though he says one of his friends at school was an Arab: “He had the great Adidas strip”.

Asghar isn’t shy about revealing his own allegiance at the time. “I was a Rangers fan. Up here, supporters will find that abhorrent – a Rangers fan working at the club. I did a lot of work when Leeann Dempster was at Motherwell, and I have a great affiliation with that club – I still have.”

He followed United by stealth while seeking to glean all the information on the club he could last year. He would turn up the collar of his coat in an effort to look as anonymous as possible and head to games, drawing on what he learned from his past life as an undercover cop.

“I was here last season and even when we were winning, I could feel the frustration,” he says. “I was sitting in the middle of the Eddie Thompson stand, and I made a point of going to away games too, where you get the hardcore.”

The grumbles of football fans, not that there have been many to date from United supporters, pale in comparison to having a handgun pulled on you. This startling event occurred after he jumped from a surveillance car to apprehend two suspects during a large drugs handover.

“I had to knock him down,” he says. “Fear takes over – and I am quite a big guy – and adrenaline kicks in. I did manage to subdue the guy.” It’s a lesson he recalls to this day – try to make a strategic decision rather than jump in, as he was once prone to doing. “We call it spinning the wheel – think of a lot of scenarios very quickly. I could tell you other times I have been assaulted. It could stand me in good stead if it all goes wrong here!”