The Troubling case of Willie McKay and Emiliano Sala


Written by Shantanu Gupta for Football Further.

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No sooner has poor Emiliano Sala’s body been laid to rest in his native Argentina than the allegations and arguments have begun to rage over his transfer from Nantes to Cardiff City, and how and why he came to be on the plane that crashed in the English Channel, piloted by a part-time gas fitter.


At the centre of many of the allegations is the figure of Willie McKay, who was representing Nantes, with the mandate to sell Sala to an English club for £15 million.  But who is this man, and how did he come to be involved in the Sala transfer?


McKay has had a colourful and chequered history, but it is important to separate fact from fiction in his case. In 2006 he was one of the agents investigated by the Quest enquiry into allegations of corruption and the use of bungs in transfer negotiations, However, the enquiry exonerated him of any wrongdoing, and a year later he was awarded substantial libel damages when the Daily Express were found to have made false allegations over his transfer dealings.


In 2007, the BBC News reported that McKay, along with a number of other men, including then Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp, was arrested by the City of London Police in connection with an ongoing investigation of corruption in football. Two years later the charges were dropped and McKay was cleared after what he described as a “baseless” charge against him.


However, in 2008 he was found guilty by the FA and handed a suspended ban after he was found guilty of infringing transfer rules by acting as the same agent for different clubs in two consecutive transfers involving the same player, Benjani Mwaruwari; first from Auxerre to Portsmouth, and then from Portsmouth to Manchester City.


In 2012 his reputation suffered a new blow when he was stopped by police whilst driving his car in London. They found out that not only was he currently banned from driving but that he was also found in possession of the Class A drug Cocaine in his car. He was banned from driving, fined £6,000, and cautioned over the Cocaine.


Three years later he was declared bankrupt at a hearing in Glasgow, with assets of just £987, and debts of £713,292 according to court records. Whilst he was discharged from bankruptcy in August 2018, that was subject to a 5 year restriction on being a director or managing the authority of the court.


And this brings up one of the central tenets of the Sala case? Why was McKay involved at all in the deal? He is no longer listed as an agent, nor he is an intermediary, the term used to describe “any natural or legal persons who, for a fee or free of charge, represent players and/or clubs in negotiations toward concluding an employment contract or transfer agreement. “  As a declared bankrupt, McKay is not entitled, to register as an intermediary. Additionally, intermediaries are meant to register with the relevant football association, and McKay senior is not registered with either the UK or French authorities.


In his defence, McKay has argued that during the Sala deal, he was merely trying to help his son Mark, who is also a football agent, and that there was no need for him to register as an intermediary since his son was registered.


Cardiff have posed a number of questions to Nantes which they want answered before they pay any of the £15 million transfer fee. These include:

  • Was Sala still a Nantes player when he boarded the flight?
  • Was Sala third party owned?
  • What was Willie McKay’s cut? And
  • Was McKay’s commission, or any part of the transfer fee, due to be split between other parties involved in the deal? If so, who were those parties.


On February 27th, the world governing body FIFA announced their own investigation into the Sala transfer.


Meanwhile separate questions remain to be answered about the plane that took Sala on his fateful journey, and the man piloting it Dave Ibbotson. For example, why was Sala travelling in a single engine plane, at night in difficult conditions.  And was either the plane itself, or pilot Ibbotson, licenced to carry passengers? Finally, who actually owns the plane has yet to be determined.


For his part McKay argues that he was doing his job to try and get clubs interested in signing Sala, and that he helped arrange the flight for Sala because Cardiff airport only offered scheduled BA flights. He also says that he booked the flight via a pilot he knew, and that he was unaware which plane would be used, or that it would be Mr. Ibbotson that ended up flying it.


As for the controversy surrounding his career, McKay, after one of his brushes with authorities said “It’s easy to go after football agents. Nobody likes football agents.”


We are likely to hear a lot more about Mr. McKay before the dust finally settles on this particular saga.

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