Sport Mobile: inside firm linked to one of football’s most notorious drug cases

Two men have been arrested in connection with alleged ‘fixing’ of phone records

Two men have been arrested in connection with alleged ‘fixing’ of phone records

The boss of an exclusive mobile phone company has reportedly been caught on tape boasting about changing the phone records of footballer Rio Ferdinand during an investigation into a missed drugs test.

Sport Mobile boss John Shepherd also claimed to have got billionaire Mike Ashley out of a legal jam, according to an investigation by The Times. Following the publication of the story this morning, police announced that they had arrested two men.

What is Sport Mobile?

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The company offers services including “secure mobile billing” for “some of the biggest names in British sport”, says The Times.

The bespoke telephone service is reportedly used by players and managers at 16 Premier League clubs, as well as members of the England cricket team and stars from other sports.

Former Sport Mobile staff say that the company is able to “obtain phone records and change them to the advantage of its customers”, the newspaper claims.

An ex-employee said the doctoring of phone bills was originally intended as a method to cover up extramarital activity for clients.

“I’ve seen it done a few times,” another former employee told The Times, adding that at least one of the occasions was to assist a client going through divorce proceedings.

“Industry experts who run similar mobile phone companies for high-net-worth clients say it is extremely easy to change a customer’s records if requested,” the newspaper adds.

What are the claims relating to Ferdinand?

In September 2003, Ferdinand - then an England international and Manchester United defender - missed a drugs test.

The player claimed at the time that he had forgotten to take the test amid the chaos of a house move, and had gone shopping instead, but then contacted his club offering to get tested. Two days later he supplied a sample, which turned out to be negative.

However, a Football Association disciplinary hearing in December of the same year found Ferdinand guilty of misconduct and banned him from playing for eight months.

A “key issue” in the hearing “was the defender’s use of a mobile phone, which he claimed he had used to call Manchester United’s team doctor”, the Daily Mail explains. “There were also questions raised about whether his mobile was on or off at the time,” the paper adds.

In The Times’ undercover recordings, Shepherd allegedly claims that a Vodafone employee was paid £22,500 for phone records used in Ferdinand’s case.

All of Shepherd’s claims are “understood to be categorically denied by the footballer”, the paper says, and have been described by Ferdinand’s former agent as “bravado”. For his part, Shepherd is also understood to deny having made the claims.

And Ashley?

In 2017, Newcastle United FC owner Ashley won a High Court case brought by former associate Jeffrey Blue, who claimed that the tycoon had agreed to pay him £15m if the share price of his company Sports Direct went above £8.

During the trial, Sport Mobile was asked to supply phone records for Ashley, but the company claimed it was unable to do so.

But according to The Times, Shepherd said while secretly being recorded that he “protected” the phone records.

Again, both Shepherd and Ashley have denied any wrongdoing, with the former insisting he made no such claims.

Announcing the arrests of two unnamed men this morning, the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit said: “The investigation commenced after allegations were raised of perverting the course of justice in football arbitration proceedings, and in the High Court, and sport integrity testing (both historic and current).

“As a result, a warrant has been executed at a premises in Shropshire today and two men, aged 62 years and 37 years, both from the Telford area, have been arrested on suspicion of fraud.”

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Arion McNicoll is a freelance writer at The Week Digital and was previously the UK website’s editor. He has also held senior editorial roles at CNN, The Times and The Sunday Times. Along with his writing work, he co-hosts “Today in History with The Retrospectors”, Rethink Audio’s flagship daily podcast, and is a regular panellist (and occasional stand-in host) on “The Week Unwrapped”. He is also a judge for The Publisher Podcast Awards.