Football agent Willie McKay condemns 'character assassination' at Emiliano Sala inquest

Emiliano Sala (L) and Willie McKay (R) Credit: PA Images

Football agent Willie McKay has denied knowingly arranging illegal “grey” flights to transport Emiliano Sala and described certain lines of questioning at the footballer's inquest as "character assassination".

The Argentinian striker died alongside David Ibbotson, 59, when their Piper Malibu aircraft crashed into the English Channel close to Alderney on January 21 2019.

The 28-year-old had been flying to Wales from France to join Premier League club Cardiff City in a £15 million transfer from Ligue 1 side Nantes.

Mr McKay was barred at the time from acting as an agent in the transfer in his own right because he was an undischarged bankrupt, but was working for his son Mark McKay’s firm.

An inquest into the player’s death at Bournemouth Coroner’s Court previously heard that Mark McKay had acted on behalf of Nantes in the deal.

His father arranged for Mr Sala to fly back to Nantes after a medical exam in Cardiff on January 18.

Giving evidence on Thursday (February 24), Willie McKay said he had called David Henderson, a pilot he had used many times, who then contacted Mr Ibbotson because he was unavailable.

Cathryn McGahey QC, representing Cardiff City FC, said: “We have heard the term ‘grey flights’ meaning flights by private planes that are not allowed to carry paying passengers that do carry paying passengers – because that’s what Mr Henderson was offering.

“He had no commercial licence to carry paying passengers.”

Willie McKay replied: “I never knew anything about his business, all I knew is that we’d phone him and ask him to take us somewhere.”

Pilot David Ibbotson and Emiliano Sala both died when the plane crashed into the English Channel

The agent was read a statement from Mr Henderson alleging he had told Mr McKay the flights were private, and that he had no licence to act as an air taxi or run charter flights.

Mr McKay said he had never heard this, and claimed he could not remember if he paid Mr Henderson in cash despite taking 20 flights with him over the previous 14 years.

In an angry outburst, Mr McKay said: “This is a character assassination. I don’t want to hear any more of this, I came here to say what actually happened.”

He denied ever meeting Mr Ibbotson, who was from Lincolnshire, despite a text message he had allegedly sent him telling him to come to his house and collect £270 in cash.

Ms McGahey said: “These are unofficial grey flights and you knew they were.”

“I never knew anything about David Henderson’s business,” Mr McKay replied.

Tributes laid to Emiliano Sala outside Cardiff City following his death Credit: Ben Birchall/PA

Mr McKay was repeatedly interrupted by Coroner Rachael Griffin when he became angry about lines of questioning.

Matthew Reeve, for Mr Sala’s family, asked why Mr McKay had not offered his family’s own plane, a King Air 200, to transport the player.

Mr McKay said it was because the plane was getting its propellers serviced, but Mr Reeve suggested the company servicing the plane were refusing to release it until the McKay family paid its bill.

The agent replied: “This is to discredit me. I came here in good faith. It is of no relevance at all whether I owe anyone money.”

Earlier, Mr McKay had said he only wanted to help Mr Sala get home, and claimed Cardiff City had “abandoned” him.

Asked if there was anything he wanted to tell the inquest, he said: “Myself, Jack and Mark tried to help Emi to get home – publicity wise what we went through is hell.”

The inquest has heard Mr Sala was overcome by toxic levels of carbon monoxide poisoning prior to dying from severe head and chest injuries consistent with a plane crash.

On Wednesday, the jury were told that Mr Ibbotson had been barred from flying the Piper Malibu by its owner after receiving two notices of airspace infringements from the CAA. He had continued to fly the plane without her knowledge.

The inquest is due to last around a month.