In the modern game, when a wantaway player and a club lock horns, there is usually only one winner. But it wasn’t always so, writes Liam Mackey.
If the Premier League was reality TV — and when is it ever anything else, sez you — then the current most popular show would be the one called ‘I’m A Footballer, Get Me Out Of Here’.
And you all know the theme tune. Altogether now, on the count of three: “IwantawayIwantawayIwantawayIwantaway — in the jungle, the mighty jungle…”
The run-up to the big kick-off for 2017 has been full of tales of stars desperately seeking an exit strategy, gaffers attempting to impose their iron will and supporters tearing their hair out at the uncertainty of it all, even though they must know full well that loyalty is a transferable commodity in the modern game and that the much-loved phenomenon of the one-club man, as embodied in the career of Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier, has long since become football’s equivalent of the white rhino, a rare breed on the brink of extinction.
Alexis Sanchez with his bout of flu, followed by an equally ill-timed abdominal muscle strain, Philippe Coutinho with his niggly back and first Neymar before leaving Barcelona for PSG and then Man Utd target Fabinho at Monaco both storming out of training — some big names have been, intentionally or otherwise, piling on the fuel to fire speculation about their future plans.
No lavishly paid player has yet followed Prince’s example by scrawling ‘Slave’ on his body and renaming himself ‘The Footballing Artist Formerly Known As…’ in protest at his captivity but, at Le Tissier’s old club, Virgil van Dijk definitely upped the ante by going public with his transfer request in a move variously described in the media as bold, forthright, stunning and inflammatory.
Declaring himself to be “incredibly ambitious”, with a desire to play European football and “challenge for major honours”, the Dutch defender complained: “I have been left frustrated by the club’s position that I am not for sale and am disappointed that enquiries from multiple top clubs have been consistently rebuffed.”
He also said he was “insulted” by the suggestion that he had refused to train.
That statement at least had the virtue of plain-speaking as opposed to the not-so-coded signals usually involved in the age-old practice of ‘engineering a move’. And while clubs can talk tough and even subject the wantaway player to the ultimate indignity of football’s version of the bushtucker trial — forcing him to ‘play with the kids’ as part of a process which sees him ‘frozen out’ — these days the whole soap opera, however protracted, invariably ends with the same denouement: the player getting his way and getting on his bike and the club consoled by ever more eye-watering transfer fees.
But it doesn’t require something as blatant as a public statement, a social media rant or even a refusal to train or play — a militant stance once denounced by the late Graham Taylor as “tantamount to treason” — for a footballer to let a club know that, in the popular euphemism, he’s “unsettled”.
A tried and trusted routine, by all accounts, is the untimely back injury, which is sufficiently vague and medically unidentifiable for the player to be able to insist that he can’t even bend down to lace up his boots while the physio rolls his eyes and thinks, ‘here we go again’.
In his career spanning dressing room and boardroom, Niall Quinn has seen the business of football change dramatically and has no doubt that, certainly at the elite level, the balance of power has shifted decisively in the players’ favour.
“If it’s the top player at the club, like Sanchez at Arsenal — and he really is the difference, they look really good when he’s on form — you probably try and contain it and be as diplomatic as Arsene Wenger has been about trying to keep him,” he says.
“But back in the old days, the player would simply be blacklisted. The manager could even say to the enquiries that would come in from other clubs — ‘don’t sign him’. It was almost like a conspiracy among the clubs. The economics weren’t as important then and the clubs had all the power. Eventually they’d let you go but first, in the old saying, they’d let you ‘rot in the reserves’ if you tried to kick up a fuss.
“The Bosman ruling and the launch of the Premier League with the big money coming in turned everything on its head and since then it’s been one-way traffic in terms of who has the power — the agents and the players. And even when you have managers insisting a player is not for sale, you still have bean-counters at the club saying, ‘hang on a minute, his value is diminishing every day you do this, so let’s just sell him’.”
Quinn knows well from his own experience how very different things used to be.
“I once asked for a transfer at Arsenal when I was young because I hadn’t played for a long time,” he remembers.
“I had no agent so it was just me and (manager) George Graham. He sat on a chair that was so high up it was like looking up at a judge in a court case. It was like something out of a book. I was sitting on a little toadstool and he was looking down on me with all the busts of Herbert Chapman and people like that behind him. They had so much power that, instead of leaving, I ended up signing a new contract. Came out scratching my head, wondering ‘what happened there? (laughs).”
Another former Ireland international, Keith Andrews, also remembers from his early days in England a time when the clubs seemed to think they held all the aces.
“After a couple of loan moves, I wasn’t getting my game at Wolves and I felt I needed to leave on a permanent basis, “ he recalls “But the club was very adamant that they wouldn’t put a price on my head. The reason being that it would all be very dependent on which club came in. I remember vividly that Sheffield United, who were one of our main rivals in the Championship, were interested in signing me and, if they wanted me, it was 500 grand. If Walsall, a small club fighting to stay in the division, wanted to sign me, it would practically be for free. It was as if they didn’t want me to go to a bigger club and do well.
“Then, when I was at Hull City, after I’d been made captain there, a new manager came in and he signed another central midfielder — there were three already there. And this was when it was 4-4-2. And he also felt that of the third and fourth choice options, he wanted to keep a younger guy than me. That was fine but then they started trying to manoeuvre me to clubs. They were messing me about and trying to make life very difficult for me on a daily basis. You know, making me train with kids and so on. Trying to force me to go to clubs that I didn’t want to go to. Basically testing my character and my will.
“Now, in the early stages of my career I was certainly a lot more hot-headed than in the latter stages and I just thought, ‘Well, I’m just gonna test you now’. Every single day as the move was getting closer to where I wanted to go to, and they were playing silly buggers, I would go into the training ground and, when they’d be setting up bits and bobs, I’d be kicking balls all over the place just to mess up the session.
“I knew the club wanted me out and, unlike earlier at Wolves, I would have been a top earner at the club so it had become an issue for them. I knew the manager didn’t want me around, that I wasn’t part of his plans and, fine, that happens in football. But that didn’t mean I was going to go somewhere I didn’t want to go. I genuinely felt I was being treated unfairly and that’s why I acted in that way.”
Andrews finally got the move he wanted, to MK Dons, and it proved pivotal in his career, providing the springboard for his elevation to the Premier League with Blackburn and an international breakthrough which would ultimately see the Dubliner represent his country at the European Championship finals.
But, like Niall Quinn, Keith Andrews believes, “without a shadow of a doubt”, that boots are on the other feet now — even if it still takes two to untangle.
“Is it mainly players or mainly clubs? Players have forced moves where maybe they shouldn’t have but the club can make it very difficult for a player as well. Ultimately, you just don’t want a player at a club that doesn’t want to be there. Invariably what happens is that he either moves or he signs a new contract.
“But, sooner or later, more often than not, he’ll move on. Because, especially if he’s a big character, an influential character around the dressing room, in that situation the manager would be worried sick, wondering ‘what’s he saying to the other players?’ It’s usually best just to end that relationship.”
Andrews chooses to characterise as “a necessary evil” the much-maligned figure of the agent. There are good ones and bad ones, he points out, and while he feels footballers are certainly entitled to avail of their professional expertise and negotiating skills, he also acknowledges the risk of a potential conflict of interest when it comes to the phenomenon of the wantaway.
“A lot of it is agents getting in the ears of players,” he says. “They certainly have an increasing role. If Neymar stayed at Barcelona and signed a new deal, the agent wouldn’t make as much money. Players earn more money by moving clubs. Agents earn more money by players moving clubs. That’s why you see so many players in the papers being tipped to move. In an ideal world for an agent, a player will change club every three years.”
Still, it could be worse. Never mind the ‘wantaway’; consider the player we might call the ‘wishhewasaway’.
“In terms of wantaway players, it’s best not to get in their way,” says Niall Quinn. “The worst thing is when you have a player who has no club interested in him and won’t go out on loan.” He grimaces at the memory of a few he’s known. “They’re the real energy killers,” he sighs.
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Unsettled or unavailable?
Alexis Sanchez: With one year left on his current contract, the sharks are circling as the Chilean could leave the Emirates for nothing next summer. It seems a gamble Arene Wenger is willing to take on the basis that it will become normal practice for clubs in the future. "It will become common for one single reason: the inflation rate is so high on wages and the agent will speculate on high wages three or four years before the end of a contract," Wenger explains.
"The clubs are not in a position where they can afford to do it. Will clubs be interested in running down contracts? Yes. With the amount of transfers, you buy just normal players for £50m. The clubs do not want to pay this for normal players. They will want to wait until the player is free.”
Social media posts with the caption ’Sick’, hasn’t dampened speculation on Sanchez’s intentions, nor has his unavailability for tonight’s opener against Leicester due to an "abdominal strain". At this stage, however, the club’s poker face is holding.
Philippe Coutinho: The Brazilian magician is reportedly ’unsettled’ amid interest from Barcelona who are on the search for a replacement for Neymar, and have €222m burning a hole in their pockets. Jurgen Klopp is adamant Coutinho remains and has rejected a €100m bid from the Catalan giants.
They purchased the 25-year-old from Inter Milan in January 2013 for a fee in the region of €12m. Barcelona omitted Andre Gomes from Monday night’s 5-0 victory over Chapecoense, with a possible player-plus-cash deal being lined up.
Virgil Van Dijk: The former Celtic man was the subject of a lengthy transfer saga at the beginning of the summer with Liverpool cited by Southampton for approaching their player illegally, but the player has reignited his feud with Southampton with a written transfer request and statement this week. The Dutchman is ngered by "the treatment he has endured at the hands of his current employers", who have the temerity to insist the defender sees out his signed contract. However, whe 26-year-old, valued at €50 million, looks certain to leave with Liverpool looking to fight off renewed interest from Chelsea and Manchester City for his signature.
Ross Barkley: The English attacking midfielder looks certain to leave Goodison after rejecting the contract offer from Everton at the beginning of the summer, and manager Ronald Koeman has already adjusted to life without the 23 year old with the additions of Davy Klassen and Wayne Rooney, plus the seemingly imminent arrival of Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Barkley is currently recovering from surgery on his knee which has made suitors wary of his condition, with Spurs the most interested party currently. However, the wage demands have been another cause for concern with the midfielder asking to be one of Tottenham’s highest paid players.
Diego Costa: The Spanish striker has been frozen out of the Chelsea first team squad, and uploaded a video to his Instagram account of him training on a beach in his native Brazil in an attempt to stay fit. The saga first erupted when Costa announced that he had received a text message from manager, Antonio Conte, informing him that he is not in his plans for next season.
Costa and Matic were both given permission to abstain from the Chelsea pre-season tour in Asia in order to sort their futures. Atletico Madrid is Costa’s favoured destination, with the forward joining from the club for 32 million euros in 2014 and almost returning last year. However the Spanish side are currently banned from transfer activity and Costa would have to wait until January before completing a dream return, while free spending AC Milan are also reportedly interested.
Words: Fergus Jayes
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