Player power

Have you been following the saga of Wayne Rooney, his agent, his manager, his ambition, and his financial package?

I call it the rainbow story.

Why? Well surely you remember Wayne Rooney? You know, the child prodigy at Everton, famous for coining the phrase “Once a blue, always a blue”.

The one who then told Everton he no longer wished to play for them and was transferred to Manchester United, where he became a millionaire and a true red. He pledged undying allegiance to the Reds until halfway through his contract he decided the grass was greener on the other side and made leaving noises.

It was hinted that he wanted to don the light blue of Manchester City and earn something close to the �210,000 per week that their highest paid player is reputed to earn.

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But the real reason for wanting a move was not of course the money, but ambition. To further his career. To win trophies. Having told the world that it was not all about money, Rooney has apparently had a change of heart and signed an improved deal for Manchester United which will take his earnings up to �250,000 per week. Over 5 years he is expected to earn about �85 million.

And winning trophies? Furthering his career? Yeah well the Manchester team he has just re-signed for is the same one that only on Wednesday was too lacking in ambition and not good enough to win the trophies he craves so much. Hmmm.

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Well on that money if Rooney is in a black mood or feeling blue then he can nip down to the shops and buy his own trophy and silverware. So he wins all ways round.

Maybe Rooney heeded the gratuitous advice of a certain Mr R Keane, who during the week advised him “to look after number one”. Mr Keane added that footballers were nothing more than pieces of meat. Well he should know.

Mr Keane by the way earns a living as manager of a football club. Not a very successful one, it is true, but a football club nonetheless. And one of his jobs is to explain to his players that football is a team game where the needs of the individual must be subsumed to the needs of the team. Players have a duty to do their best for the team, for their teammates, and for their clubs.

In other words the team is like 11 Musketeers. “One for all and all for one” is their watchword. Right. No inconsistency there then Mr Keane.

A few weeks ago I had a drink with someone who used to manage a leading Premiership club. He told tales about player power that made my hair stand on end. Apparently one former manager of the same club used to hand out exorbitantly lucrative contracts to potential players and agree to virtually any demands they made in order to persuade them to sign for the club. Of course this left the club with a long list of players who were highly paid, but not good enough to play for the team.

And of course these same players were content to simply pick up their bulging pay packet each month. They had no interest, in either improving their performance nor in being transferred to other clubs. So my friend had to simply wait for their contracts to expire before waving them goodbye.

One day early in the manager’s tenure, after a particularly lacklustre performance the manager decided to give his team a real rollicking in the team bus on the journey home. “Captain,” he told the individual concerned “tell the players to hurry up and get on the bus. We are going to give them a stern talking to,”

“Not me,” replied the captain nonchalantly. “Have you checked the terms of my contract?” The manager gulped, for he had not done so. The captain indeed did not board the team bus, and showed no remorse.

Hours later, when he got back to his office, the manager did check the fine print in the contract which stipulated quite clearly that the captain would be flown home immediately after every match in a private helicopter paid for by the club.

The manager also observed that every day the same captain trained alone, pulling heavy weights with a special harness. “Right,” barked the manager “stop that nonsense immediately. I do not want you risking injury by undertaking this dangerous additional training.”

“Sorry,” replied the captain. “I get paid �2,000 per day by the manufacturers of this gear to be photographed using it for their publicity shots. It is all in my contract.” The manager fumed then he checked. Guess what? It was all laid down in black and white, in the contract which had been agreed by the previous manager and was not due to expire for another couple of years.

In the good old days when the minimum wage applied and social attitudes were different, footballers tended to be working class, and grateful to have the chance to make a living playing football rather than working down the mines or in a factory. They tended to respect and defer to the manager and the club directors. All that has been radically altered by the abolition of the minimum wage, the Premier League, the ingress of huge amounts of television money, the advent of rich foreign owners, an influx of players from abroad, the increasing influence of agents, and latterly the Bosman ruling. We really do live in the era of player power.

Very few players now remain with one club for the whole of their careers. It used to be quite common for players to see out their whole career with one club, sometimes even their hometown club. Because they were so poorly paid, they were often awarded a testimonial match, usually after 10 years loyal service.

It was also more common for more clubs to win trophies. Now with the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small elite band of clubs, only those clubs can afford to buy and remunerate the best players, including those from abroad. So only the elite clubs will ever win trophies.

And the financial benefits to clubs of finishing in the top six and thereby qualifying for European competitions looms large. The FA and League Cups are of secondary (or even tertiary) importance.

A self perpetuating vicious circle is assured bringing great success to only a few clubs and relative penury and irrelevance to most.

As an old timer and a Norwich fan, of course I deplore all these trends. Norwich is not a rich club, cannot afford the best players in the world, and does not win many trophies.

But just wait until we retain our place in the Premier League, which I hope will be next year. Then when we use our TV money to sign Rooney I will soon change my tune. If he helps us win the Premier League and become rich perhaps we can sign Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi too. Then we can become mega rich, win more trophies, sign better players, win more trophies, become even richer, sign better players.

We can become the new Manchester United. Now there’s a thought.

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