Throughout the recent string of contract announcements from across the Premier League – and further afield, it must be mentioned – I’ve noticed a worrying trend, depending, of course, on where you stand in the footballing hierarchy. If you happen to be a player, agent, sponsor or investment mogul, these declarations of intent are faultlessly favourable, but for all fans who transpire to wholeheartedly care for the future of the sport, both financially and morally, contracts that tie (often in-form, but lower overall pedigree) players and managers to their specific club until the next decade can surely only seem quizzical and manipulative of supporters of that respective club. All too often in my experience of the press releases surrounding these contract extensions are ambiguities which fail to be fully deciphered by those tasked with reporting on such occasions – those silenced by their allegiances - and certainly for me, it paints a picture of mistrust for both fans and those most closely involved with the contracts themselves, the players, that very few of these contracts are eventually seen out by those involved. Amongst a host of questions we should rightly have in our arsenal to tackle the stigma surrounding this profound and widespread issue in the modern-day game, this week we ask; is the short-sightedness of certain officials, blind or highly manipulated, really at the crux of football’s complex circuitry of interconnected and all-too obvious crises?
As someone (a non-Spurs fan then) not quite as obsessed by the news of contract extensions as the wider media seem to be, you might not be overly familiar with the eerily increasing trend weaving its way into many football clubs; the intention to secure the services of their prime products, in management and playing talent, for, in many cases, half a decade. Now, this may not seem overly unrealistic for a player or manager to remain at a single club of their affiliation for such a period of time, especially considering the loyalty of such hailed figures as Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Ryan Giggs, Francesco Totti, Javier Zanetti, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes. Even Mark Noble, Andy King and the putrid figure of John Terry can claim spaces in such veritable exhibitions of exacting loyalty. Their breed is especially rare, however, and in a BBC Sport study conducted in November 2015, it was revealed the average stay of Premier League players at their sides was 2.82 years. By my assumptions, with the influx particularly of Europe-based players into lower-half Premier League clubs in recent seasons, I would anticipate that average to now be closer to 2.5 or so.
This, in itself, is our first sign of short-sightedness. Consider the rapid reaction of managers such as Marco Silva and Walter Mazzarri of Hull and Watford respectively, who have undertaken the signature of eighteen players in a collective total of three transfer windows this season (eight by Silva in January, 10 from Mazzarri in summer and winter combined) and the offloads of 16 individuals in the same period, with three from the Portuguese on the Humber and the remaining thirteen from the Italian in Hertfordshire. Perhaps these decisions were taken as part of the wider scaling-up of their personal philosophy for the structure of their squad, but I highly doubt either of them consider such obscure English regions of no discernible historic footballing achievement to be their long-term abodes and pinnacle of ambition, leading them, undoubtedly, to make their exits – by resignation or sacking – within the current average tenure of a PL boss. As of today (Saturday 18th), the average stay of all 20 managers (including what would’ve been Aitor Karanka’s, before his reign was rudely interrupted by sacking this week) is 2.52 years, held up by Arsene Wenger’s might two decades – the mean dropping to 1.58 years when ignoring the stint of the Frenchman in North London, which I highly anticipate to culminate this summer. It makes a mockery of the six years Manchester United handed David Moyes in his contract back in 2013 after Fergie had personally pinpointed his countryman to be his successor, that’s for sure.
It appears plainly obvious, then, that for the dozen or so players currently in the Premier League that have achieved, or are close to exceeding, a decade in their club devotion – Wayne Rooney, Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines, Theo Walcott, Julian Speroni, Lucas Leiva, Ryan Shawcross, Angel Rangel, James Morrison, Noble, King and Terry, if you’re ever stuck in a Pub Quiz – there are hundreds of bit-part individuals that make a mockery of the system of long-term contracting. Even though you might only refer to five of this dozen as current regulars for their club, their loyalty is invaluable to the Premier League as a system that apparently values academy production, as well as clubs who also advertise a similar ideology, as they maintain extremely telling statistics, preventing them from sliding to embarrassing levels. Seven, you might notice, are English, and although only Noble is the exact product of a sole club from academy to first-team, they are the treasured remnants of a system that previously favoured players of their incredible talent and determination, yet now fails to provide significant opportunities for such individuals to flourish – especially with coaches who are increasingly abandoning youthful exuberance for experienced tactical astuteness in Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte.
It is ironic, perhaps, that in the notable experience of Everton, who boasted the longest life span of player at any current Premier League club at 4.14 years in BBC’s study back in 2015 – though one I suspect has dropped with the departures of Tim Howard, Leon Osman and Tony Hibbert recently -, their star man in Romelu Lukaku is now rejecting the offer of a long-term, club record contract. At a Merseyside club who pride themselves on their ability to coax players, from near and far, into their long-term vision and overall ethos, it must be a bitter blow to realise the ambitions of a striker whose ilk had not been before witnessed at the Goodison in the coldest way possible; the absolute refusal to even discuss extending his stay for another botched shot at continental qualification. For one of the most admired forwards in the Premier League, and world football alike, personal drive and the realistic analysis of where the Toffees are in his ambitions to play Champions League football must come before dedication to the Evertonians, as if he had, in fact, placed his signature on a contract tying him to the Goodison until 2021, he would soon discover such a statement of intent was impractical. In his position, it is impossible to commit until after the turn of the decade, as another three to four seasons of tedious 7th or 8th-place finishes, unless they could dislodge one of the Manchester or North London clubs, or even Chelsea or their cross-city rivals, which in their financial position seems extremely improbable, would see his career go stale, requiring an eject option quicker than that installed in the Batmobile.
It does almost entirely depend on the respective position of a player’s club, however, such long-term decision making. For example, as Spurs continue to commit a bevy of integral individuals to their post-2020 cause on an almost weekly basis, in the form of Hugo Lloris, Dele Alli and Harry Kane until 2022, Eric Dier, Danny Rose and Ben Davies until 2021 and the quartet of Kyle Walker, Harry Winks, Moussa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen until only 2019 (the shock of it), theirs is an approach based on the continuity of Mauricio Pochettino – with the departure of Karanka, currently the fifth longest serving PL boss – and the continued improvement in playing standards towards a potential league title. Stadium developments are in place to maximise match-day income and boost club reputation, they have an increasingly effective transfer strategy of responsibly minimal reinvestments (excluding the appalling £30 million paid for Moussa Sissoko, that is), and perhaps most importantly, they boast a burgeoning array of locally-sourced starlets thriving under the stewardship of arguably the most youth-friendly PL coaches in Pochettino, with routes into the first team squad. Theirs is no short-sighted plan.
But once again, Spurs represent the minority at such a level. Few clubs aside the Lilywhites have such a detailed and regimental long-term direction for the next footballing year, let alone the next five. Their opponents in the FA Cup semi-final, for example; Chelsea – a mere 20 miles apart across Hampstead Heath and Hyde Park – are now synonymous with the sacking of world-class managers, making their way through eleven separate permanent tenures over the past decade (although Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink made up four of those), despite also winning ten major trophies in that same period. Sadly, despite the obvious flaws of their ruthlessly impatient approach to the beautiful game, Roman Abramovich’s model has yet to prove unsuccessful over a period of more than an aberrational season or two, though perhaps more a result of the quality of coaches employed over the years rather than the club’s wider strategy.
The West Londoners tend, of course, to purchase players in their pomp, and in doing so, have to spend above market value – indeed with transfer outgoings only less, at £507,459,000, than both incessant Manchester clubs in the past five Premier League seasons – as their approach is to buy big to win big. The unrelenting engulfing of expensive assets and the shockingly unethical continent-wide seizure of talented youngsters at impressive prices – only to send 30 of them out on loan, with usually 28 of them sold on for a profit in subsequent seasons – also results in the Stamford Bridge-based club boasting the highest income in sales in the post-2012 period at £320,650,000. This total, it must be noted, is the only over £250,000,000 – other than Spurs’ (£314,450,000) – representing the success of starkly contrasting means to a similar end; overall financial stability and playing achievement, the former of which the Premier League leaders only achieve through commercial income, and the latter of which Mauricio Pochettino’s are yet to make a reality.
When Victor Moses is captured proudly penning a contract extension to commit himself to the Blues until 2021 (one of the main inspirations for this blog, which I have been debating for a while), this is where Abramovich’s scheme seems to have faltered. Antonio Conte, thanks to a supreme debut season in English football and a pedigree for medium to long-term projects (in modern terms at least) with his three seasons spent at Juventus, may yet see his personal reign prolonged until such a distant future, but for Moses - a seemingly forgotten man in the Kensington area since 2013 - a six month spell of form, revitalised at wing-back under the Italian tactician, hardly, in my opinion, warranted his next four years being decided. Having failed to deliver on glimpses that once saw him tipped for a future internationally with his adopted England in successive loans at Liverpool, Stoke and West Ham, Jose Mourinho’s response to the Nigerian-born winger’s presence at the club despite a positive previous season under Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez, Moses was surely on the brink of departure this summer until Conte opted to explore existing options within his squad for a new system inspired by successful Italian forays.
Given Chelsea’s reputation for stemming the flow of poor form with the almost immediate offloading of individuals at fault, Moses could yet be out of the club, given his second-rate status beneath such superstars as Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, Pedro, N’Golo Kante and David Luiz, especially if after a sole season of prosperity, his talent again flatters to deceive. I fully expect Conte’s system to be hotly challenged, possibly even exploited by many other managers with the squad capabilities of Mourinho’s star-studded United, Pep Guardiola’s rigorously trained City troops, Pochettino’s increasingly aesthetically easy Spurs catalogue, (INSERT NAME HERE’s) cultured yet unpredictable Arsenal and even Klopp’s developing blend of youth and fast-paced skill at Liverpool, so the sudden phenomenon of wing-backs could be as soon cast into short-lived glory as it was proven a masterstroke. At the very least, I cannot, under any form of intoxication, foresee Moses’ questionable tactical credibility and limited box of tricks fulfilling the needs of Conte, nor any possible successor in his position, until the turn of the decade. It is both unrealistic and irresponsible to even suggest the notion that they would, risking more the future playing days of Moses than the affairs of the club itself.
Players, in this sense, seem qualities only fully appreciated in the relatively short periods in which they can sustain physical and mental talents superior to those of any competitors – and for a business, I picture this as devaluing for the clubs involved in its disgrace. How can they seriously expect a player handed such an offer to truly believe his time is going to spent kicking a ball around for that specific fan base for the next four years, unless of course, they have been presented a realistic and appealing long-term plan like at Spurs? Clubs, currently, are either blazing the most short-sighted, ridiculous business trail across a plethora of imaginable industries, or deceiving their employees into prolonging their futures for the sake of the potential fees players and suitors would later have to pay to escape such legal ties in their departure to a new club. Who benefits the most? The agents, of course, while clubs make a pretty penny from the short-lived success of a particular individual, as in the realistic state of football currently, no player is factually expected to deliver more than the average 2.82 years of diligent, often brilliant, more often substandard, service to their club before passing onto the next stage in both their lives and careers.
Managers, also, are hardly expected, when hired on the prospect of turning around fortunes, to last more than the PL average of 2.52 years, so should we really be accusing football of short-sightedness at all, considering the existing and well-documented examples of limited working timeframes? Personally, with the cases of Moyes and Moses, alongside many others whose contracts who panned out, or inevitably will unfurl, into embarrassing and low-profile departures, I think the cause requires exposure into the public eye by further revealing from those in the know. Acrimonious exits are often the desperate result of running down contracts, and all too often, due to the short-sightedness of previous deals to extend stays in the midst of an protracted peak in form, players are left, as in Lukaku’s example, to seek other suitors after the metaphorical honeymoon period has passed, while their present employers meekly and unconvincingly deny any such wantaway figures exist within their changing room walls.
In this state of affairs, you do begin to wonder whether such long-term contract extensions are done for two simple objectives; to appease long-suffering fans only assured by the proclamation that their most coveted players will be continuing to ply their trade on the furrows of their home pitch, and to ward off potential courters. Whether the second of these objectives actually works is to be disputed, as the cases of Wayne Rooney and David De Gea, affirming their ‘loyalty’ after disputes about potential departures to Chelsea/Man City and Real Madrid respectively, could easily be contrasted with those of Luis Suarez and Thiago Silva, who left seven months and a mere 12 days respectively after penning long-term contracts of roughly five years in both cases. If courting clubs have the funds to supply an employer’s needs, then certainly –barring a breakdown in fax communication – a deal can be forged for said coveted individual, and if Real Madrid picked up the phone, tapped in the number discovered for Daniel Levy from the yellow pages, or páginas amarillas, and enquired about the availability of Harry Kane’s services for a price similar to that paid for Gareth Bale, say, I think it would be incredibly difficult for Levy to repel such offers.
A contract is no object to those that can afford to render them useless, and in many regards, they are worth even less considering the cultured negotiating hand of players and agents in the modern game. Clubs are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the services of their most coveted individuals, and in many ways, you have to sympathise with their position; especially further down the pyramid, when the godsend of a hefty financial departure can be the difference between economic struggle and years of prosperous redevelopment. This is simply a bi-product of the globalised market that the Premier League, amongst a host of competitors, boasts, as traditions of one-club men and of first-team opportunities for academy graduates are fading into oblivion, having been almost completely hunted to extinction, where a small collective of underappreciated individuals remain.
For football to be continually so impressively entertaining and competitive, however, one could argue that this global interchange of goods has to be so callous for the soulless individuals being shipped home and away. For new tactics to be implemented, and new individual styles of play to be tested on the highest stage and appreciated by the masses, there is a basic requirement for such capitalism to overtake any theories or comprehensions anyone would’ve had about the restrictions of football, phasing in what we now see as the almost incomputable, rapid movement of players and coaches across cities, countries, continents and the globe.
It may not be an admirable, or favourable, impact of the scaling up of the sport as a business, and for investors, it costs them no small fee to continue the competitive upkeep of their club of choice, but it presents us with the melting pot of nationalities, skillsets and characters that are immediately interchangeable from club to club at a moment’s notice (in Harry Redknapp’s case at least) that we, as viewers, lap up in the billions of pounds for those in the high castles. Short-sightedness is perhaps the key quality of the sport, and for this very reason, it matters very little, in terms of the financial and reputational cost, to those investing, as while they have to toe the line of the array of legal agreements in their oil, food, leisure or investment banking industries, they can afford a fritter on football, casting aside all sense of accurate business judgement in favour of what appears an uncontrollable tit-for-tat skirmish to achieve short-lived, nonetheless enjoyable, success. For those wishing to dissociate themselves with this side of football, this is a complex and overawing disfigurement on the sport they love, but for others, it is merely an easily and conveniently forgettable aspect of today’s game, fuelling their fire of affable, gluttonous consumption. Short-sightedness – be it indistinguishably deliberate or accidental – however, will never blight us non-leaguers; after all, we never expect players, or managers, for their part, to stick around for too long in the first place…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!