Friday, August 05, 2011

Any Given Sunday...or Friday, or Saturday or Monday...

For those of us of a footballing persuasion early August is like early December for children. The expectation is the same, as is the restless excitement.

So, while most fans are only just at the lobster pink stage of their summer tans, league football is back (if you're reading this in Scotland, it's been back for two weeks. Don't ask).

A whole two months have passed since the end of the 2010-2011 season, although for the desperate, the European Under-21s in June provided some respite, and for those truly desperate to break the void last month, there was the Women's World Cup.

Tonight, in England, the dynamically-named npower Championship (League Division Two in very old money) will kick off, closely followed on Sunday by The Traditional Curtain Raiser™ - the Charity/Community/Sponsorsnameinhere Shield between the Manchesters City and United.

The following weekend will see the Barclays Premier League heave to expensively-seated, excessively-rewarded, Bentley GT-driving life. And that's when the trouble will start. You see, already-high expectations build pretty quickly as the season ramps up. In recent weeks, many of us football obsessives have kept a cheeky eye on the pre-season program, that ritual in which clubs patronise the fans of lesser teams by turning out showcase XIs in friendles, while the game's elite traipse off to joke tournaments in exotic climes, essentially to sell more shirts and TV subscriptions under the auspices of pre-season match experience. However, that has only served to raise expectations further.

The first two or three games proper will, of course, be pointless processions in the sense that they will say absolutely nothing about how the next 35 games will play out. That's not to say there won't be anything to watch. Over the next few weeks, teams in all leagues will be keenly showing off their exorbitant new purchases, and nervous managers will be summoning up Wellingtonesque bombast and bravado to defend their summer outlay (or lack of). There will be thrills, spills and bellyache (which sums up 90 minutes of Didier Drogba alone). But it will lack a certain...fizz.

For a start, despite being phenomenally fit by yours or my standard (especially mine), two weeks off with Mrs WAG in Sardinia, Cap d'Antibes, Centerparcs or wherever is in vogue for footballer wages this year will have taken their toll on sharpness and match smarts. We will blindly make a certain allowance for this. That's OK for August, but by September, through October and into November, when the first of the season's managerial firing squads are lining up their sights, we'll be expecting a different pace. And woe betide any of them if, from then until March, these richly rewarded princes of the park are still not earning the dubbin for their boots, we'll be rightfully caterwauling like the grumpy sods we fans can be.

Money is the root of the gripe. The football fan will deftfully sidestep the moralilty of football players earning more in one day than a qualified nurse earns in a year. But once they start to see their own hard-earned going to waste, different matter.

Some years back, when Chelsea was gleefully turning into a retirement home for Serie A and La Liga players with expensive wage demands and knackered legs, a Dutchman by the name of Winston Bogarde joined the club.

Apparently, then-manager Claudio Ranieri knew nothing about the acquisition, and subsequently tried to have Bogarde offloaded. Having been signed for 40 grand a week – which ten years ago was considered high – Bogarde ended up languishing in the reserves.

Legend has it that he would eventually fly in each morning from his home in Amsterdam to Chelsea’s training ground near Heathrow Airport, train on his own and then fly back to Schiphol in time for a biertje overlooking the Amstel.

"They should get the same as teachers get," is the regular comment of the non-believer. True, it is mad that a 21-year-old who left the education system at the age of 17 to kick an inflated sack of leather about for a living, should end up earning more in one year than the annual budget of the average primary school.

Yes. Mad. You can't argue with the free market. Well you can, but that involves growing a beard and not showering very much. Truthfully, trying to compare the relative pay of worthy public servants with overpaid athletes is a rabbit hole anyone with a sense of the shortness of life should avoid. It certainly wasn’t a healthy pursuit when MTV Cribs consisted exclusively of the homes of excessively-salaried basketball stars showing off their South Beach condos to cameras held at wonky angles.

What a football player earns is not the issue. Whether he deserves it is another discussion. In the current financial climate, you’d wonder whether club owners and chairmen have really got a foot in reality with the way player remuneration has been set up. All clubs and even individual players’ contracts have a variety of incentivisation methods like win and appearance bonuses. But one sometimes wonders whether these are worth the paper their written on.

In a recent article in The Times, the former Millwall, Aston Villa and Chelsea striker Tony Cascarino argued that clubs would do well to install pay-as-you play deals, especially for older players. In his piece, Cascarino cited the wage policy at relegated West Ham as an example of how clubs can get it wrong, with Kieron Dyer his example: a transfer fee of £6 million from Newcastle, a £65,000-a-week deal and only 35 appearances in four years, many as a sub. There are similar horrors in West Ham’s recent history, which may go some way to explain their disappearance through the Premier League trap door, yet again.

Cascarino’s point was that putting players on appearance bonuses first and foremost, rather than salaries which required no effort to maintain, would sharpen output. He referred to Alan Curbishley’s tenure of Charlton Athletic, a period during which the club enjoyed relatively consistent success, while paying its players well in appearance money and bonuses, but lower base salaries.

The problem with all this, of course, is that it’s a seller’s market. While the transfer window stays open for the remainder of August, it will be the agents and their craft that will set the pace, not the clubs eager for their clients’ signatures. The merry-go-round of big money moves will continue to turn, and with it, the monied elite will be adding to their ranks players who can command a modest fee, but whose salaries will only add to football’s own spiraling debt crisis. Taxi for SeƱor Torres?

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