What matters more: cash or cups? Take a guess
I know what the Birmingham City players would have been thinking during their Carling Cup lap of honour and I also know what many of them would have been thinking when they were relegated three months later.
The League Cup has long had its detractors but none of the natives on the blue half of the divide at Wembley were complaining after Birmingham’s win over Arsenal in the final last season. Yet the sterile reality of football is that for many of us players winning a trophy is a bonus.
Since the inception of the Premier League, silverware has been monopolised, to a certain extent, by three or four of the biggest clubs. Breaking that stranglehold has never been harder but it isn’t impossible. Recent Carling Cup finalists have included Blackburn, Middlesbrough, Bolton and Wigan before Birmingham’s triumph last season.
But hard facts are hard facts. Relegation from the Premier League has cost Birmingham financially and almost all of the side that won the cup only a year ago have had to be sold. But then ask this question: what will the Birmingham fans remember and talk about in years to come? The fact that the team finished ninth in the Premier League in 2009-10 and were financially stable without being spectacular, or beating Arsenal in the dying moments of the Carling Cup final last season? As a player I would love to say the latter, which would be the supporters’ response, but that would be a lie. Nice though another medal in the cabinet would be, football is a job and the best place to ply your trade is in the Premier League.
I have sat in the changing room before games at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and the Emirates knowing that if all the stars in the sky are lined up and the opposition put in their worst performance for a decade and in turn we produce a herculean effort, then we may just, if we’re lucky, snatch a draw. The standard manager spiel in such circumstances is to trot out the tired line “just enjoy it”. After one of these games in which we’d taken a good hiding I approached our manager on the team bus, someone I thought I’d built up a good relationship with, and said: “Why do you say: ‘Just enjoy it,’ before we go out? How is chasing the ball around for 90 minutes, being beaten four or five nil and being made to look shit on TV in front of everyone supposed to be enjoyable?” He turned to me and, raising his voice so the whole coach could hear, said: “What do you want me to say, that you’re not even half the player Paul Scholes is? Fuck off to the back of the bus and shut up.”
The point that my manager was trying to illustrate is that we really didn’t have any chance of winning the league, or even a cup competition, but as long as we kept working hard and “did the right things” we could all earn a living and not upset too many people. For our owners, our manager and the players, it was all about Premier League football. At least I think that was the point because otherwise he just thought I was crap.
Wembley is a nice day out but the Premier League is a cash cow. Craig Bellamy gave an interview ahead of Sunday’s final that was about as candid as you are ever likely to hear and reflects what I know most players, among themselves, would agree is somewhere very close to the truth. Bellamy said: “Honestly if I win, I win, if I don’t, I don’t. I won’t lose one second of sleep over it. I’ve had a great career and enjoyed it but is it defined by trophies? No – and it never will be. I don’t even know where my Scottish Cup medal [won in 2005 with Celtic] is.” A few years earlier, Tottenham’s Benoît Assou-Ekotto dared to go further: “I don’t understand why, when I said I play for the money, people were shocked. Oh, he’s a mercenary. Every player is like that.”
The mindset of a player has changed dramatically as TV money has swelled our pay slips. Every player knows the retired professional who has spent all his money and has had to find a regular job. Financial managers have ensured we squirrel away a high percentage of our earnings and, as a consequence, our career decisions are, to a certain degree, influenced by how much money we need to earn and for how long. The biggest mistake I ever made in football was moving clubs for more money. I vowed never to do it again, until I realised it was too late and that I had arrived at the point where my career would for ever more be only about how much money I needed to earn. It’s regrettable and makes me cringe when I put it in writing but I promise you it is the same for a huge number of professionals.
Last week I had dinner with a friend I grew up with. We used to dream of playing at Wembley together and lifting the FA Cup. Unfortunately for him he never fulfilled his ambition of playing professionally and, in what feels like an attempt to make himself feel better and knock me down a few pegs, has been asking me questions where the only possible answer proves that I am a greedy footballer that has sold his soul.
Towards the end of the meal he asked me what I would choose if I were offered an FA Cup winner’s medal or another season in the Premier League. The answer, as I told him, is another season in the Premier League. Sell out I may be but stupid I ain’t.