Little festive cheer when you spot the slackers
Every year I hear the expression “Christmas is just around the corner” a little earlier than the year before. For a footballer, however, Christmas barely registers. At this time of the year, when the games are coming thick and fast and training feels like “Groundhog Day”, it isn’t the thought of what we might be unwrapping on Christmas day that keeps us awake at night, it is the thought of what the January transfer window might have in store for us.
For a lot of newly promoted players, this particular window is a little more exciting than normal because, for many of them, it will be their first transfer window as a Premier League player. It is the first chance he has to see whether or not he has already impressed other, more established, top-tier teams. But there are pitfalls for those team-mates who are not on the move.
Promoted sides rarely want to lose their best players halfway through their first Premier League campaign, regardless of where the club sits in the league. Because of this, bids – unless vastly inflated – will usually be turned down. In truth, many of these bids by stable top-flight clubs are nothing more than a tester.
There was plenty of interest in Swansea’s young side during their first year but not until the beginning of this season did they lose Joe Allen and Scott Sinclair. And there are countless other examples down the years. Clubs need their best players to help establish themselves in the Premier League; once this is done, they can afford to sell them on for top dollar. Unless, of course, the club is relegated in their first season.
There are a couple of players that I will probably always struggle to fully forgive for the way they played for themselves instead of the team. When the fortunes of a certain club that we played for – and had made into a household name – suddenly found itself staring relegation in the face, these players did the worst thing that two players who had attracted interest from more glamorous clubs in the previous window could do. They stopped trying.
Our club had turned down big money for one of these players and needed him to perform to the best of his abilities if we were to avoid the drop. Unfortunately for all of us, he spat his dummy out and helped to condemn us. In training, efforts were made by the squad to injure both of these players, with one notable success. That story made it into the tabloids and was probably closer to an assault than the “squaring up after a mistimed tackle” that was actually reported.
Both had been among our most consistent performers for a couple of seasons and so I understood that there was always the possibility that, at some stage, they could lose form. But, as a player, you get to know when a team-mate has lost form or confidence and when that same player isn’t tackling for fear of injury, isn’t running as fast for fear of pulling a hamstring and isn’t overly concerned when the team loses. It is this “pull the ladder up, Jack” behaviour that reeks of a player that knows he is going to be “sorted” for next year, regardless of what happens in the short term.
For a long time, I blamed the manager for not pulling the two of them out sooner. Either he didn’t want to believe that players for whom he’d done everything would repay him in this way – players who were nowhere on the football landscape before this club signed them – or, more likely, he knew that it would look very odd pulling them both out of the team without a stonewall explanation, such as injury.
If you think about it, how, as a manager, do you tell the fans that you believe two of your players aren’t trying any more because you already know that they aren’t going to be at the club next year? Where’s the proof? It’s the worst “Catch 22″ that a manager could have. He’s damned if he plays them and he’s damned if he doesn’t.
Once I understood that dilemma, it made it easy for me to blame the players. After all, they were the ones delivering substandard performances and leaving the rest of us out to dry. In all honesty, we may as well have fielded nine men for all the good they did us in those last few months.
As it turned out, they did get their moves and, with them, came more Premier League football, higher wages, international caps … more, more, more and more. With this proof, I felt comfortable for a long time that the blame lay with them and them alone.
But something has been nagging me for years. Maybe it wasn’t those players’ fault? After all, what player doesn’t want the best opportunity to play for his country? And what player wouldn’t want a bigger house and better education for his kids and the chance to pay off not only their own mortgage but the mortgages of their parents and siblings?
And that means there’s only one person left to blame. Me. I now realise that I should have done something at the time and although the immediate fall-out wouldn’t have been pleasant, I would have been fined two weeks’ wages and I’d certainly have lost my place in the side for a game or two, I’d be a more contented individual today if, at the time, I’d have pinned one of them to the changing-room wall.
I paid a lot because of these two, I paid a big price. But ask them if they care?