The first transfer saga that really got under my skin involved us, Chelsea and John Obi Mikel, and with hindsight, the timing of this mess probably sparked my fury as much as the behaviour of the player.
Chelsea had just won the title and we had just finished third for the second year running, a massive 18 points off the top. Whilst we still clung on to the belief that we would be back, the press were certain our period of dominance was over, just like Liverpool’s had been after the 80’s.
The day before Chelsea claimed the title with a 2-0 win against Bolton, we signed young Nigerian John Obi Mikel for £4m. He attended a press conference wearing our shirt and grinning proudly. “I am pleased to get the chance to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world,” Mikel said. “I’m looking forward to it. I am surprised that a big club like Manchester United wanted me. I had a contract with Lyn and not with Chelsea. I read about it in the papers, but haven’t heard from them.”
Ten days after the press conference, Mikel spoke to the press again. “I will join Man United in January,” he said. “It’s a dream come true for me.”
Then the situation took a turn for the worse.
Mikel went missing, he had received death threats and there was reports claiming he was on his way to London with his agent. The next time we saw him he was on the television claiming he had been forced to sign for United against his will and he really wanted to play for Chelsea. It was as if the press conference two weeks before, where he was grinning in his United shirt, had never happened. Within the space of a couple of days Mikel changed his mind. It wasn’t a dream come true to be a United player, it was his dream to play for Chelsea. Whether it was his angry agent who had missed out on his cut with the United deal, whether it was the pressure from the death threats he’d received or whether it was the promise of more money at Chelsea, it became clear pretty quickly that a future at Manchester United was now untenable for a want-away Mikel.
To cut a long story short, Mikel missed out on the next fourteen months of his career, playing for no team, before Chelsea forked out £16m (which left us with change from the Vidic and Evra purchases that year. Cheers, Roman!) and we sold him.
Of course, we got the last laugh where this player is concerned. We’ve won the title every year he has been at Chelsea and we beat them in the European Cup final. Every time I see him playing for Chelsea I get pleasure in remembering just how hard he worked to get out of our contract and how much football he gave up, just to see us go from strength to strength. But I’m not angry any more. That feeling came from the bitterness of seeing Chelsea as the most successful club, a position we had claimed for so long, and there they were, throwing their weight (and their money) around to pinch players from us who had claimed they were fulfilling some ‘dream’ in playing for us. But rather than admit he’d had a change of heart (motivated by money), he lied and claimed he had been forced in to the deal. Is it that difficult to be honest? Is it easier to pretend you haven’t been seen beaming in our shirt and telling everyone it’s a dream come true than it is to say that you’ve been offered a more lucrative deal elsewhere?
I am very aware that football is a short career for most players and see no problem in them trying to earn as much as they possibly can. Whilst people can question the morals and ethics behind doctors, teachers and fireman earning in a year just a fraction of what a footballer makes in a week, I don’t really see the problem. For example, United paid Cristiano Ronaldo £120,000 a week (just over £6m a year) but in scoring the goal in the European Cup final in 2008 he earned us more than £100m. It might be sick that there is so much money involved in the game but players will only earn what the club believes they’re worth. We have made an absolute mint on Ronaldo, from the money he’s earned us in prize-money, ticket sales, merchandise and his transfer fee from Real Madrid, despite forking out what appears to be such a large salary. What he made from us was nothing in comparison to what we made from him.
After Emmanuel Adebayor completed his £25m move to Manchester City from Arsenal, he spoke more honestly than most players do about the money. Whilst still insisting the money wasn’t the be all and end all, he acknowledged that it played a part in his decision.
“I know a lot of people will say ‘He’s gone for the money’,” he said. “But I would like to see one Arsenal fan who worked somewhere for £10 and was offered work elsewhere for £30 to say they would refuse. Yes, they offered me a very fine contract and I have signed it.”
It’s completely true. If I could treble my wages working for a different company, whether it rivalled my current employers or not, then I would be off. I don’t begrudge players, particularly those coming from very poor backgrounds, trying to earn as much money as they can before their career is over. There are coaching jobs to think about and a better paid job on the telly if they are lucky, but players have limited time to make a lot of money because after the age of 35-years-old they won’t be making money lucrative from playing (unless they’re Sol Campbell!).
However, if money is the deciding factor in a player’s career, then they need to be honest about it. I don’t mean in their unveiling press conference they need to announce they are only there for the money but they shouldn’t put up a pretence of loyalty and love for the shirt they are wearing if money is the most important factor in their arrival.
This summer we have seen plenty of players batting their eye-lids at clubs with lots of money. Some of them have made the move, others have stayed put, but all of them have failed to be honest.
Emmanuel Adebayor claimed he had to pay Arsenal back for putting him where he was today and that he wouldn’t leave the club until he’d help win them trophies. Two months later he was a Manchester City player. Nobody made him kiss their badge and nobody made him claim he was definitely going to stay, so why bother? If the money makes or breaks your decision on who to play for, why pretend to be loyal and committed to Arsenal?
John Terry is known as ‘Mr Chelsea’ and his loyalty to the club was never questioned. When Manchester City started sniffing around him Chelsea fans will probably have laughed it off. “I want to end my career at the club which I love,” he said in February after Chelsea turned down a January bid for him. When it came to the summer though, Terry was a lot more quiet as the rumours circled and the bids came in. He stayed quiet for a whole month in fact whilst the fans showed up at pre-season games with signs begging him not to leave. After the decision was finally made, Terry confessed to having a hard time making it, claiming “you get the odd sleepless night and things move around in your head.” But at the same time he also said “if I’d been tempted I’d have gone.” If he wasn’t tempted then why the sleepless nights? Just be honest.
Gareth Barry told Aston Villa, the club he was the captain of and had played at for twelve years, that they couldn’t match his aspirations. After praising the fans for their tireless support which gave him belief in his International career, he decided he had to be playing Champions League football at his peak to get in the England side. If Villa could get in to the top four, he promised that he would stay. But they couldn’t.
“My mind’s made up, I want to join Liverpool,” Barry said last summer. “There’s no going back, it’s time for me to move on. I’m desperate to play Champions League football and that’s why I have to leave Villa.” Then he signs for a club who aren’t in any European competition, let alone the Champions League.
So be honest. If you are desperate to play Champions League football at your peak, that is fair enough and a totally valid reason for leaving, even if it is a club you’ve been with for twelve years. But if you would prefer to earn a fuck load of money with a club you believe will be playing Champions League football when you’re in your 30’s, then admit it. Don’t make out Champions League football is the be all and end all when your salary is clearly more important.
When Cristiano Ronaldo left us for Real Madrid there was of course an element of irritation in our reaction. For him, United weren’t the crème de la crème and as a fan that’s hard to get your head around. You imagine you would play for your club for free and would give anything to score goals at Old Trafford. But Ronaldo was always honest, he didn’t kiss our badge and now the dust has settled we can’t begrudge him his move. He will always remember us fondly and we are grateful for everything he helped us achieve, but I don’t expect every player, particularly from the continent, to come to United, fall in love and want to stay here forever.
The frustration comes when players behave as though they do love the club and fans but are tempted away so easily. Why bother saying you intend to see out your career when in reality you know you will leave if you’re offered more money elsewhere? It’s so unnecessary. We’re not asking them to commit forever and regardless of how popular it makes players to claim they’re staying for life, it serves no purpose to say it if their heart is not in it. They are just setting themselves up for a fall because sooner or later a rich club will call their bluff.
Whilst United are spoilt with one-team players like Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher etc., you don’t have to kiss our badge and tell us you will love us forever to be popular here. Patrice Evra and Wayne Rooney regularly voice their commitment to the club, but it is not a requirement. Michael Carrick, for example, gets on with the job without grabbing his badge when he scores or waxing lyrical about his love for the fans. Maybe he imagines he will stay with us forever or maybe he thinks one day he’ll move on… or maybe he just wants to get on with his job and take each day as it comes. He’s a football player, not a football fan, and I would much rather his approach than that of so many other players in the modern era.
Whilst for so many of us our lives revolve around our loyalties to our club, the same can’t be said of the vast majority of footballers. I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is footballers claiming they want to see out their career with a club, kissing the badge whenever they score, proclaiming their undying love for the club and fans… then jumping ship the moment a bigger wad of cash is waved under their nose. Just be up front and honest, not fake and phony simply to gain popularity. Surely that’s not too much to ask for.