Another interesting side to the recent wall of foreign money hitting the Premiership – the other side of that wall, if you will – is that it’s called into question the idea that players are only motivated by the prospect of getting their share of the bricks. Dimitar Berbatov might look like the living embodiment of a red-top “Striker!” cartoon, but he turned down a better deal for himself to get to Manchester United.
Aaron Ramsey is another case in point. Of course, mindful of the West Ham squad list and the presence of Robinho, it would be daft to suggest that money doesn’t play a huge factor. But can you name more than two or three other players of the Brazilian’s calibre who have taken the shilling? I can’t see far beyond Chelsea here: Michael Essien – who would have been at United but for Russian money; Sheva – who was praised by Mourinho this week; and Michael Ballack.
None of those three ever played like mercenaries for Chelsea – Shevchenko was quite clearly in a square hole in England, which I can quite understand. Essien and Ballack were instrumental in getting Chelsea so close to a clean sweep of trophies last season.
Back to Berbatov and Ramsey, both men who take themselves seriously as craftsmen and players long before income becomes a priority. Is it possible for clubs to attract this kind of outlook into their squad? What makes up a club’s “goodwill”?
Let’s rattle through some of the obvious points first.
- Opportunity – otherwise known as European football. Clearly. And the Champions League is the one they all want.
- History. Players want famous clubs on their CV. Spurs will always have more pull than Wigan, as we saw a season or two back when Wigan offered fabulous packages to a string of top players, all of whom refused. (Heskey accepted, and became a top player again. Anyone NOT very pleased with that outcome?)
- The person of the manager. Case in point: Roy Hodgson vs Lawrie Sanchez. A season ago, Andy Johnson would not have left Everton for Fulham with the intention of reviving his England career. At one stage, Hodgson was in the frame to become England manager, and we have spent the last ten months being reminded why. Likewise, Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn, pulling Shearer out of Alex Ferguson’s slipstream.
But mention of Shearer brings me onto the less tangible assets a club can have, and this is where the likes of Hull City come in.
Hull the place gets a bad rap. The worst-educated population, some of the worst housing, highest unemployment, low overall standard of living… but although the people of Hull do have real problems to deal with, the overall picture is wrong. It has a decent university, a busy port, some good regeneration projects, good museums, theatre and music, a history of famous poets and a blogger. In re. the latter, throw in Hull’s adult education service, if he is any guide.
None of this is liable to pull in any footballers besides Graeme Le Saux or Lee Dixon, and Hull need younger legs than theirs. So take a look outside the city. Beverley, one of the most charming towns in the whole of England, is minutes away; York not much further, and with York, the National Parks. Prosperity, quiet, privacy and beauty – all attractive to many top players, especially non-English ones who value places where they are not recognised or rated.
Newcastle, surrounded by glorious countryside, is another case in point. Allegedly, Alan Shearer – and this is where he comes in – sells Toon to potential incomers on two points. One – the fans will love you. Two – you’ll be able to live somewhere out of doorstopping reach, with London money in a non-London economy. (Three – if you’re any good, your political clout within the club will be incredible. After Michael Owen’s shameful treatment by Liverpool and Madrid, can anyone blame him for going somewhere where he’s wanted? I certainly can’t).
So, if a club can’t offer history, or Europe, or a top manager (remember who was Toon manager when Owen arrived) offer lifestyle, offer privacy, offer what Chelsea and Manchester United and Tottenham and Liverpool cannot. At a time when Liverpool offer burglary, United offer Southport and Chelsea offer the goldfish bowl of Cobham(which has helicopters over it constantly these days as a result of the team’s presence), the Yorkshire Dales (rugby country!) and the Northumbrian countryside look all the better.
What do the other clubs have? Stoke are a short drive from the Peak District and more rugby country. QPR are forty minutes away from the Chiltern Hills, an area which is only now putting in proper roads.. Southampton has the New Forest and Winchester; Reading has the Cotswolds (just about); Cardiff has the whole of Central Wales.
No one could ever argue that a smaller club can use assets such as these to out-gun the traditional giants of the game – but for now, they aren’t competing with Spurs or Liverpool. It’s about that precious bottom half of the Premiership, which is open to new entrants, as Wigan and Portsmouth have demonstrated. The path there, as Metatone said here yesterday, is through selling the club to good but minor foreign players, or top-class last-payday types with a winning attitude. There aren’t enough Johnsons and Bullards to go around these days, if there ever were, given English football’s perennial drink problem. Small clubs need foreign players with enthusiasm and ambition.
So surely it pays a club to pay attention to what it has around it just as a local council or a recruiting business would – to pay attention to what blind luck, geography and nature has given it – and to use those things to compensate for the lack of funds and foreign fussball.
This is all tediously obvious, isn’t it?
Hull’s Geovanni is 28, by the way. Where has he been!?