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The Mark Catlin column: There is just no loyalty in football anymore, fact or fiction?

The general consensus amongst football fans in the modern game is that in regards to both players and managers: 1) there is just no loyalty in football anymore, 2) contracts are not worth the paper they are written on 3) all the power is now with the players and managers, and 4) agents are killing the game.

I have heard each and every one of these clichés time after time, from supporters of almost ALL clubs, and I will try to address each of them one by one. How true are these phrases? Do the facts support the general pre-conception? For the sake of this article I will name the clubs and supporters as the ‘prosecution’ with players/managers/agents being the ‘defence’!

Being the Director of a Football League club naturally gives me an incredible insight into the overall relationship between players, managers, their agents, and the club, and to be honest all the clichés ARE true, BUT surprisingly I would argue with mitigating circumstances for each of them!

I come from a background and upbringing where ‘your word is your bond’. A deal completed over the phone, or in person with the shake of a hand, is a done deal, end of story. No going back, no renegotiation, you have to honour the deal that you struck even if it was bad deal you originally did at the time and you realize this at a later date.

The concept of anyone breaking a contract because of a better offer from another club is totally alien to me. HOWEVER if I am to continue in football then I learnt very early on that this was something that I needed to adapt to, and to be honest it’s not just football that has changed over the years in regards to the honouring of contracts, it’s society in general.

Loyalty 

1) There is just no loyalty in football anymore. Historically, from let’s say up to the beginning of the 1970s, the vast majority of the population would leave school, get a job, and that would probably be the job that they stayed at until the day they retired. Footballers were pretty much the same. Unless a mega money deal came along, players and managers pretty much stuck with a club throughout their careers, or worse ways they stuck with a club for quite lengthy periods of time.

Now here comes the first ‘chink’ in the prosecution case. Loyalty is a two way street, you have to earn loyalty, you cannot buy loyalty with a contract, and let’s be honest, how loyal are clubs and even fans in the modern game? In years gone by both clubs and supporters stuck by players and managers through thick and thin, can the same honestly be said now?

Football has evolved over the years like any company, and employers and employees are just so much more fluid today in either running or working in a business. I am convinced that there is less loyalty from BOTH parties nowadays, it’s sad, but true. Employers are looking to bring in better staff to make the company more competitive, whilst employees are looking for other jobs where they themselves can earn more money and/or achieve better bonuses and/or perks and benefits.

It hurts me to write this, but just because we as fans give unconditional support to the club that we love, we cannot demand this of our players/managers. We can ask for it, hope for it, but sadly we cannot demand it. If a store manager (for example) is earning 20k a year in Asda, and Tesco offer him 50k a year, do we honestly think he is going to stay loyal to Asda? Because we support the club we think he should, but the reality is 99% of people would take the job which pays the most money, which leads on to;

Contracts 

2) Contracts are not worth the paper they are written on, well, to a degree, they are not. I do however believe that contracts in football tend to protect the player/manager more than the club. If a player has a three-year-contract and gets injured after he signs it, the club still pays his wages for the time that he is injured (rightly so), even if this is for the full three years.

However if he hits a rich vein of form and is wanted by a ‘bigger’ club, then one of two things will happen; a) he comes in wanting to renegotiate a new contract based on the money that he knows he can earn at the other club, or b) he asks for permission to speak to the other club. Clubs can naturally refuse to do anything, but football is no different to any normal company in that it is a completely results-based business, and if one of your key staff members is not happy then results will suffer.

Plus in almost all other businesses you can give a month’s notice and be out the door, football contracts are much longer and so you risk the chance of having a highly paid, unhappy member of the team, possibly involved at your club for many years to come, it’s a ‘lose-lose’ situation for all concerned. Managers can ‘walk’, contract or not and then you have to argue it out at a tribunal (although the most you will get will probably be the equivalent of a year’s salary), players cannot ‘walk’ although the reality is that no club wants a player that does not want to be at their club, it’s no good for anyone.

A certain very rich club in Manchester has just such a situation with a player ongoing at the moment, and even though they are plenty rich enough to ‘sit it out’, I dare say that on reflection even they may have been better to ‘offload’ him once it became clear the player no longer wanted to stay. Which leads on to;

Power 

3) All the power is now with the players and managers -with the good ones, 100 per cent yes! You have to remember that the majority of players or managers are awarded, and accept, a contract based on the level that was effectively agreed upon when the contract signed.

The problem arises when the team, or an individual player, starts to come on to the ‘radar’ of bigger or richer clubs. You don’t hear of many players looking to break a contract to take a step down on less money do you?

So, in evidence for the prosecution, the club cannot do anything if a player is injured or not playing well (ie renegotiate a contract downwards), but conversely if a player is doing well he effectively puts the club in a position of a new contract, or forces a sale, which naturally leads to the fear that:-

Agents 

4) Agents are killing the game. How much trouble do you want me to get into here? Okay, the case for the defence is that agents are just doing their job, getting the best deal for their players (or managers). The defence would rightly argue that the lifespan of a player or manager can be very short (relatively), and they have to earn as much as they can for their clients in a very short space of time.

Personally I think that it is unfair to judge all agents as killing the game. As in all walks and spheres of life the actions of some can spoil the image and reputation of the many. There are without doubt good agents, and unfortunately bad agents. Well bad in the eyes of a club and its supporters.

Let’s say an agent, after negotiating the contract for X player at say X club after just a few months proceeds to effectively ‘hawk’ his asset around other clubs when the player hits a rich vein of form, does this make him a good or bad agent? From a clubs and fans perspective this is a terrible unethical agent, whilst the defence would argue that he is trying to maximize his assets value, and in turn make his asset a lot of money!

My views? Well as you can see above there is a pretty good case for both the prosecution, and the defence, however much we do not like to accept it! I have come to accept that you just cannot generalize. I know many players/managers that are perfectly happy and settled at the club they are signed for, and it would take a substantial financial increase to even consider a move away, whereas some players (and managers) are always looking for the next step up, whether that be in monetary, or club terms.

Many supporters blame players and agents for the huge debt mountains that currently exist in football, but for me this is not the fault of an agent, player, or manager. This is without doubt the fault of the clubs for not operating within their means, and effectively giving in to the demands of SUPPORTERS, not players/agents, to sign and keep players even if they cannot afford to.

Clubs' responsibility

In any business you know that employees will always be looking to try to improve their salary or conditions, its life, so why would we expect players to be any different? If clubs decide to pay players and managers over and above what they can afford, then just like in ‘normal’ business, this is THEIR fault, the choice is with them, they can just say NO!

As clubs and fans, what should we reasonably expect in regards to loyalty to our club? It is now plain and simple to me. A player/manager signs for your club, he gives you 100 per cent whilst with you week in, week out, he respects the fans, the directors, the history of the club.

If he does this and another club wants his services, even in contract, then as long as this is done in the correct manner, with the player/manager/agent not engineering the move, I think this is the most that we can realistically expect, even though when he does move it still really hurts!

It’s HOW a player or manager leaves your club that really now defines his history with you. The timing of his move, being honest why he moved (fans are not stupid), and above all when departing respecting the supporters that have in effect paid his wages for the last X many years.

The days of us expecting a player or manager to see out his contract, no matter what, are long gone I am afraid. Football heroes come and go, but the club and the fans continue, and the fans support is where the only real loyalty, that can be 99 per cent relied upon year after year, lies in the modern football world.

By Mark Catlin, Bury FC Director


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