Football: Last act and testament to a professional footballer's career

OLIVIA BLAIR On loyalty and the rewards of testimonials
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FOR ALL Graham Taylor's qualities - he must have a few otherwise Watford would not be currently challenging for the Second Division Championship - he is not renowned for being a master of the soundbite; unless, that is, you are a tabloid headline writer or a television documentary maker. However, the former England manager did come out with some words of wisdom during Watford's testimonial for groundsman Les Simmons, maintaining that Simmons and his ilk were "the kind of people football should be honouring, not highly paid players who are set up for life."

It's been said before, and of course not all players are that, but Taylor's sentiments were valid considering Simmons had given Watford 50 years' service. Originally in charge of the dog track around the ground, he was promoted to head groundsman in the early 1960s, since when he'd taken just five holidays, prepared Vicarage Road for over 1200 senior matches, campaigned to have an errant Tony Currie reinstated to the first team, and even wrung a pay rise out of Elton John.

It wasn't a huge rise, just "an extra tenner to help pay my bills" which he found in his weekly pay packet courtesy of Watford's then newly instated chairman after the board had refused his request. "That's Elton for you," he says, "good as gold."

It wasn't quite gold that Simmons received from his testimonial against Arsenal, but "over half-way to a six-figure sum," apparently. Enough for him to put away his pitch fork for a while, at least.

Good luck to him. Such loyalty is a precious commodity in modern football, what with clubs desperately seeking a quick fix of success and players and managers seemingly at the mercy of that mentality. It's OK, of course, if you're at the top end of the scale in that elite band of players who can name your price, but not such a beautiful game for those clinging to the bottom rung of the ladder.

It's getting harder to make a case for testimonials in those higher echelons of the game where the money now flows so freely. In many respects they are anachronistic, a mercenary way of saying "thanks for the memories" - although at least fans can choose whether to support the player concerned. While it is argued that the worthier recipients are the one-club lower league players like Andy Porter (Port Vale), Alan Knight (Portsmouth) and Lee Rogers (Chesterfield), few would begrudge the likes of Gary Mabbutt a testimonial.

Mabbutt has passed up a small fortune in signing-on fees to stay with Tottenham, but when it came to rewarding him for that loyalty the club was parsimonious in the extreme. He even had to pay for the watering of the ground for his testimonial against Newcastle in 1996; considering the crowd was just 17,200 one assumes it was hardly a bumper payday (pounds 100,000 was the widely quoted figure).

Still, he wasn't out of pocket; not like one his predecessors, the former Spurs stalwart Phil Beal, whose crowd receipts were insufficient to meet the cost of bringing Bayern Munich over to White Hart Lane for his testimonial in 1973.

These days that would never happen. Firstly, the Professional Footballers' Association (according to their chief executive, Gordon Taylor) "would always help out if a player stood to lose out financially from his testimonial." Secondly, the testimonial committees - made up of fans and professional people rather than club employees so the player gets his cash tax-free - target certain clubs as opposition because of their away support (hence the reason Newcastle, Benfica and Chelsea were preferable to Sheffield Wednesday for Ian Durrant's recent testimonial at Ibrox, and why Arsenal want to bring Celtic down for Lee Dixon's impending gig).

Such lofty opposition is not always available in these days of crowded fixture lists, although most managers will bust a gut to get a team out to support those who are the most deserving: the 50-odd players who are lost to the game every year through injury and who would, as Taylor admits, "willingly give every penny back to carry on playing."

Man United sent a team to honour former Manchester City star Paul Lake recently, while Spurs sent a side containing the likes of Chris Armstrong, Moussa Saib, Steffen Iverssen and Mabbutt to play in a testimonial for the former Gillingham midfielder Mark O'Connor last Tuesday in front of 3,033. "You dream of thousands coming," O'Connor admits, "and have nightmares it will be just one man and his dog, so I was thrilled."

However, the success of the night, in which O'Connor played the first 15 minutes and which Gillingham lost 3-1, and of the usual race and golf days also on his testimonial agenda, will never compensate for what he no longer has - his contract to play professional football.

Now 35, O'Connor broke his leg in a tackle with Fulham's Martin Thomas in November 1995 and was out of action for 14 months before making a comeback. "I still felt pain," he recalls, "but I kept thinking the leg would get stronger. It never did." Advised by a specialist to retire, he is now scouting and helping run Gillingham's centre of excellence while he waits for his case against Thomas to come to court.

Incidentally, Glenn Hoddle was unable to fulfill his commitment to play for Gillingham on O'Connor's night. Perhaps Hoddle doesn't really rate testimonials, which wouldn't be surprising considering a miserly crowd of 13,567 watched his testimonial against Arsenal in 1985. Hardly a testimony to his skills, but then testimonials are no substitute for the real thing, as Mark O'Connor will tell you.