Football: An expensive game of chance

Overpaid, over the hill and over here? Concern grows over foreign legion's contribution to English football. Ian Ridley reports
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The Independent Online
The North-east manager had had enough of his South American signing, particularly the "low pain threshold" which saw the player running hurriedly from the field before the manager could get down from directors' box to touchline to check on his fitness. "As far as I am concerned, he can rot in Brazil," our disillusioned supremo was to say.

The player was Mirandinha, the manager Jim Smith, who signed him for Newcastle in 1987 for a club-record pounds 570,000. Today, Smith's Derby County take on Middlesbrough at the Baseball Ground and he may well be tempted to sympathise and share his experience with his opposite number Bryan Robson.

Robson may wonder what his chairman Steve Gibson's millions bought him. Branco has already been expensively paid off; Emerson's sick auntie has a pull that Teesside has not; Fabrizio Ravanelli has been criticising the defence, with good cause; and Juninho has been quoted in an Italian newspaper - via an agent, it is understood - as saying that Serie A interests him. It is a ploy described by one Italian journalist as "throwing the stone and hiding the hand", though Juninho himself says he is committed to the club "in the moment".

The rest of us are left to wonder why players such as Nicky Barmby and Jamie Pollock - ironically returning to the north of England after pining in Pamplona - are allowed to leave Boro when they would seem to represent more the long-term future of the English game rather than men for whom the Premiership is at present a lucrative halfway house until something posher comes on the market. Lake and Palmer, rather than Emerson.

Such anomalies are probably inevitable as the English game comes to terms with developing styles and tactics on the pitch and growing wealth off it. There are, too, the effects of the Bosman ruling still filtering through with movement likely to be ever more frequent.

Emerson's story is a warning sign of new-age problems. At Middlesbrough, Barmby was believed to be disillusioned with a wide wage differential between him and the overseas players. Juninho is thought to be disappointed with the club's itinerant and sub-standard training venues and programme.

Pre-Bosman, Blackburn expensively assembled a predominantly English team to win the title; roof before foundation. Something similar appears to be happening at Middlesbrough where training facilities have yet to match stadium and a youth policy is still getting going. Post-Bosman it gets harder; the problem for Boro is that anything they spend will be covered and raised by the bigger clubs. It costs just to stand still.

"It's always a gamble," said the West Ham manager, Harry Redknapp, one of the Premiership's main recruiters from abroad, and the success of Eric Cantona illustrates how odds-against ones can work. "I have them over for a week, have a good look to see how hard they work and how well they fit in, but as regards temperament it can be the luck of the draw."

Redknapp has one advantage, he admits, and one which has also facilitated Gianfranco Zola's move to Chelsea: London. "It's a magnificent city and let's face it, Middlesbrough's not in the same league. We have Slaven Bilic and Marc Rieper who live by the Thames and they can nip out to Knightsbridge for some shopping with their wives or to a restaurant."

Redknapp has had failures, notably the 20-year-old Portuguese Dani, now with Ajax. "He was only a baby," Redknapp said. "He was still coming to terms with having to work harder and be more dedicated." Scandinavians are safer, he added, but do not provide the flair of his current Portuguese Hugo Porfirio, who reminds him of Jimmy Johnstone.

"I think you are best with EC players," the Sheffield Wednesday manager David Pleat said. "Outside of that, you don't find players with the same appetite for work. Anyone can find a player who can trap, pass and shoot but the art is finding one who has the right attitude, who isn't a sulker."

Redknapp believes that you are just as likely to have problems with English players - after all Stan Collymore gets homesick for Cannock - though Pleat is not so sure. "If an English player's auntie dies, he goes to the funeral and comes back to work. Some foreign players want to go home if their mother gets the flu."

Agents are a serious problem. "I watched the Sunderland- Middlesbrough derby," Pleat said, "and you could almost see Ravanelli and Juninho thinking, `They're kicking me, it's too fast, I don't have enough space to show my skills.' Then some agents will say `I'll get you a move then'." Age is another factor. There have been signings, such as Patrik Berger and Patrick Vieira, who encourage the belief that good young talents are coming, but the suspicion lingers that money for the aged whose best years are behind them is still more the norm.

Too young, says Redknapp, and you risk them not adapting; too old, says Pleat, and there is no resale value. He cited three he will parade against Nottingham Forest tomorrow night in Benito Carbone, Orlando Trustfull and Regi Blinker, at 24, 25 and 26 respectively, as the right vintage.

Few can dispute that a colourful collection of imports has enlivened the English game, whatever their motives, though their signings clearly remain an expensive game of chance. The potential for the gamble to fail at Middlesbrough in the rush to be a big club looks high.

One wonders in what other industry would so much be invested in talent without more thorough research. "The skill," as Pleat says, "is in finding out what players eat for breakfast." The glitz and the glamour still seem to send some hard- headed businessmen soppy, forcing them to repent at leisure. Here is the home of the gullible video watcher. Investing in coaching, youth, training centres and better overseas scouting and intelligence may sound dull but it is surely more worthy.