Football: Wenger's loyalty fear

Libero Ian Ridley on football
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It's that time of year again when transfer targets are discussed and dissected as clubs cast one eye towards next season. Never has the moneyed Premiership market place been more vulnerable to an agent with a videotape in one hand and a player with an exotic name in the other. In football terms, England is as a developing Third World country to a cigarette manufacturer.

It is one reason why clubs are looking increasingly towards managers with European experience. Bobby Robson's possible move to Everton proves it and Celtic will have it on their mind as they seek a replacement for the sacked Tommy Burns, with Robson again and Kevin Keegan emerging among the contenders. Too many over-priced pups have been bought in the past and post-Bosman the potential for more mongrels is limitless.

Scarcely a day goes by without Arsenal, for example, being coupled with a player from overseas, as might be expected when the club is managed by the Frenchman Arsene Wenger. The stories come not from him but from agents leaking and linking their clients with a hoped-for wealthy destination.

Help the aged, seems to be the policy at Chelsea; suck-'em and see at West Ham. It is a policy Arsenal and wiser clubs are now eschewing. The younger player with resale value has to be more the aim these days and for all his talent on view at Wembley, one wonders about the durability of the 29-year-old Georgian Temur Ketsbaia at Newcastle.

"Dealing with agents is part of the job I will not miss for one day," said Wenger when I asked him about all the players with which the club has been linked. "For an agent, a player is a product." The Anglophile - "I have a big passion for the game which they share in this country and which you don't always see in France" - fears for the future of the English culture and how all the comings and goings will affect fans. "England was protected before. Now we have a change of era. Turnover will be higher and players' lives with clubs shorter. It could change the support if there is no loyalty. Players will be mercenaries and there will not be the commitment to the future of the club that the supporters have."

It is not all to do with agents. Some clubs leak fanciful transfer targets so as to impress supporters and, these days, to talk up share prices or flotation prospects. We can expect more of it in the next few years.

Thus will it fall to chairmen - and the Sheffield Wednesday manager David Pleat reassured me last week that "there are more sensible ones than you might think" - and to coaches to spend wisely in the next few months if the English game is not to squander its riches or take on workmanlike players at inflated wages. The lesson from Italy must remain the model: spend on developing the domestic and then on quality rather than quantity from outside the country.

IT HAS been a good week for Graeme Souness. Not only was he named manager of the month for Southampton's improved form but also he has been voted Middlesbrough's best ever player by former peers and managers at the club. The results, published in a book Boro's Best (Middlesbrough FC, pounds 14.99), have Juninho second and Gary Pallister third, with Wilf Mannion fourth and Brian Clough sixth.

How ironic and unsentimental this game is: Souness and Southampton could well be the ones to send Boro down. The monthly award can often be a poisoned chalice, however. The last one Souness received was followed by the team not winning for a month.

THE LAST Saturday of the season usually sees some inventive end-of- term fancy dress and fans at the Luton v Stockport County match yesterday were invited to wear elaborate headgear, with both teams nicknamed the Hatters. Actually, it should have been hats off to County for their promotion; and to heart-warming Barnsley. So, it's all about money and resources these days? It can still be about managers, in Dave Jones and Danny Wilson, with talent and principles, and players with ambition undulled by large salaries.

Polling day: The unwise candidate

ONE journalist telephoned the Football Writers' Association last week to register his vote for the Player of the Year. "Put me down for the little fellow at Chelsea," he said. Dennis Wise thus found himself listed among the nominated.

Not that it mattered, with the little fellow he actually meant, Chelsea's Gianfranco Zola, winning the vote anyway. Jurgen Klinsmann and Eric Cantona having received the accolade in the previous two years, perhaps the time has come for two awards in English football, one for the British and one for the overseas player of the year.

Libero ignored metropolitan clamour, his vote going to a candidate from the North-east. Alan Shearer's year in question began with five goals in Euro 96 and despite being plagued with injuries, he remains the Premiership's top scorer. The Players' Player of the Year has also conducted himself with exemplary decorum. With Shearer reaching his age peak of 28 at France 98, to borrow the theme tune of the week, things can only get better.