Transfer business: A cut-throat world where managers simply steal players

THE LAST WORD

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It was an old-school demonstration of native cunning and brazen opportunism, a stroke pulled when least expected. Football may project an image of sophistication but, with a new season beckoning, desperate times call for desperate measures.

Let’s go back to last Tuesday. A prominent Championship club were convinced they had beaten five others to secure the season-long loan of a prized prospect from a Premier League Academy. Their manager agreed to meet him in a local health spa at lunchtime to seal the deal.

A rival manager got wind of the arrangement and turned up unannounced just after breakfast. He told the player he was pivotal to his plans. He would help him develop his international career. He sold himself to the teenager’s mother as a principled tutor who would look after her son personally and professionally.

By late morning, they were in his car en route to a tour of his club. An alternative financial arrangement was reached with the player’s agent that afternoon, and a revised loan fee confirmed. On Wednesday morning, following a celebratory dinner, the stolen starlet posed for photographs and declared the move a “no brainer”.

The jilted manager, unsuspecting and unamused to find an eagerly anticipated signing had been spirited away, has been in football long enough to rationalise such petty betrayals. He recognised an element of revenge, since he had, after all, done something similar to his rival last season.

“We all play the game,” he admitted. “People do what is necessary. It is getting harder and harder to get deals over the line, especially with lads from the top academies. The circles of influence you have to close off are getting bigger and bigger.”

Professional protocol ensures such details are confirmed on condition of anonymity. But this transfer window, fuelled by television income, selective briefing and clickbait speculation, is a particularly surreal hall of mirrors.

Inflation rates concerning emerging players are of Weimar Republic proportions. Those with scant Premier League experience and limited but tantalisingly unfulfilled potential are being touted for anywhere between £5m and £10m.

Chosen Ones, courted by the top four, are almost off the scale. John Stones has started 38 Premier League matches since joining Everton from Barnsley for £3m on 31 January 2013. His perceived value has soared tenfold and triggered a feeding frenzy. 

In such circumstances it is prudent to put managerial bombast from the likes of Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal into perspective. Lesser-known names who operate below the radar, such as Paul Mitchell, are wielding significant influence.

The Head of Recruitment is quietly revolutionising Tottenham’s recruitment strategy and proving the perfect foil to his notoriously acerbic chairman, Daniel Levy. Spurs have somehow realised £35m from the sale of a dozen underachievers and reinvested in youngsters of genuine quality, like Dele Alli, the midfield player signed from MK Dons for £5m.

A tiny minority of multi-millionaires can hold employers to ransom but for many less-exalted footballers, family men burdened by insecurity and resigned to rootlessness, the coming week will be critical. Their plight should shame PFA chairman Gordon Taylor, whose £2m increase in salary is indefensible, morally and financially.

I know of players who are contacting clubs with increasing desperation through the Linkedin social network. There are more triallists, paid expenses only, than ever before. Experienced lower-league pros, virtual ever-presents last season, are grateful to be offered short-term contracts worth between £300 and £500 a week. They know that those less fortunate will work for half that.

They are the hidden victims of a superficial system. They know their place, and envy the gilded youths who play clubs off against one another without a moment’s thought. Their future is inviting; for too many, it is fearful, and shrouded in uncertainty.

Busy burning bails again

There is stardust in the Ashes urn, though history insists it contains the remnants of a burned bail. It is weaving its magic yet again, as attention switches to this week’s Fourth Test.

Anticipation is intense, the possibilities captivating. Yet what we are watching, on so many levels, is an illusion. Cricket is in the process of wilfully reducing such contests to a museum piece.

It takes rare clarity of thought and purity of intent to make a film as convincing as Death of a Gentleman. It chronicles the game’s distortion by greed, geopolitics and gargoyles in double-breasted suits. 

I watched in on Friday night, after being sent a promotional copy by a friend. If you care about cricket’s intrinsic values, you should do so when it goes on general release tomorrow.

It is a study of the abuse of absolute power. The principal characters, Narayanaswami Srinivasan and Giles Clarke, radiate arrogance and ignorance; their self-interest is repulsive and will ultimately prove ruinous. They have deliberately stifled growth by denying smaller nations a place at the World Cup. Their opposition to Olympic participation prevents the expansion of the women’s game in particular.

Clarke, shamefully offered the sinecure of presidency of the England and Wales Cricket Board, has the brashness of a suburban estate agent.

In reality he is beholden to Srinivasan, the ICC chairman, who remains the most powerful man in world cricket despite his son-in-law being enmeshed in the Indian Premier League’s corruption scandal. The ICC, the game’s global body, has yet to be subjected to the scrutiny which exposed Fifa as unfit for purpose.

The filmmakers launched a “Change Cricket” campaign, calling for political enforcement of transparency. It does not merely deserve to succeed. It must.

Tide turns for KP

Some things never change. That professional irritant Piers Morgan continues to insist Kevin Pietersen is a cross between Sir Donald Bradman and Aung San Suu Kyi. He mourns the fact his hero is currently swimming with sharks in Miami, instead of playing against Australia.

The nautical theme is appropriate since, in terms of international cricket, Pietersen is sleeping with the fishes.

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