David Conn: Players pay the price in new world of hire and fire

Belt-tightening across the game is putting hundreds of footballers out of work as clubs struggle to stay afloat

Tommy Widdrington will watch with conflicting emotions as his first club, Southampton, run out for their Cup final at the Millennium Stadium today: pleasure at seeing the club he was with in his formative footballing years playing to national attention; worry for himself now 31, and what he will do next in the game. This season he played 34 games, in a central passing midfield role, in winning promotion for his club, Hartlepool United.

But on Wednesday came the phone call from Hartlepool's manager, Mike Newell. Widdrington, he said, had done a "fantastic job", his attitude had been "brilliant", but: "We need to look at something else for next season." With such euphemism Widdrington, who has played nearly 300 games for Southampton, Wigan, Grimsby, Port Vale and Hartlepool, learned he has a few weeks to find another club.

"It's an understatement to say I'm disappointed," said Widdrington, who is married with two sons, aged seven and four. "I've been a proven player at every level, and certainly believe I did enough to be kept on. But clubs are tightening their belts across the whole game. The cold fact is that, after 30 June, I haven't got a job."

He will not be alone. The Professional Footballers' Association expects that, when all the bleak lists from England's clubs have arrived, some 500 players who have reached the end of their contracts will have been released. Add to that the players still under contract but invited to leave on free transfers by their clubs, and the figure of unwanted footballers could exceed 750. Last season, after Carlton and Granada pulled the plug on ITV Digital, a predicted mass cull did not happen, but still, 463 players, according to the PFA's registered figures, were "not offered re-engagement". This season, Mick McGuire, the PFA's deputy chief executive, expects the number to increase.

"I don't think it's going to be massive," McGuire said, "but the figure will be swollen by the First Division clubs, who were hit hardest by ITV Digital's demise, not retaining players whose contracts have come to an end."

Recent announcements tolling out of the First Division have borne out his view; Burnley released 13 players including the club captain, Steve Davis, who was simultaneously promoted to a "Claret legend" on the club's website, a typical football club confusion of sentiment and reality. Coventry: six out-of-contract players were released, nine offered free transfers, including Julian Joachim, as the club continues to strip out their remaining Premiership-sized pay packets in a process that has reduced the overall wage bill from £16m a year ago to £4.5m. Watford: 10 released, including Stephen Glass, who scored against Burnley in the FA Cup quarter-finals. Relegated Sheffield Wednesday: 10 gone. Bradford City, still clambering out of administration: 12 released, from the 33-year-old seasoned professional Peter Atherton to Keith Brodie, a third-year scholar.

Recession has not yet hit the Premier League; many clubs are planning for it as they expect the next television deal, from 2004, to fall substantially short of the current bonanza. There have been no clear-outs – even at Leeds. Instead, contracts are being reconfigured, according to McGuire, to reward success, and increasingly to incorporate pay drops if clubs are relegated – sensible measures, being introduced mystifyingly late. But in the Second and Third Divisions, there is not much subtlety around.

Widdrington, reflecting on 13 solid years in football, said: "Whoever you are, it's like you're on a conveyor belt at a club. They're always looking at whether somebody else could replace you, more cheaply." The timing – leaving the news to the end of the season – and manner of the layoffs can suggest that despite the nice wages agents lever out of clubs, and the security of contract the PFA has wrested over the years, many clubs' underlying attitude is not much more humane than it was in the days of mill-owners and the maximum wage.

Steve McMahon, Blackpool's manager, did acknowledge: "It hasn't been easy," before releasing eight players immediately the season finished, saying: "It needs a change, and we all move on." The list of clubs releasing eight and 10 players stretches on: Brentford, Tranmere, Swindon, Northampton. This is the human cost to the game's structural financial problems.

Matt Carragher – no relation, as far as he knows, to Liverpool's Jamie – captained Port Vale through this difficult season while the club were in administration and the supporters trust, Valiant 2001, was fighting to eventually win control from a threatened takeover by the Icelandic owners of the local enemy, Stoke City.

"A lot of the club's survival was down to us," said Carragher, a 27-year-old defender, Vale's captain for three seasons, with nearly 300 games' experience since turning professional 10 years ago with Wigan. "We had to keep the club up to make it more marketable.

"The players have to be professional, but we are only human. If you're worried about whether you're going to be in a job at all at the end of the season, you can't help it playing on your mind. None of the uncertainty helped."

As with most clubs, Port Vale waited until the end of the season, then delivered the manager's verdicts to the players. Carragher, his contract up, found his name among those released. "I was disappointed, but not shocked," he said. "Other people were shocked, because of my solid record of achievement in the game, and captaincy of the club. But in the current climate, particularly where the club has been in administration and recently taken over, cut-backs are being made."

Although his wife is expecting their first baby any day, Carragher is quite sanguine: "It's part of football. Although it's unsettling, we are prepared to go anywhere there is a club which wants me, and I have to be confident that I will find a club."

At York, the season's other lower division club saved from possible oblivion by their Supporters' Trust, the new fans' board has nevertheless wielded a similarly sharp hatchet. Their players performed courageously, only narrowly missing the play-offs, in a season of turmoil which saw them unpaid for six weeks in December and January and, in March, agree a deferment of wages. Now, eight have been released, including the long-serving Lee Nogan.

"It's very difficult," said the club's new chairman, Steve Beck. "We're so grateful to the players and as a fan you have your favourites, too. But the club's position financially is still very difficult. We have had absolutely no choice but to release these players whose contracts have ended."

While a figure of 500 may be lower than some predictions, 90 per cent are expected, as last season, to come from the Football League's 72 clubs, an average of around eight per club, a quarter of the overall workforce. This represents major restructuring.

"It's not doom and gloom," McGuire insisted. "Many players will find other clubs, perhaps on reduced terms or different contracts, and others will find a good living in the Conference, which is thriving."

While some observers believe that an answer to football's problems lies with fewer professional clubs, the current trend is completely the opposite. Next season the Conference will field 14 full-time clubs, paying wages of up to £800 a week even for some top part-time players. Last season, around 170 players came down from the Football League, and even a couple from Premiership clubs, to play for Conference sides, an increase in quality which partly accounts for a 22 per-cent rise in attendances this season.

"Playing in the Conference is a good option now for many players," said McGuire, "and it can give some of the senior players time to work out what they are going to do in civilian life when they finish." While the brutality of a hire and fire culture does not show football in an endearing light, the game is, paradoxically, thriving in popularity at all levels. Most of the released players will find some work. The numbers are high and these are fraught times for those with families and mortgages, even though most, as Tommy Widdrington acknowledged, have earned comparatively well so far. It is, though, difficult to feel too sorry for them, given the hundreds of ordinary people, many of them low paid, who have been sacked from non-unionised jobs in shops, offices, laundry rooms and training grounds by clubs with financial problems; 83 at relegated Sunderland alone.

None of the football governing bodies is keeping a careful tally of those people, and nobody is trying desperately to find them another job.

davidconn@independent.co.uk

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