James Lawton: United and Saha take advantage of game's lost morals
Frenchman's controversial move from Fulham to Old Trafford highlights football's lax rules over transfers and lack of respect for contracts
Tuesday 20 January 2004
You could rail all day against the business methods of Manchester United and the lack of honour shown by their new signing, Louis Saha. On the other hand you might just say: "So what?" A brewery, after all, is not the best place to argue the virtues of abstinence; no more than today's football is fertile ground for the debating of right and wrong.
The behaviour of Saha and United is not exactly a new outrage. It is simply the way it has been going for the best part of 10 years.
We were surely reminded of this the other day when Stan Collymore, of all people, was asked, while chairing a radio discussion (sic), what he thought about Saha's conduct.
Stan's stance was somewhat evasive, but then what else could it be? Remember the antics he produced back in 1995 while contriving a move to Liverpool from Nottingham Forest, a transaction which should be engraved on the football headstone of the buying manager, Roy Evans? Collymore made it abundantly clear that he was crazy for the move to Anfield, for the usual reasons, of course. He wanted to expand his horizons, win trophies with a big club. And this passion, he conveyed on and off the pitch, meant that his feelings for Forest had dwindled to zero. His lack of enthusiasm for the cause was so pronounced that when he happened to score a goal - something he could do, when the mood took him, quite stupendously - his team-mates refused to join in the celebrations.
The move duly happened - it was as inexorable as Saha's to Old Trafford - but not before a development that stunned the Forest manager, Frank Clark. Collymore demanded a five per cent cut of the record £8.5m transfer fee on the basis that he had not asked, formally, to move.
Clark, who had fought hard to keep a superb talent, was outraged, and in the ensuing controversy one old pro, John Giles, in his Daily Express column, voiced the opinion that maybe the new generation of hugely rewarded players might just profit from a glance in the mirror. For his sentiment, Giles received through the mail a curt note from the Professional Footballers' Association - and a benefits claim form, which was thrown into the nearest bin with some contempt.
Collymore, whose new deal at Anfield paid him £10,000 a week, lost his appeal at a tribunal. Paul Stretford, Collymore's agent, said they would go away and think about the verdict.
It was at Nottingham that the much-travelled Pierre van Hooijdonk made his contribution to the shaping of football's working morality. He refused to honour the terms of his contract with Forest, who at the time were fighting against massive odds to stay in the Premiership.
If their circumstances had been different, they might have been tempted to let Van Hooijdonk rot in his inactivity. Instead, Van Hooijdonk got his move, and an appeal by the Forest manager, Dave Bassett, that the Premiership should set up a fighting fund so that clubs could in future stand against such blatant blackmail having been greeted with thunderous silence.
So that was some of the groundwork which went into Saha's rejection of even a hint of loyalty to the Fulham club which had brought him from the relative obscurity of Metz, to where he was returned by Newcastle United after a loan stint, and given him a spectacular pay rise. Saha said that Fulham's reluctance to sell him to United was base ingratitude. There had been no appreciation of what he had achieved for the club. A bizarrely one-eyed view of events? No doubt, but who is most to blame? The grabbing players? Or the amoral clubs?
Sir Alex Ferguson has got his way - again. He and Manchester United do as they please, which is why any upbraiding of Saha seems so futile. If football wants its clubs and players to behave with decency, if it wants to check the decline into irredeemably rapacious greed and self-interest, it has to start to make a few enforceable rules. It has to say that contracts mean something. It has to stamp on poaching and enticement. It has got to look at the role of agents.
Indeed, it is at times like this that everybody concerned needs to remind themselves of the precise meaning of the word "league". The Collins Concise Dictionary offers "an association or union of persons, nations etc, formed to promote the interests of its members". That may have been the definition that buzzed at the back of Dave Bassett's brain when he made the revolutionary suggestion that the rich should work to help the poor, for everyone's long-term benefit. Looking back, he probably feels it would have been as profitable to yell at the moon.
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