Sam Wallace: Arsenal play hardball over Theo Walcott deal but risk getting it wrong again
Talking Football: Being tough now, while holding the worst hand, is not going to help
A wise football man once told me that the balance of power in a relationship between a leading player and his club changes two years from the end of a contract. Before then the club have the upper hand; once the player is in his penultimate season, he holds all the cards. It is a pity that no one seems to have told Arsenal.
Once, Arsène Wenger signed the likes of Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Thierry Henry before the rest of Europe's elite had even booked the plane tickets for the scouting mission. His greatest trick of all was presenting Sol Campbell, formerly the Tottenham Hotspur captain, as Arsenal's newest recruit on a Bosman 11 years ago, one of the last transfers that was a genuine surprise when it was announced.
Yet it was Spurs who learnt more from the Campbell episode than Arsenal. Daniel Levy tightened up his club. Most recently, in 2010, he persuaded Luka Modric, goodness knows how, to sign a six-year deal that gave the Spurs chairman the upper hand over the last two summers' shenanigans. In the last three months he has secured the future of Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe on long-term deals. When the two-year deadline comes around at Spurs, players have to sign up or ship out.
No one would argue that Spurs are perfect but Arsenal, on the other hand, have allowed Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie to drift past the two-year deadline and, in doing so, did not get anything like the fees they could have done had the players been on longer-term contracts. After Sir Alex Ferguson signed Van Persie this summer he cheerily complimented Wenger on having such tough negotiating skills "he could run a poker school in Govan".
Contrast that with United's draining negotiations with Levy over Dimitar Berbatov in the summer of 2008, that included Spurs reporting United to the Premier League for tapping-up and a deal concluded eight minutes before the deadline. Even four months later, Ferguson was still complaining about Spurs' conduct. "A bit of an agony" was how he described the process.
Read between the lines. A £24m deal for Van Persie and a pat on the head for Wenger. A £30m deal for Berbatov (who in 2008 had two years left on his Spurs deal, with the club holding an option to extend for two more) and an enduring feud with Levy. Which transfer do you think Ferguson privately believes his club were pushed harder on?
Which brings us to the mess which the club find themselves in over Theo Walcott, who is out of contract at the end of the season and refusing to sign a new deal. The club have offered him £75,000 a week. Walcott values himself at £100,000 a week. Negotiations have stalled and now Wenger says that the situation is affecting his thinking when it comes to selecting the player.
Should it be that Arsenal want to sell him, and it is certainly starting to look that way, then they should have dealt with this situation a long time ago – because as thing stands he will be leaving for nothing next summer. As for the notion of selling Walcott in January, it is hardly a threat worthy of the name. Six months from the end of his contract, he cannot be forced to go anywhere.
If they want to keep Walcott, then they have a funny way of showing it. On Friday, Wenger announced that Walcott's refusal to sign a new deal would affect whether he is selected or not. "The fact he doesn't play regularly at the moment is right," he said. Walcott was once again a substitute against Manchester City yesterday.
Five days earlier, Wenger was saying something different. Ahead of his team's Champions League game against Montpellier, in which Walcott came on as a substitute, Wenger said that the player's contract situation had no effect on whether he would be selected.
That was nothing compared to the drama seven days before the transfer window was due to close when, out of the blue, Dick Law, who deals with contracts for Wenger, summoned Walcott and his agent and told them the player would be sold during that window unless he signed. Five days later, Wenger told Walcott the club would not be following through on that ultimatum.
Of course, as a player, Walcott divides opinions. Frustrating at times? Undoubtedly. Talented? Certainly, and at 23 he is still young. Yes, the sums are huge – this is football and not the real world – but like anyone he is entitled to push for the best he can get. Negotiation dictates there has to be some give on both sides but currently Arsenal are not coming to the table and Walcott languishes on the bench.
The club are within their rights to get tough over contracts and one can argue they should have done so a good few years earlier. But of the many high-profile contract negotiations that Arsenal have been through over recent years, and the famous players who have departed the club, they have picked an unlikely situation to switch to the bad cop approach.
Unlike Nasri and Van Persie, who had no intention of signing new deals and would have left for free the following summer, Walcott is clear he wants to stay. He is not holding out to string the club along until July and then bugger off on a Bosman. His aim when talks finally began at the start of this season was to sign a new contract.
Yet as time goes on, so the relationship between club and player deteriorates and distrust grows. To lean on an analogy, one suspects that Arsenal have had their hearts broken so many times in the past – by those whom they loved – that a relationship counsellor might conclude they are struggling, as the dreadful modern parlance has it, with trust issues.
No one ever said negotiating contracts, while adhering to a budget, is easy, and naturally Arsenal deserve praise for living within their means. Negotiating with Walcott will not break the bank. Losing him on a Bosman – even if the club feel he is dispensable – is damaging. The mood to delay over contracts is hardly helped when Wenger, with less than two years left on his own deal, tells everyone that there is plenty of time to get it done.
Experience should tell Arsenal that the sign-up or ship-out principle should be evoked as soon as possible and certainly before the two-year watershed. Unfortunately for them, that moment with Walcott was a year ago and they missed it. Getting tough now, while holding the worst hand at the table, is not going to help. In fact, they could end up losing – for nothing – the one player from their three recent dismal final-year stand-offs who actually wants to stay.
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