The young defender tried to disguise his distress, but the pain which engulfed him when he turned quickly towards the end of a training session was terrifying. He feared, immediately, that his life was in danger of unravelling.
He could not afford to be injured, because his short-term contract with a lower-division club was about to expire. When a scan revealed severe ankle-ligament damage, his insufficient medical insurance became a career-defining issue.
The club’s chief executive initially refused to pay for sustained treatment, arguing that, though they had a moral obligation to help, there was no legal reason for them to do so. It took an impassioned plea from the manager, appalled by such expedience, for him to change his mind.
There are no guarantees, despite the apparent success of a privately funded operation on Friday. The player is on the most basic of monthly contracts and carries the stigma of being unfit for purpose. The odds are that he will be released soon. No wonder many in the game regard January as the cruellest month.
Three- and six-month contracts, common in Leagues One and Two, run out early in the New Year. Senior players, family men with mortgages to meet and ageing hatchbacks to run, are as vulnerable as callow kids. Everyone fears sudden, untimely injury. Many take significant wage cuts so they can make it to the end of the season.
This is the reality of the winter transfer window for the vast majority of professional footballers. The swirl of idle fantasy, unsubstantiated rumour, manufactured intrigue and wishful thinking which constitutes modern transfer speculation misses the point.
At the highest level the system is in stasis. Clubs are hedging their bets before the introduction of Financial Fair Play rules. There is little value to be found in a market which is notorious for defining desperation. It is a time for gentle pruning rather than major surgery.
Constant conjecture creates a false impression. The biggest and best-run clubs plan six, 12 or even 18 months ahead. Even Manchester United, where perceived need is at its greatest, have signed nothing more substantial than an “official spirits partner” in the current window.
They, like many clubs of similar stature, are monitoring short-term opportunities, like a potential fire sale at Benfica, but significant purchases are multi-layered mantraps. Third-party ownership is an increasingly intractable problem, as are agents who attempt to hijack high-profile deals.
Cardiff are the most active Premier League club, almost by default. They do not appear to have a credible recruitment department but have circumvented the issue by relying on new manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and his agent, to source familiar players like Mats Moller Daehli and Magnus Wolff Eikrem.
The vast majority of deals involve lower-League loan spells for young players marooned in so-called development football at over-stocked academies. Clubs have all but given up on the under-21 football envisaged by the Premier League’s flawed Elite Player Performance Plan. Only a minority of moves, such as that of Chelsea striker Patrick Bamford, who has joined Derby after a successful spell at MK Dons, represent obvious career progression.
The occasional veteran, such as former West Browmich defender Abdoulaye Méïté, signed by Doncaster three months after leaving FC Honka in Finland, is listed alongside an itinerant unknown like Bedsente Gomis, a Senegalese midfielder who has signed for Southend after being on trial since September.
Arsène Wenger, so often the most measured and incisive commentator, regards the transfer market as “a distraction”. His view, that the January window should be scrapped, has undeniable logic. The loan system could be modified, simply and effectively, to cater for emergencies.
The system will always be cruel, because the game is contracting, but it at least will be more meritocratic. The best managers will excel. The chancers and the charlatans will be exposed. What’s not to like?
Simpler life may suit Cook in the end
Alastair Cook’s favourite flock of sheep can still be seen on higher ground, away from sodden pastures with a worryingly high-water table.The family turkey business is thriving and negotiations for him to move into a 52-acre farm are apparently going well.
Watching him in Melbourne yesterday, playing a painfully dead bat to those seeking enlightenment on the fate of Kevin Pietersen, it would be unsurprising if he yearned for the simple challenges of rural life.
The occasional flash of humour suggested he is not entirely a beaten man, but he has been left utterly exposed by a two-tier system that has seen Andy Flower, his closest ally, return to England to make decisions which will define each of their careers.
The atmosphere is poisonous and the pressure is unlikely to ease. England cricket captains are under unique and unfair scrutiny by the predecessors who populate Sky’s shooting gallery.
Cook (below) is due to become a father for the first time in March and has little interest in remaining in the game as a coach. There is much to be said for retiring prematurely, after next year’s Ashes series, to pursue a simpler, saner life.
FUN AND GAMES
Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games are harder to sell than ever following the withdrawal of Jessica Ennis-Hill. Enter stage left Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister. He outraged middle England by unveiling a Saltire in Wimbledon’s royal box in honour of Andy Murray. With independence on the agenda, expect him to rebrand these as the Braveheart Games.
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