The Last Word: How to stay off football's scrap heap
Every year players are forced into a game of chicken to grab another season's security
Sunday 22 July 2012
Pressure is a relative term in the la-la land of the Premier League. Some sensitive souls struggle to get themselves into the right frame of mind to play when their eight-figure contracts have less than two years to run.
Look beyond the mechanics of maintaining a millionaire's lifestyle, and the absurdities of unconditional support, and the landscape of professional football changes. The difference between the haves and have-nots is becoming positively Dickensian.
It has always been a game of brutal contrasts and brittle personalities. Now, as austerity bites, players play, unpaid, for short-term contracts. There are too many tales of pre-season triallists asking to sleep in the dressing room, or a groundsman's hut, for them all to be apocryphal.
In 10 days' time, 460 players will have the option of signing on the dole. Their severance package from former clubs, one month's salary, will be exhausted. Lives are on hold, because, in the language of the HR industry, they are ''disengaged''.
Ben Smith is among those looking for work through the medium of the transfer directory operated by the PFA, the players' union. At 33 he is going through the formalities of the long goodbye from a game that has been central to his life since he joined Arsenal at the age of 11.
He's a self-confessed journeyman, whose career has been sustained in the small print for 16 years, double the average span. He ended last season watching from the stands at Accrington as his Crawley teammates secured a second successive promotion. His release, after an unfulfilling loan spell at Aldershot, was instant, inevitable.
Security has been consistently elusive. Smith signed professional forms at Arsenal on the same day as Denis Bergkamp, but quickly realised his limitations. He made a single substitute's appearance for Reading before finding his niche in central midfield for Yeovil, Southend, Shrewsbury, Weymouth and Hereford.
Initially, the freedom to move was intoxicating. He signed one-year contracts in the summer, and began to worry about the mortgage the following February. It became increasingly difficult to rationalise the strain on his partner, who was forced to sacrifice her friendships, and job satisfaction, for him.
He signed his longest contract, for two-and-a-half years, while captain at Weymouth. Within two weeks he was on the move again, after the entire first-team squad was placed on the transfer list. The money had run out.
Over the past three seasons, since he turned 30, Smith's wages have dropped by more than 60 per cent. He has a good reputation, and accepts football's ageist tendencies. Anyone over 30 must fight the perception his legs have "gone".
In reflective moments, managers admit to exploiting the situation by habitually lying about their budget. They offer £100 a week less during contract renewal negotiations because they calculate, correctly, that a player does not want to uproot his family.
It's nothing personal – they simply detach themselves from the consequences of their decisions.
Smith is not resentful. He studied part-time for a business management degree, and has long-term coaching ambitions. Voluntary work he did at his former school has resulted in the offer of a probationary three-month period as a trainee teacher.
He is seeking to continue playing part-time, and has been training with the Conference club Braintree. He looks around and sees players of a similar age attempting to buy time. Many take painkillers before each training session, and routinely underplay injuries or illness.
In essence, unemployed players are engaged in what Smith terms ''a giant game of chicken''. They are holding out for what they believe they are worth. Managers are determined not to blink first.
Both sides know that eventually, the player will crack, and accept what's on offer.
If he doesn't, there are others who will happily wear a dead man's boots.
Here are my three to raise a cheer
If gold medals were awarded for pessimism, Team GB would be home and hosed.
The weather will do its worst. Transport will be a nightmare. Spectators will be Tasered if they eat chips without IOC-approved fish.
The prospect of Tom Daley, diving's answer to Justin Bieber, triggering a hormonal tsunami is too terrifying to contemplate. And yet…
These will be my seventh Games. Each has proved the doubters wrong, provided indelible freeze-frame images of human drama and achievement. Fight against Olympian hypocrisy and commercialism by all means. But do not forget the athletes.
Here are three Britons who will win gold, if there is any justice in the world. The rower Katherine Grainger won silver in Sydney, Athens and Beijing. At 36, she has her last chance, in the double sculls with Anna Watkins.
The kayaker Tim Brabant is a classic Olympian, who invades our consciousness once every four years. He has sacrificed his medical career, and overcome debilitating injury, to defend his K1 1,000m title.
Sarah Stevenson has had her body in bits for longer than she dare admit. Her sport, taekwondo, does not deserve her dignity and dedication.
All three have everything on the line. It's time to share their dream.
The 39th step
Here's the 39th game, with a difference: stage a mid-season all-star break. Pit a Premier League select against La Liga equivalents, in Qatar in January. Share the TV money with the clubs, and the principle of rest will be quietly forgotten.
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