The Nick Townsend Column: Chelsea's parallel refuseniks - except now it's the player who gets his way

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The Independent Football

Let's face it, once a player signs for a club in English football he becomes their servant in every sense of the word, and this puts a great responsibility on the club." The words are those of Roy Bentley, England forward and captain of Chelsea in their 1955 championship-winning season, explaining the background for his "one-man strike" against the club three years earlier.

He continues in his autobiography published at the time: "An unscrupulous club could use a player's talents and pay him more or less what they liked for as long as it suited them, and once they'd finished with him they could sell him, keep him against his will or discard him."

More than half a century on, in the wake of the William Gallas imbroglio, it could be contended that not too much about the club-player relationship has changed at Stamford Bridge, and within many more of the élite clubs, except on one crucial issue: just who is the master now?

There are some fascinating parallels here. The actions of Bentley and Gallas, both talented individuals and highly valued by the team, were born out of frustration. Both sought an exit in an unorthodox and, some would say, an unacceptable fashion. But at that point their stories diverge.

Bentley was frustrated that he was at a club he perceived as lacking ambition; a club who had failed to strengthen the team. As one of the country's leading players, he believed his career was being jeopardised. When his transfer request was rejected, he withdrew his labour for eight weeks, and played golf, although he would still pay at the turnstiles to watch his team-mates. Eventually, Bentley capitulated, because he couldn't afford not to, and he was restored, successfully, to the fold.

Gallas's alleged threats against Chelsea, claiming he would score an own goal or get himself sent off if he was forced to play in the club's first match of the season, were - if true - a rather more extreme version of Bentley's strategy. What we do know is that the Frenchman wanted out, by any means. The refusenik duly got his way; so, conveniently, did Ashley Cole, with the pair exchanging clubs.

It was probably the least worst outcome for Arsenal and Chelsea, neither of whom desired to lose those players, although it had long been apparent that Chelsea coveted the England man. Since Bentley's day, the transformation of influence in favour of players and their agents has been seismic. Wigan's former defender Pascal Chimbonda (now at Tottenham) could testify to that effect; so, too, Fulham's ex-midfielder Steed Malbranque (now also at Spurs) and Andy Cole (now at Portsmouth).

Chelsea's vitriolic response to Gallas's conduct has been nothing less than sheer petulance; a public relations failure of the greatest magnitude. It has followed allegations by Leeds over the poaching of young players, the subject of an FA inquiry; and the contretemps between Jose Mourinho and the France coach, Raymond Domenech, after the Chelsea manager claimed that Claude Makelele was being treated like "a slave", a description the player refuted.

The club have insisted that their statement regarding Gallas, which is less an explanation and more a charge sheet of war crimes, has been issued so that supporters are "made aware of the facts regarding William Gallas and the lack of respect he showed to the fans, the manager and the club". Mourinho is said to have been instrumental in its release, having become exasperated by the Frenchman continuing to scream blue murder after he departed.

It does indeed appear that Gallas was a grown-up Just William, armed with his catapult of mischief, intent on a move, and still pinging ink pellets at Mourinho afterwards. Yet no one, not even the Portuguese coach, could suggest that the 29-year-old had not made a significant contribution to Chelsea's progress since Mourinho's predecessor, Claudio Ranieri, signed him from Marseille in 2000.

But the defender has departed now. Door closed. Move on. It's as though Mourinho and Co don't comprehend that it's de rigueur for a club to be castigated by a former employee.

Calling as our first witness: one Ruud van Nistelrooy. Last week he claimed that Sir Alex Ferguson had "stabbed him in the back". The only surprise is you might have expected Fergie to plunge the blade through his chest. If the Manchester United manager had actually committed all the knifings of which he has been accused over the years, he would have been found guilty of multiple homicide.

Chelsea's reaction was undignified and unnecessary. The champions of England should possess the body armour to deflect such flak, whatever the provocation. Anyway, as the club who inveigled Arsenal's Ashley Cole in such a dubious fashion, they are hardly in a position to chant piously from the moral high ground.

To think, in a sense, that the genesis of the whole affair, and players controlling their own destinies, all began way, way before astronomical TV deals and enormous sponsorship agreements, back in a time of the maximum wage, when a top footballer couldn't afford not to work for eight weeks.

A year after Bentley's "strike", incidentally, a pay tribunal was held and footballers' salaries increased. Eight years later came the abolition of the maximum wage.

"Is the average footballer getting a square deal out of football?" Bentley asked rhetorically at the time. "Well, there's an awful lot to be done yet."

He could not have begun to imagine what power he had unwittingly released.

Time for transparency from new club owners

The impact of the Gallas affair has been diluted somewhat because scrutiny has been redirected across London to a pair of Argentinians materialising, seemingly through that Star Trek transporter machine, at West Ham, their move negotiated by characters with names from a Len Deighton novel. Whether there is any connection with a takeover of the club, which has been denied, will emerge in time.

No one would decry the Hammers their cut of talent from the land of the pampas. For too long they have been acknowledged as primarily the purveyors of prime, home-produced beef.

It is inevitable that there will be some disquiet about the contractual circumstances surrounding the signings of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascher- ano, and the ownership of West Ham. Stock Exchange rules prohibit discussion of the latter by any party involved until an offer is made. But it is hoped that once agreement is reached there will be greater transparency from any new owners than there has been elsewhere. There have at least been a few platitudes from Randy Lerner at Aston Villa, but precious few words of any significance from Chelsea's Roman Abramovich, Man-chester United's Malcolm Glazer or Portsmouth's Alexandre Gaydamak.

Isn't there, at the very least, a moral obligation on owners - and it is not necessarily an issue confined to foreign takeovers - to front up? For an open discussion of the club's future, to declare who precisely owns it, and crucially, the degree of agent involvement in transfers - particularly in view of the ongoing Lord Stevens inquiry and alleged evidence of bungs revealed by a soon-to-be-aired BBC Panorama programme.

Part of the problem lies with the supporters themselves. They should be demanding to know just what is going on in their name. Too many prefer to look the other way as long as they are offered a quick flight to the promised land.