Get down and dirty to stop a player leav­ing

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Richie Sadlier

Aformer in­ter­na­tional com­ing to the end of his ca­reer was pos­ing a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem for his club. He wasn’t in the man­ager’s plans but was earn­ing big money at a time when the CEO was tasked with re­duc­ing the wage bill. It was time to nudge him gen­tly to­wards the door. When that didn’t work, an en­tirely dif­fer­ent ap­proach was re­quired.

His con­tract stip­u­lated the club had to pro­vide ac­com­mo­da­tion for the player, which at the time was a four-bed house he shared with his wife and kids. The CEO in­formed him they would not be re­new­ing the lease at the end of the month, of­fer­ing him a room in one of the club’s houses in­stead. He’d be say­ing good­bye to the fam­ily and liv­ing with three of his team-mates, a prospect which un­der­stand­ably in­fu­ri­ated him.

Both he and his agent were livid, but they knew the club were still tech­ni­cally hon­our­ing the terms of the deal. It was enough to con­vince them, how­ever, that his time at the club had come to an end. If the club were will­ing to stoop that low, he didn’t want to hang around a mo­ment longer. A hor­ri­ble job done well by the CEO.

In foot­ball play­ers don’t hold all the power. Want­ing a trans­fer won’t nec­es­sar­ily mean it’ll hap­pen, whether you re­quest it in writ­ing or not. Sulk­ing about it pub­licly won’t al­ways force it through ei­ther. You can stay away from train­ing, fake in­juries if you like, but your move will only hap­pen if the club signs off on it. You’ll of­ten hear it said that it’s a battle the clubs can’t win, but they’re not pow­er­less to pre­vent want-away play­ers from leav­ing. It just de­pends on the tac­tics they’re will­ing to use to keep them.

Southamp­ton chair­man Ralph Kreuger said this week that Vir­gil van Dijk is go­ing nowhere. He’s not for sale at any price. On Mon­day, Chi­nese busi­ness­man Jisheng Gao and his fam­ily com­pleted a deal to buy 80 per cent of the club. This could be a ne­go­ti­at­ing ploy to en­tice ridicu­lous of­fers but it could also be a state­ment of in­tent from the new own­ers. Un­like the last three sum­mer trans­fer win­dows, maybe Southamp­ton are no longer happy to sell their best play­ers.

Tox­i­c­ity

I’m sure they’ve al­ready had peo­ple chal­lenge them on their stance. It’s ad­mirable but un­work­able. Van Dijk’s pres­ence will be dis­rup­tive, they’ll be warned. The tox­i­c­ity of an in­flu­en­tial player that’s des­per­ately un­happy can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated. You won’t want him around, he won’t play any­where near his best, so you’ve got to swal­low your pride and ac­cept it’s an un­winnable war. Even keep­ing him at the club doesn’t mean you’ve nec­es­sar­ily won be­cause his sell-on value will keep de­creas­ing the less he plays.

They could ig­nore all of that, of course, and go ex­actly where van Dijk is hop­ing they won’t.

You don’t want to play for the club any­more? Fine, train with the de­vel­op­ment squad. We won’t play you at all. See how your in­ter­na­tional ca­reer is im­pacted by that. See how at­trac­tive to other clubs you are once they see your be­hav­iour. See how that im­pacts your mood. Your self-es­teem. Your stand­ing in the game. Get used to wage-slips with­out ap­pear­ance fees or bonuses. Do all the poor-me in­ter­views you like, but we’ll fine you for ev­ery crit­i­cal word you say about the club. You’re un­happy now? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

And be­fore you point out we’ll lose money on your even­tual sale, we’re happy to take a hit on this one to make a broader point. We’ve never been wealth­ier any­way. You’re un­der con­tract here un­til May 2022 and we’re go­ing nowhere. Thanks to you, ac­tu­ally, no player will ever take this stance against us again. Your ca­reer will be­come noth­ing more than a cau­tion­ary tale.

Your move.

Hard-call

Brinkman­ship, bluff­ing, play­ing hard-ball. Call it what you like, but it’s a card that clubs can play. It’s harsh, but that’s the world of pro­fes­sional foot­ball. If the mes­sage is un­der­stood that leav­ing isn’t an op­tion then work can be­gin on mak­ing the best of the al­ter­na­tive. As long as the man­ager has re­mained good-cop through­out, a full re­turn to first-team du­ties could be on the cards. Nor­mal ser­vice re­sumed.

Joseph Ndo was the player in the open­ing anec­dote. St Pa­trick’s Ath­letic was the club and I was the CEO. He was in Cameroon’s 2002 World Cup squad but his earn­ings were out of kil­ter with what we could af­ford in 2009. It was a solo-run on my part, no­body else at the club knew I was us­ing this tac­tic.

In terms of go­ing low, threat­en­ing to sep­a­rate a man from his wife and kids is hard to beat. Re­mov­ing them from their home was the nu­clear op­tion but I was con­fi­dent he wouldn’t call my bluff. Just as Kreuger said of van Dijk, it was noth­ing per­sonal. I had to en­sure the out­come was the one that best suited the club and that’s what hap­pened. How I would be per­ceived by Joseph was of sec­ondary con­cern. It was busi­ness.

Southamp­ton may de­cide to sell van Dijk be­fore the end of the month. It’s their call. If he stays he’ll ei­ther play in their team or he won’t. But clubs aren’t pow­er­less when it comes to bat­tles like this. They’ve just got to be ready to roll up their sleeves and get dirty.

Get used to wage-slips with­out ap­pear­ance fees or bonuses. Do all the poor-me in­ter­views you like, but we’ll fine you for ev­ery crit­i­cal word you say about the club. You’re un­happy now? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

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