“Your future is created by what you do today, not tomorrow”
With untold riches, Manchester City’s relentless pursuit of instant gratification is understandable. But even with their wealth, it has not been easy. Unlike Chelsea, who provided the blueprint for quick success, City started from a lower rung on the ladder. Chelsea finished fourth the season before Roman Abramovich weighed in; City only achieved ninth place before the Abu Dhabi United Group arrived. The squad needed reinforcements and the new recruits could not be guaranteed Champions League football. Two years on and the same problems exist. To cure this ill, City have again delved into the transfer market.
The worry is that assembling a team of global superstars will come at the expense of their own fledglings. The academy has been praised in recent years and rightly so. Few English clubs have produced players of the calibre of Micah Richards, Nedum Onuoha, Stephen Ireland and Daniel Sturridge. The academy won the F.A. Youth Cup two years ago and two of that victorious team, Dedryck Boyata and Vladimír Weiss, have been on the fringes of the first team. While Sturridge willingly opted for pastures new, Richards, Onuoha and Ireland have struggled to establish themselves as mainstays in City’s revolution. Jérôme Boateng’s arrival this summer could result in departures for his psychical prototypes, Richards and Onuoha. Meanwhile Ireland continues to be linked to a host of other Premier League clubs. Shaun Wright-Phillips, back for a second spell at Eastlands, has Adam Johnson ahead of him in the pecking order. Even Joe Hart, England’s brightest young goalkeeper, faces a spell as Shay Given’s understudy.
It is a problem which has caused concern over at Stamford Bridge after Chelsea’s initial triumphs. They pumped money into their academy and Frank Arnesen was installed to bring through the next generation. No longer would Chelsea rely solely on Abramovich’s millions, rather they would look to their own to step up. Up until now, the exercise has been a colossal failure but with the forthcoming homegrown rule about to come into effect, its importance cannot be overstated.
The blame shouldn’t lie squarely on manager Roberto Mancini’s shoulders. He needs to build a successful team and quickly or he will face the axe just like his predecessor Mark Hughes. Those who have worked their way through City’s ranks may not be Champions League standard just yet and Mancini needs established talent if he is to go one better than last time around. His first priority is not to develop future stars; it is to bring in trophies. By jettisoning too many of their own, City may struggle to find leaders and long-term servants. These types of players not only help create a club’s identity but they also spearhead long term success.
Across Europe the top sides all have these players, men who have become synonymous with their clubs. Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol at Barcelona, Del Piero at Juventus, Totti at Roma and before his retirement, Maldini at Milan. At the revolving door that is Real Madrid, Iker Casillas has out-lasted two waves of Galácticos and until his recent departure; Raúl was an ever-present figure since he broke through 16 years ago. Inter Milan’s Champions League winning squad included few Italians but the man who lifted the trophy in Madrid, Javier Zanetti, has been captain for over a decade. In England it is no different. Giggs, Scholes and Neville are a part of the furniture at Manchester United, scousers Gerrard and Carragher make up the fabric of Liverpool. Chelsea’s turnover of players has been greater than most in recent times but John Terry is still a figurehead for the West Londoners. Even Arsenal, with their foreign legion, possess Cesc Fàbregas who epitomises the exciting, young attacking side Arsène Wenger is honing.
It is a key ingredient that City lack and it is not something which should be underestimated. He need not be a local boy and as Fàbregas and Zanetti have shown, he does not need to come from these shores. What he does need to be is a player who embodies their club’s style, a leader who works harder than most and can be called upon in the toughest situations. Even in pursuit of short-term success, City need to find their own Terry, Giggs or Zanetti, their own heartbeat. It is something which should be taken under consideration when in their quest for glory; they contemplate offloading their bright, young hopes to free up room for the more household names.
“Many of us believe that wrongs aren’t wrong if they are done by nice people like ourselves”
Every now and again, Sir Alex Ferguson will come out with a piece of pure hypocrisy which surprises me. Usually it will involve the F.A. or referees. This time, it involves transfer fees, wages and the new lofty heights they continue to reach:
“The enormous amounts of money that are paid, not just the transfer fees, but for salaries; I don’t think it rests easy with supporters.”
This truthful titbit comes from the Manchester United boss who has smashed the British transfer fee for Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, Andy Cole, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Juan Sebastian Veron and Rio Ferdinand. Add in Wayne Rooney, the world’s most expensive teenager at the time and Dimitar Berbatov, who would be Britain’s most expensive player were it not for Robinho. Last January, Ferguson agreed to pay Fulham £10 million for Chris Smalling who had only made three Premier League appearances at the time of the transfer. Moreover, the biggest winners of inflated prices were the club who profited from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s most expensive player. That club and the beneficiaries of £80 million were Manchester United.
Ferguson isn’t in a position to complain about escalating fees. More than any other manager in the Premier League era, he has raised the bar for transfer fees and wages. But now with Manchester City, Chelsea and Real Madrid all able to freely spend, Ferguson claims he has been “hamstrung” by the competitive market. What the Scot is experiencing now is a taste of his own brutal medicine. The rest of the Premier League have been continually frustrated when United have ramped up the prices. Roles haven’t entirely reversed but Ferguson certainly feels belittled by City in particular.
Even in a World Cup year, there is a good value to be found in this transfer market. Joe Cole, held in high regard by Ferguson as a teenager, was available on a free. Germany’s young World Cup stars Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira were available on the cheap as both had only one year left on their deals. Khedira may well have rebuffed any approaches from England as soon as Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid threw their hat into the ring. But Özil’s name continues to be linked with a plethora of European giants and the playmaker, who tormented England at the World Cup, is reportedly available at somewhere between £10-£15 million. United need a goal-scoring, creative midfielder along with a dominant holding player and all three of these players would fill voids in Ferguson’s team without breaking the bank. Wesley Sneijder has been linked with a move to Old Trafford but he was superb value 12 months ago and Ferguson missed out. There is a real danger that in a year’s time, Özil could be the next one that got away.
If you can’t keep up with the market, you have to be happy with what you’ve got. This is where Ferguson, an expert at handling the media, comes into his own. He claims he is very happy with his young charges. It would be wrong to question Ferguson’s faith in youth. Nobody has dared attempt to do so since Alan Hansen scoffed humble pie back in 1996. If nothing else, we know these players will have a winning mentality drummed into them. But will this next batch of youngsters reach the same heights as the class of 1992? There have been flashes of brilliance from Danny Welbeck, Gabriel Obertan, Fabio et al, but replacing club legends like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville is a tall order.
Perhaps Ferguson has been stung by his last acquisition to carry a large price tag. I remain a big fan of Dimitar Berbatov but he was grossly over-priced at £30 million particularly considering his age. Perhaps, as most fans believe, Ferguson’s hands are tied by the heavy debts that the Glazer family have burdened the club with. Perhaps Ferguson hides behind the ‘no value in the market’ line to protect his employers. It is a theory which Ferguson frequently rejects much to the fans’ dismay.
Whatever the case, Ferguson’s criticism of inflated transfer fees is hypocritical. He is right to insist that fans are dismayed at transfer fees and wages but this phoney empathy has never stopped him breaking the bank beforehand.
“There is a gigantic difference between earning a great deal of money and being rich”
The ink is barely dry on Dez Bryant’s first professional deal. The first-round rookie wide-out set the wheels in motion for this year’s first-round draft picks and we now await the likes of Sam Bradford, Ndamukong Suh and Tim Tebow to follow suit.
A rookie’s contract is notoriously difficult to negotiate and for those fortunate enough to be taken early on draft day, it is also farcical to say the least.
Last year’s first pick overall Matthews Stafford collected a cool $41.7 million. At the time of signing this enormous contract he had yet to win a game for his team the Detroit Lions. He had yet to make a touchdown in the NFL, he had yet to complete a pass and he hadn’t even attempted a throw.
This year’s first overall pick and the likely recipient of another whopping deal is St Louis Rams’ new quarterback Sam Bradford. Reports suggest Bradford’s guaranteed contract is expected to be anywhere between $45 and $50 million. An extenuate fee for any sports star, let alone one who has yet to prove his talents on the grandest stage of his specialist sport.
What Stafford’s contract and Bradford’s impending deal represent are huge risks. The rewards are obvious; a solid franchise quarterback is the largest piece in an NFL team’s puzzle. Get that piece right and the rest is much easier to fit together. But the risk can so easily outweigh the reward. For proof, see exhibit A, a certain JaMarcus Russell.
Before Bradford and Stafford, the last quarterback to be taken first overall was LSU’s Russell. The Oakland Raiders gambled on a man believed to be the next big thing. What Russell had was potential, and bags of it. But his attitude and his aptitude never matched his athletic abilities. Since that day in 2007, Russell has done nothing but disappoint but while he may have inherited the tag of biggest NFL bust ever, his accountant certainly isn’t complaining.
After a lengthy holdout, Al Davis and the Raiders franchise agreed to sign Russell to a contract worth $61 million. Before being cut this off-season, the Raiders had paid Russell $38 million. He won 7 games, completing just 18 passes. Last season he ranked dead last in passes completed, completion percentage, yardage, TDs and passer rating.
Breaking down exactly what the Raiders got for their money is painful enough. More than $5 million a win, $2 million a touchdown and $100,000 per competition. You don’t need a degree in statistics to see the Raiders did not get great value here.
Russell bled the Raiders dry and the system allowed him to do so. He did not earn his money, he merely became rich. Of course Russell will likely never collect another ludicrous fee in the NFL but he does not need too. He will make more money out of the league than the majority of its players even if he never returns to the league. The risk of taking a highly rated college quarterback is beginning to outweigh the reward.
To put Russell’s deal in perspective, consider that Chad Henne will be the starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins next year. His contract? Four years, $3.5million dollars. A measly total when compared with the enormous pay packet that Russell collected during his miserable tenure in Oakland and this is criminally wrong. Russell will easily earn more than him next year even if he sits at home and watches like the rest of us.
In other sports the top earners clearly out-earn those at a lower level. The difference being that those who earn the most are, strictly speaking, also the best performers. Due to the competitive nature of the draft system, this isn’t the case in the NFL. Have a scintillating college career, impress at the combine and one deal can set you up for life regardless of whether your raw talent transfers to the big time or not. Unless Henne goes on to become one of the game’s greats, he may never sign deals as big as the one Russell raked in. The astronomical sums of money being collected by the top rookies each year reflect a clear handicap with the draft system. It is the unproven, untried and untested who command the largest sums and as it stand things aren’t going to change anytime soon.
A few days ago Adam Schefter tweeted that he didn’t remember “the last time, if ever, that on July 19 there wasn’t a single first-round pick that had signed yet”. The uncertainty over the collective bargaining agreement is only making matters worse. Players are rightly worried about no football being played next year and they want the same deals that their peers collected when they first signed deals.
This is why a realistic rookie wage scale should be paramount to the collective bargaining agreement which is causing such friction between the powers that be.
Jeff Pash, the NFL’s executive vice president of labor and general counsel, summed it up perfectly:
“There is no reason why a player should come into the NFL and, before he has his first practice, is one of the highest-paid players not only in the league but in all professional sports.”
Russell provides the perfect indicator for why the current rookie wage scale is so flawed. Let us hope that his demise is taken on board in the next round of discussions over a collective bargaining agreement.