The era of “player power”

by Ashley Wilkinson

Poor Andre Villas-Boas; he wasn’t to know. Less than four months after receiving the boot for daring to upset the established order at Chelsea, the Portuguese coach has taken control of Tottenham Hotspur following the departure of everybody’s favourite cockney gaffer Harry Redknapp. Out of the frying pan and into the blazing building, some might say.

AVB was sent packing by Roman Abramovich after just nine months at Stamford Bridge. The 34-year-old arrived in London with a glowing reputation following his incredible undefeated season at Porto and immediately initiated his “three year plan”, aiming to phase out the infamous Chelsea “old guard” and build a new dynasty that Mr. Abramovich could call his own.

Unfortunately for AVB, Messrs. Lampard, Drogba and Cole didn’t take too kindly to being dropped to the bench for crucial games against the likes of Swansea City and Napoli and made their feelings quite public. When Villas-Boas made the mistake of responding to such outbursts by dropping the guilty parties to the bench once again, there was simply no looking back. Villas-Boas’ tenure at Stamford Bridge was doomed to end the same way as so many managers before him.

Roberto Di Matteo reintroduced the old guard to the side during the season run-in and steered Chelsea to the FA Cup and Champions League trophies, leading many to question whether AVB had been too hasty in trying to phase the Chelsea “old guard” out of the first-team. Villas-Boas has now signed a three-year contract at White Hart Lane and already there are rumblings about whether or not the Spurs’ first-team, many of who are allegedly loyal to Redknapp, will play for the charismatic and at times arrogant new coach.

Ultimately, the speculation surrounding the dressing room response to AVB’s appointment highlights a much uglier issue at the heart of the modern game: “player power”. It has been well documented for years that the Chelsea “old guard” have carried a considerable amount of weight and authority at the club (they were able to push through a pro-air rifle and smoke grenade policy at Cobham training ground after all) and now several Spurs’ players are said to be considering whether or not they want to play for a manager who isn’t Harry Redknapp.

And Villas-Boas’ move through London isn’t the only example of “player power” dictating the future of a football club. Robin van Persie confirmed last week that he would not sign an extension to his current contract at Arsenal, which runs until next summer. The Dutch striker was unimpressed by the club’s ambition after a meeting with the board and manager Arsene Wenger and chose to break the news to the world himself with a post on his personal website.

It’s fair to say that van Persie had something of a sensational campaign for the Gunners last season, grabbing 37 goals in all competitions, and he made clear on several occasions that he would only stay at the Emirates Stadium if the club could prove to him that they were prepared to challenge for major honours this season. Van Persie has as much right as anyone to refuse to sign a new contract but ultimately, he is at present under contract to Arsenal Football Club and Arsenal Football Club should not have to prove to van Persie that they are worthy of keeping hold of his services. That is not the way the sport should be operating.

Don’t believe me? Ask Ian Holloway. I’m sure you remember that minor incident a few years ago when Wayne Rooney handed in a transfer request at Manchester United because, as with Robin van Persie, his club hadn’t given him “adequate reassurances” that they were prepared to seriously challenge for major honours. Rooney and his agents and advisors ultimately held one of the world’s biggest football clubs and one of the most decorated managers in the game, Sir Alex Ferguson, to ransom. There was even speculation that Rooney may follow Carlos Tevez and sign for United’s newly-minted “noisy neighbours”, speculation that was indefinitely quietened when Rooney put pen-to-paper on a vastly improved five-year contract worth £250,000 per week. Holloway echoed the thoughts of many a person across the country when he referred to the situation as “wrong, just wrong”.

The stereotype of the average footballer is that of an overpaid, oversexed, unintelligent and unintelligible chav with more interest in fast cars and fast women than the fastest route to goal, but perhaps in the light of recent events that is an unfair assessment. Quite clearly, footballers are reasonably more intelligent than the stereotype would give them credit for, quite simply because in the modern-day game footballers’ have positioned themselves to be bigger than the club paying their wages.

How can it be that two fantastic managers in Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson have been held to ransom by their own players? How can it be right that a very talented if somewhat arrogant manager in Andre Villas-Boas can be hounded out of a club he was brought in to prepare for the future, and then face another potential backlash at his next employers?

Brian Clough had to deal with dressing room unrest and "player power" during his infamous 44-day reign at Leeds United

Of course, it could always be argued that this situation of “player power” is nothing new. Brian Clough experienced such a situation in 1974 when he took over Don Revie’s Leeds United, a team he had publicly criticised on a number of occasions. Clough walked into the lions’ den, determined to see United win the major honours his way, but he only lasted 44 days before the likes of Giles and Bremner convinced the board to part company with the charismatic Clough.

The difference between then and now is that Sir Alex Ferguson did not accuse Wayne Rooney on his first day in Manchester of being a cheating bastard; rather he took the talented striker under his wing and turned him into the prolific, world-class finisher we see today. Arsene Wenger didn’t tell Robin van Persie to chuck all his medals into the biggest fucking dustbin he could find, but honed his technique and turned him into one of the world’s best strikers.

Moreover, Andre Villas-Boas did not write articles for the British press suggesting Chelsea should be thrown out of the Premier League before he took over at Stamford Bridge, yet still he walked after less than a year because he couldn’t win the more outspoken players over. Villas-Boas hasn’t publicly criticised the integrity or honesty of Redknapp’s Tottenham, and yet he still faces a potential backlash over his appointment.

Clough was never going to be a success at Leeds United because of his previous comments and the squads’ subsequent lack of respect for his achievements. The lions chewed Clough up and spat him back out of Elland Road; ensuring that they got their way and the manager did not. The great Brian Clough, for all his public posturing, didn’t deserve that treatment.

So why would Villas-Boas?

Clough subsequently found success at Nottingham Forest and won two European Cups at the City Ground, proving that his time at Leeds hadn’t dented his confidence. At White Hart Lane, Villas-Boas will be hoping for a similar sort of “comeback” by taking Tottenham to new heights and proving that his tenure at Chelsea was not a true reflection of his ability as a manager, but more a reflection of the “player power” culture that is once again enveloping many English clubs.

2 Responses

  1. Nathe says:

    It is shocking that players can hold their managers to ransom, but at the same time, their employment is completely different to any of us mortals can realise, we could simply up and leave a job and look for something else, footballers are often tied down with very lengthy contracts, some even for 5 years. I’m not necessarily defending the primadonnas of todays game, but when they sign the contract they more or less sign away their lives.

    They are then stuck playing for that same club for the extent of the contract, no being able to leave your “job”. What about the flipside though? Managers have been known to keep players in the reserves and not play them if they refuse to move to other clubs (think Man City – Adebayor). Is this not unfair? To force the players who may not want to make the move to another club for personal reasons such as relocating family etc. People like Van Persie can hold their club to ransom, and in my eyes rightfully so in a way and in some instances: many people become professional athletes to win trophies, and although RVP may have Wenger to thank for his progression as a footballer, Arsenal and all of their associates have RVP to thank for Champions league football next season (which in itself brings vast amounts of TV revenue into the club. Ultimately if Van Persie wants to win trophies and he doesn’t feel that his current team aren’t good enough to do so (which lets face it, is pretty accurate) and his employers aren’t doing anything about that, he is well within his rights to leave because he’s hot property, if Arsenal were so keen to keep him they should have tied him up his contract last year or possibly the year before. Would this discussion be happening if RVP only scored 5 last season? If that were the case Arsenal would probably trying to ship him off, and if he refused? He’d probably end up in the reserves…

    Rooney was completely out of order with his antics a few years back, United were not exactly in a massive dry spell in terms of silverware, so in my mind, he held arguably the biggest club in the world to ransom because he wanted more money. Then again, Rooney never has been far from controversy, so I expect little else from him.

    AVB is a good manager, that much is proven in his time at Porto, Chelsea was not the best choice for his first foray into “the most exciting league in the world” though, with Abramovich’s obvious penchant for changing managers as often as he changes his underwear, he would have to hit the ground running to have any chance of staying on at terry Stamford (sorry) bridge. A task which is ultimately impossible given his apparent plan for the champions league winners would take 3 years to implement – not too intelligent when your manager has the patience of a 3 year old.

    He deserves a chance at Spurs really, Harry left a great team with not so much of an “old guard”. The likes of Bale, Modric (if he stays), Lennon and Parker demonstrate a good mix of youth and experience, so I very much doubt that AVB will bench the majority of the ego’s at Spurs, I would hope that he builds on what is currently a great team which should be challenging once again for champions league football – especially if he receives some financial backing from Levy.

    The Clough thing I completely disagree with, as a player I could not expect my club to work under a manager that has publically slated me and my team mates, managers and players have to have a mutual respect between themselves. The players were possibly out of order for acting out towards their new manager, but the board of the club CERTAINLY should not of appointed him, as manager of Leeds given what he had said, and Clough shouldn’t have said anything in the first place so perhaps all parties were guilty in this instance but Clough, in my eyes started this merry go round of wrongs by making his remarks initially.

    There is some instances though I think where players will give managers the “benefit of the doubt and give them a chance”. Take Mcleish’s jaunt across the city Birmingham to manage rival club Aston Villa, he stayed for an entire season, despite outrage from fans and poor results to boot. The players stayed quiet though, and played exactly how Mcleish wanted them too, it must have been incredibly hard for them to stay awake though…

  2. Ian says:

    While it may seem anathema to the romantic sports fan the idea of star players demanding that their teams keep up with their ambition, the truth is that in the end, players are people and they are negotiating for their jobs.

    Definitely players who behave like Carlos Tevez, skipping training, refusing to pick up the local language after years and flying back to his native country at a whim, club hopping are unprofessional and deserved to be condemend, but for the rest of them like in the case of Van Persie in particular isn’t asking for a massive wage hike, but merely trying to determine whether the club he will be a slave to for the next four years will be able to provide the environment and trophies that a player of his calibre hopes to be winning in his career.

    Robin Van Persie is a person, and if he hates his job, he will have to wait four years to quit it. He cannot simply quit the job because of his contract. He simply wants reassurances that the next four years will bring him what he wants. It is his right to put pen to paper, and not to.

    However player power is a prominent problem, where superstar players act unprofessionally, refusing to play for managers or give their all for a manager they dislike, not signing contracts is one thing, but refusing to stick to it is another.

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