Thursday 8 May ~
It was reported this morning that Fredrik Ljungberg has been offered £3 million by West Ham to leave Upton Park after only one season. This compensation package, less than Ljungberg's annual salary of £3.9m, comes after he has scored only twice in 25 appearances, in a season disrupted by injury. It is also thought that the club may offer similar deals to other high earners, namely Lucas Neill and Luis Boa-Morte. With both the club and the individual involved, this story is a perfect example of a wider Premier League trend, one that benefits no one but the mid-ranking, under-achieving yet very generously remunerated Premier League player.
The Big Four have a natural advantage when it comes to signing players. This means that in successive years the careers of promising young players such as Damien Duff, Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell have been interrupted by a stint on the Chelsea bench. Yet it also means that mid-table clubs have to offer a lot more money to potential players. When Neill moved from Blackburn in January 2007 it was widely reported that West Ham, second from bottom at the time, were offering him a much bigger salary than the other bidders, Liverpool. Neill opted for West Ham, leading to some to speculate that his move was financially motivated. West Ham are one of several clubs professing to have UEFA Cup ambitions. However, if Alan Curbishley, already the cause of some fan unrest this season, fails to reach the UEFA places next season it's likely that he will be replaced. The new manager would do extensive recruitment of his own, signing either players the best clubs don't want or paying grossly over the odds for ones that they do.
Lower down the table is a group of clubs desperate to stay up. Sunderland have succeeded in doing so, having spent around £40m last summer. But now manager Roy Keane is demanding millions more to achieve at least the same next season. One of the first names to be linked with the the club is a player who has spent his entire career in the top division but has proved very little for all his early promise. Someone will sign Carlton Cole this summer and the player will receive handsome financial reward. The immediate future of clubs in the bottom half of this season's table, plus the newly promoted sides, will be determined by whichever combination of Premier League journeymen they sign. Derby's January signings, including Robbie Savage, Laurent Robert and Alan Stubbs, loan deals Danny Mills, Hossam Ghaly and Roy Carroll, not forgetting club record signing Robert Earnshaw in June 2007, have only brought them (so far) 11 points.
A development in youth systems would at least place this group of players under more pressure for their places. In the last ten years at Manchester City, 25 academy products have reached the first team and, from the sale of players including Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joey Barton, raised a total of £32.5m in transfer fees. The club also won the FA Youth Cup against a much more expensively assembled Chelsea side. But long term thinking is discouraged in today's football and in the light of recent events at Eastlands no one knows how much longer the focus on youth development will continue. As the end of the season approaches, however, Premier League players who are no better than competent for their level will be rubbing their hands in anticipation. Ed Upright