A smart bit of keeping

Dragoje Lekovic left Kilmarnock abruptly, leading Graeme Jamieson to rue the small print in players' contracts

Run for the hills! There’s a dangerous new animal out there – The Smart Footballer. This post-Bosman beast preys on unsuspecting clubs, wooing them into his bed by negotiating trendy new contracts before striking them down with a killer sub-clause and fleeing into the night, crisp tenners stuffed into breast pocket.

 The first reported sighting of a Smart Footballer came when Jurgen Klinsmann walked out on Sampdoria to join Spurs. Apparently no-one thought that the small clause allowing Klinsmann to leave if he was dropped from the team was going to cause a problem. He’d done it to Tottenham already; the writing on his contract must be really small…The misfortunes of big, glamourous clubs have always provided much amusement to me in the past and this episode was no different until an abrupt outbreak of Smart Footballer within my own club wiped the smirk from my face.

As a Kilmarnock supporter, players being sold has never been a problem in the past (nobody has ever been good enough to move on to better things). But glancing at Teletext one Wednesday night, I find our Yugoslavian international goalkeeper has joined Sporting Gijon of Spain for a nominal fee. Some mistake, surely?

Dragoje Lekovic is a fine, if eccentric, custodian who arrived in Scotland in 1994. At £100,000, he represented good value for money and quickly became a fans’ favourite. When he signed a new contract in the Summer, l believed that we could count on his presence in our goal for another two years, or at least moving on for a hefty fee if he enjoyed a good World Cup. So his departure for peanuts was a shock, until a fascinating condition in his contract became public.

Given a 14-day notice period, Lekovic was able to move to any interested European club for next to nothing. Imagine negotiating a clause like that! Imagine agreeing to it! Despite barely a day’s notice the big Slav hopped on a plane and there was nothing anyone could do about it. He was quickly branded “mercenary” by pundits (the same hacks who rotate around the Sunday tabloids looking for lucrative new deals), but not many fans I know blame him for going. Of course the chance to earn three times as much money, to play football in the sunshine in a vastly superior league was too good to pass up. He should have been berated if he didn’t go.

After the initial jolt, though, I realised that this shouldn’t be unusual. A Smart Footballer nowadays has the world at his feet and the next few years should see many similar episodes happening, perhaps to your club. Sadly, the “experts” in the press decided that Lekovic had not left because of his own astute negotiations, but because he was foreign.

Inevitable, wasn’t it? He wasn’t born in this country, so the only reason he had come was to make a fast buck, like so many of his foreign friends before him. The list was endless: Paulo di Canio, Jorge Cadete, Pierre van Hooijdonk and, er, well that’s it. This is a disturbing, if predictable, generalisation but I can’t help thinking that it’s an insult to our native players who don’t think about their contracts as a way to maximize their wages.

Only a handful of Scottish players have taken advantage of the Bosman ruling, the majority preferring their local turf to a pot of gold at the other end of the rainbow. As yet, there is no Scottish Lekovic, seeking simply to earn the money he feels he is worth.

Would the media be so quick to condemn a Scot walking away on a fancy escape clause?They thoroughly approved of John Collins and Paul Lambert moving abroad when out of contract. Lekovic’s only crime, it seems, is to have been born on the other side of the sea.

I, for one, wish the big man well. I look forward to seeing Yugoslavia in France and I hope he plays a blinder. Besides, a friend of mine who works in Comet told me how Lekovic was a regular customer, as the Eastern European appliances he had brought with him periodically burnt out under the strain of the higher British voltage. Apparently his electric toothbrush was particularly prone to this. I hope the Continental current is kinder to him.

From WSC 133 March 1998. What was happening this month