Hearts and minds

Gordon Cairns reports on a player who made transfer law history, but who now finds himself back where it all started

The career of Andy Webster to date could read as a morality tale for the modern footballer. As this year’s winter transfer window closed, the centre-half was quietly released by Rangers and rejoined Hearts, a reunion which only a month previously seemed as plausible as Paul McCartney welcoming Heather Mills back with open arms. It wasn’t that Webster had left Hearts that had made him persona non grata at Tynecastle, it was the manner of his going. He was the first player to invoke clause 17 of FIFA’s transfer regulations which states that a player can buy himself out of a contract three years after the deal was signed, leaving Hearts with 
no transfer fee.

But Webster’s move to Wigan Athletic in 2006, and ultimately Rangers a few months later, has had what the Hearts support consider to be a karmic effect on a promising career that stalled through injuries and loss of form – he made just two league appearances for Rangers in four years. Almost as strange as his decision to rejoin Hearts is Rangers’ decision to release him from his contract. Last season, he played 31 times on loan at Dundee United, captained their Scottish Cup-winning team, was nominated for Scotland’s Player of the Year and was hailed as the natural successor to the 40-year-old David Weir. This season, Webster didn’t start a game for Rangers as Weir soldiers on.

Yet Webster has immediately declared himself fit enough to play for Hearts. The Scottish football media seemed to have decided that the big boy from Dundee didn’t have the mental strength to play for Rangers: he wouldn’t play through niggles, he didn’t like training in the cold, when Walter Smith called on him for the first team he would cry off with minor injuries.

This seems hard to believe – to walk away from a contract at the age of 23 by invoking a little known sub-clause shows a certain degree of mental strength and fortitude. But to return to the club where the supporters who don’t call him a “rat” call him “Judas” are the actions of a man who can deal with pressure, especially as he had offers from other clubs. There is a more plausible and, unfortunately, all too human reason behind’s Webster’s decision not to turn out at Ibrox – bitterness over money.

It was ruled he should pay Hearts £625,000 in compensation, reduced to £150,000 on appeal. Webster must have assumed his new employers would pay his fine for him, after all they had just acquired an international centre-half with 22 caps on a free transfer. He was wrong. Apart from parsimony, you can understand why, as the Webster Ruling could have ended the transfer fee system. However a fine calculated on the years left on a contract, and met by the player rather than the club, would stop revolutionary thoughts going through their valuable commodities’ heads.

While it is normally hard to muster sympathy for a footballer when discussing his financial terms, consider the position of Webster. Before his four years at Tynecastle, he had been a part-timer with Arbroath, truncating the length of time he would be maximising his earning potential. The moves to Wigan and Rangers were his first opportunity to earn stratospheric salaries, without the traditional ten per cent cut from a transfer fee. To have to pay perhaps six months of that salary to a former club would surely rankle, especially if you had been courted by your current employer. Obviously a refusal to play may seem self-sabotaging, but apparently Webster was hoping for a pay-off to terminate his contract early at the end of the summer. When it became clear no lump sum was forthcoming, he jumped ship at the start of this year.

Hearts fans are understandably torn. It is either the return of a player whose selfish acts robbed the club of a transfer fee or of a top-class defender entering what should be the prime years of his career. In his performances so far, Webster has received very little booing, so perhaps the pragmatists are in the majority. Another positive for Hearts is that this move was instigated by manager Jim Jefferies rather than chairman Vladimir Romanov, who previously has had undue influence on team selection and 
transfer policy.

The next ironic twist of Webster’s career will be if the addition of a powerful centre-half allows Hearts to overhaul a faltering Rangers side and gain second place in the SPL, causing further financial hardship for the penny-pinchers of Ibrox.

From WSC 290 April 2011