Pay as they go

The idea used to be that clubs paid players to play for them; now they subsidise their opponents to get unwanted 'stars' off their books. Barney Ronay reports

Michael Stewart “took a gamble” this month (accord­ing to the BBC football website) by can­celling the remainder of his contract at Manchester United to have a trial with Rangers. Unfortunately for Stewart this wild leap into the dark didn’t pay off. Alex McLeish decided to let him go, leaving the Scotland international with only the £400,000 lump-sum pay-off from United to tide him over – paid for his waiving the two years left on his £12,000-a-week contract.

Who is Michael Stewart exactly? This is a ques­tion you will be able to answer if you watch Man­chester United reserve-team games, or if you’ve been fortunate enough to catch him during one of his five Prem­iership starts. Stewart forms part of a recent and unexpected Premiership phenomenon: the post-Bosman con­tract exile. A professional since 1999, during this time Stewart will have earned at least £2.5 million in basic sal­ary and part­ing pay-off. This is the same Mich­ael Stewart who came home early from a loan spell at Nottingham For­est after a training-ground brawl with stri­ker David John­son. Ap­parently Stew­­­art had ir­ritated his new team- mates by con­stant­ly tel­ling tales of the high life at Old Trafford: what kind of car Giggsy drives, how many thousands of cattle David May can see from his front porch, how Sir Alex Ferguson once let him sit up front in the team coach. Then again, it’s no wonder he’s in love with a club that paid him half a million pounds for every time he started a league game.

Meanwhile, Patrick Kluivert is making a mildly con­vincing show of pretending that he loves being in Newcastle. After a long courtship Sir Bobby Robson finally got his man, but not before Kluivert and his agent had carpet-bagged their way around every Premiership club with any kind of previous for chucking cash at sullen, nom­adic superstars. “I’ve got a feeling about it,” de­clared the ex-Barcelona man, no doubt heartened by the warm welcome he had already received from Alan Shearer (Shearer: Play Me Or I Quit). Kluivert and Stew­art represent a new and unexpected development in the rapid evolution of the Premiership player. Both men have found their progress dogged by the burden of being paid an enormous salary. Barcelona have had to agree to contribute half of the Dutchman’s £80,000 weekly wage just to get him off their books; while for United, throwing nearly half a million pounds at Stewart just to make him go away seemed preferable to keeping him around for the rest of his contracted employment.

Elsewhere, as the new season approaches, Rivaldo’s agent has embarked on a frantic Benny Hill-style pur­suit of Sam Allardyce, having realised the phone isn’t actually going to ring no matter how hard he stares at it. Rivaldo, a former Golden Dustbin winner in Serie A (awarded to the worst player of the season), currently retails at £90,000 a week. Bolton are already £40m in debt and have a wage bill of £22m a year. At the age of 32, Rivaldo has simply priced himself out of the market. The Premiership is a slightly less weird, if far richer, place without him. The same could be said for Leeds United, who are still paying the wages of Danny Mills, despite the fact that he plays for Manchester City; even worse, they’re still paying a proportion of Robbie Fow­ler’s £50,000 a week, while in June they gave Nick Barmby £1m just to get him off the payroll.

Not that Leeds are alone in living to regret their largesse. Blackburn Rovers will continue to pay half of Andy Cole’s £60,000 a week after his free transfer to Fulham, partly in consideration for Cole agreeing to write off the last year of his extraordinary generous contract. Meanwhile, much has been made of Wayne Rooney’s fail­ure to sign the five-year contract cur­rently being dangled in front of him – probably along with a large lollipop – by the more willing members of the Ever­ton board. The question of whether the club can actually afford to tie itself in to at least £12.5m of fresh expenditure doesn’t seem to have been asked. Rooney is no Barmby; but three years down the line he could be a Fowler, or whoever that other excitable portly chap was, the one who went and knackered his own knee.

This is another bizarre and largely unforeseen consequence of the post-Bosman rules on freedom of contract. For a while, with clubs afraid of losing a player for nothing at the end of his contract, it became policy to offer five-year deals to established stars or promising youngsters. This overlooked the fact that you might not actually want to keep a player a few years down the line; at which point nobody else would want him either. Even in the throes of a major economic turnaround, the cash haemorrhage in European football is still capable of throwing up fresh absurdities. Now we have something new: the prince in exile, the unwanted millionaire with his carefully tended nest egg and his unshakeable belief in the sanctity of contract.

Even ten years ago young players who didn’t quite make it to the first team wouldn’t have been on first-team salaries, and certainly not receiving the kind of lump sums that would have most people throwing handfuls of five pound notes into the air before going out and buying themselves their first ever monocle and top hat. The former youth-teamer sitting tight in the reserves on his five-year deal is another unexpected cash-filled black hole in a game that happily throws up such grand follies.

The most consistent objection to the post-Bosman player freedom within the European Union (and thereabouts) has been that sub-standard imports attracted by high wages will “flood” into the British leagues – keeping our own sub-stan­dard footballers out of a job and taking away our out-of-town gated housing developments and aspiring model/actress/hairdresser girlfriends. Despite this, a generation of home-grown Michael Stewarts don’t seem to have done too badly out of freedom-of-con­tract, proof that no matter where you come from, where there’s a big bag of cash and a chairman with a cheque book English football is quite capable of making its own mistakes.

From WSC 211 September 2004. What was happening this month