Shaun Wright-Phillips' move to Chelsea has caused surprise and anguish for Manchester City fan, among them Ian Farrell, who nonetheless hopes that the transfer won't sully the reputation as one of the Premiership's good guys

Though controversial transfers always seem to bring odd cases of the sort of stagey shirt-burning antics so beloved by the media, most football fans in this cynical age tend to be well insulated against genuine outrage. But on Monday July 18th, something did happen that was as truly shocking as hearing that the Andrex puppy had savaged a child: Shaun Wright-Phillips became the bad guy.

Just days after Stuart Pearce had praised his exemplary attitude in the midst of continued speculation, Wright-Phillips, previously insistent that he didn’t want to leave, pulled out of a friendly with Macclesfield and announced that he wanted to join Chelsea. OK, compared to the actions of certain millionaire ASBO cases this sort of hard-nosed business practice might not seem a particularly heinous crime, but such ruthlessness was thought to be alien to happy-go-lucky little SWP.

His first interview as a Chelsea player brought another inadvertent slight when he claimed that he’d moved to improve his international chances – the excuse that players usually use to escape relegated and/or insignificant clubs. Though why exactly rotating through 25 Premiership games in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 is more England-friendly than 38 in an Eriksson-esque 4-4-2 is unclear to City fans naturally suspicious of financial motivations.

Though a move was largely seen as ultimately inevitable (particularly after Ian Wright’s comment that now was the right time for Shaun to go), the story dragged along quietly for weeks without ever threatening to explode onto the back pages. With the Steven Gerrard non-deal we had enough anguished discussion of loyalty, respect, greed and ambition to fill a Mario Puzo novel, not to mention numerous excitable and tabloid-friendly scousers who seemed to have been giving their Gerrard 8 shirts a preparatory coating of lighter fluid ever since contract negotiations began. Until its sensational and ugly conclusion, there had been no such excitement in the Wright-Phillips saga. Even the Essien and Crespo affairs were bigger Chelsea stories throughout the summer.

No Manchester City fan had been surprised by this apparent lack of drama and the reason was Shaun himself: he is simply not an inflammatory character. As someone who has been ignored by his biological father, rejected by Nottingham Forest as a 16-year-old because of his size, and subjected to the verbal equivalent of an Alabama lynching in the Bernabeu he would seem to have more excuse than most for an “attitude”. Instead, he’s been the anti-Bellamy, perhaps the most decent, honest and humble footballer in England over the last few years (not a hotly contested accolade). All of which makes his U-turn more devastating and difficult to comprehend.

Though the board and the manager were indignant at the manner of his departure, both should be pleased with the £21 million deal – it is the fans who are hurting. The club can make a dent in its £62m debt (though they did not need to sell as has been suggested – some of the deficit is owed to chairman John Wardle and the rest is secured long term on the stadium), while Pearce finally has some money to build his own side. An intensely proud man, he’s already suffered the indignity of a period as caretaker manager – with only Keegan’s players he’d have been little more than a caretaker manager on a two-year contract.

Ignoring the way it was handled for a moment, most City fans would not begrudge a transfer for a player who is, after all, 23, not 18.  They have had six years to watch him progress from a sometimes directionless ball of energy to an awesome, kinetic presence in the team, so there can hardly be any of the accusations of ungrateful impatience levelled at Wayne Rooney a year ago. City’s pragmatic supporters, well versed in the harsh realities of football, would not be so romantic and naive as to expect a world-class player to eschew the Champions League forever. They just did not think he would go like this.

Wright-Phillips has been a hero to Manchester City fans and most will still wish him well, clinging to a belief that the nature of his exit was down to a brief lapse in judgement, perhaps under pressure from the all-purpose villain – the agent. They will hope that the move is a great success and that a product of City’s academy will light up the Champions League. They will hope that the “real” Shaun Wright-Phillips is the one they thought they knew, not the figure who emerges from the Macclesfield story, and that Chelsea have got a “good guy” who will not become an apologist for his new club’s less palatable actions. I certainly hope so. To see someone you thought of as a beacon of decency in football spouting paranoid and diversionary Mourinho-speak would be a painfully and symbolically depressing sight.

From WSC 223 September 2005. What was happening this month

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