It’s not about money, of course. But occasionally players wonder if their clubs are as eager to win trophies as they are – and if not, whether they should consider a move. Harry Pearson sympathises
The arrival of the British summer used to be heralded by the swooping of a swallow. These days, though, the most reliable signal that it is time once again to stand around a barbecue with rain dripping from your nose is a chorus of football’s top names wondering aloud in the press if “this club’s ambition matches my own”.
At one time footballers seeking a move generally blamed their wives and kids. “His family could not settle in the area,” the newspapers reported solemnly and we all nodded wisely and said: “He owes money to a bookmaker.” These days it is the players’ extreme levels of personal motivation that lead to itchy feet. Once a footballer was content with a Ford Capri, an air hostess, a semi-detached house on an executive estate and an Old English sheepdog; now he wants so much more he makes Napoleon Bonaparte look like St Francis of Assisi.
This ambition, it should be said, is not for material gain, because one thing a football transfer is never about is the money. No, it is all about medals and winning things. Cynics might note that medals and winning things seem to have been of considerably less importance to players when the maximum wage was still in force, but that is to apply reason to the subject and there is no place for that in football.
Strangely, there is one area where the ambition of the stars is replaced by mere schoolboy fantasy – the international game. While players become increasingly frustrated as their desire to win the Premier League is thwarted yet again by the chairman’s unwillingness to buy Ronaldinho, Pirlo, Gattuso, Messi, Buffon and Kaka, when it comes to the World Cup they are content simply to dream. “We gave it our best shot,” they remark wistfully as they push their trolleys through the airport arrivals gate. “Alas, it was not to be.” No foot‑stomping recriminations, no appeals to the FA to spend the money necessary to “take this country to the next level”. I fear we will never hear Steven Gerrard wondering aloud about the strength of our squad, or Michael Owen announcing crossly: “I was not born in England to get knocked out in the quarter-finals on penalties,” or Frank Lampard asking: “Does the nation’s ambition match my own?”
As Blaise Pascal so wisely observed: “Reason can determine nothing here.” The French philosopher was writing of the existence, or otherwise, of God, but he may just as easily have been casting an eye over that other mysterious world of blind faith, devotion and Jehovah-sized egos, the Premier League. For here indeed is a place where the inhabitants defy all logical analysis and to cross the threshold is truly to enter the realm of the senseless.
Let’s take Pascal’s fellow countryman William Gallas, for example. This summer Gallas announced: “I did not join Arsenal to finish third.” Fair enough, you may say. But if finishing second, or even first, was the defender’s raison d’être, an outsider might wonder why he left Chelsea, a club at which he had won back‑to‑back league titles as well as several less consequential baubles.
Gallas was, of course, sounding off about the sale of Thierry Henry and the lack of subsequent transfer action at the Emirates. He was, in other words, wondering if “this club’s ambition matches my own”. Clearly the departure of Henry had left a vacancy in that department, the French striker having apparently spent every July and August since records began tut-tutting over Arsène Wenger’s transfer policy and the fact the Gunners’ aspirations seemed to be perpetually trailing, Jamie Carragher-like, in the wake of his own gilded vision of the future.
The king of va-va-voom had chosen to leave the Emirates Stadium to join Barcelona, a club that last season won precisely the same number of trophies as Arsenal – none – but who had subsequently signalled that their ambitions matched the Frenchman’s own by (what else!) signing Thierry Henry. You suspect that had Wenger announced his intention to spend some of the £16 million he made from that sale on buying William Gallas, the French centre-back would have given him a big thumbs‑up and told the media that he is very excited about what he and his new team-mate could achieve together.
You might wonder what club Gallas thought he was joining when he flitted across London, waving to Ashley Cole as he passed. Wenger, after all, is a manager who has built his reputation on his ability to pick up young players at bargain prices, or resurrect apparently washed-up careers. Had Gallas been at Highbury when the manager brought in a young reserve midfielder from Milan, or a speedy winger who had just proved an abject failure in Serie A, you can’t help feeling he’d have been in an even bigger grump than he is now. Patrick Vieira and Henry proved to be quite handy signings as it turns out, but they were not “ambitious”.
If you want to keep players like Gallas happy, it seems it is better to lash out large sums on Francis Jeffers, Sylvain Wiltord or José Antonio Reyes, even if they turn out to be crap.
From WSC 247 September 2007