Rotherham thought they had unearthed a great young talent in Stephen Alabi. Then it all got complicated, as Iain Busby explains

Little is written about Rotherham United in the national press. This all changed, however, after January 16th when a Millers fan appeared on Radio Five’s 6.06 programme. The subject under discussion was one Stephen Alabi, Rotherham’s very own “new Michael Owen”. 

Having been with the club from the age of ten, Ghanaian-born Alabi was described by assistant manager John Breckin as “the best young prospect since Trevor Francis” after an impressive series of appearances for the club’s youth sides. The hype seemed to be in with a fighting chance of being justified when Alabi featured in a number of pre-season friendlies capped by him scoring with his first touch as a second-half substitute against Gainsborough Trinity. He was even offered a five-year contract by manager Ronnie Moore.

Everything seemed to be going fine – here was a young talent with a real chance of becoming the first team’s youngest-ever player, one who might generate a substantial fee from a Premiership club should he impress in an extended run in the side. As October came around, however, it became evident that all was not well: Alabi was refusing to play for the club at any level.

When the story initially broke in October, the view was that Alabi had angered the club by signing with an agent (the FA-approved David Plummer), despite not having even left school. Plummer was claiming that the club would not speak to him and that while the situation remained Alabi would not play for Rotherham, or even train with them. The club responded by stating that neither they nor Ronnie Moore had heard anything from Alabi’s agent and that to all intents and purposes the player had gone on strike.

This remained the case for the remainder of 1998. Last month, a group of Rotherham fans, annoyed at the way the club was being treated, (especially after the transfer of 15-year old Jermaine Pennant from Notts County to Arsenal had brought up the issue of Premiership sides “stealing” young talent) contacted Five Live. The story was then picked up by the national press, who painted the club in a very bad light and presented Alabi as a badly-done-to golden boy.

In an interview with the Sun, Alabi and Plummer stated that Rotherham’s insistence on “trying to offload him” to a Premiership club “soured” the poor lad and led to him refusing to play for the Millers. Yet in his column in the Rotherham Advertiser the following week, Ronnie Moore stressed that the only club to have shown an interest in Alabi was Newcastle. A deal was set up but it was dropped when Kenny Dalglish left. Since then, trials have been set up for Alabi, without Rotherham’s prior approval, at Tottenham, Aston Villa, Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday, none of whom followed up their initial interest .

Ronnie Moore pointed out that in view of the club’s current injury crisis, Alabi would have got his first-team chance by this point in the season had he not refused to stay with Rotherham. Instead, Alabi has gone over two months without training and subsequently failed in a trial for England schoolboys.

There are a number of things about the Alabi case which are worrying to a club in Rotherham’s position. First, if he is picked up by a big club during the summer – when he will be a free agent – the club will miss out on a fee which could be in the region of that paid by Arsenal for Jermaine Pennant. Rotherham United depend for their existence essentially on the good will of their chairman, Ken Booth, a 70-year-old scrap metal merchant, so a fee similar to that paid for Pennant could make a huge difference to the club.

Then there is the coverage given by the national press. Rotherham have been portrayed as the villains of the piece who want to make a quick buck. Alabi – despite the fact that he has apparently outlined his intentions by getting an agent and signing a deal with Adidas – is supposed to be the poor innocent.

Would the story be the same were it Manchester, not Rotherham, United? We are talking about a player who will not play for his club simply because he does not want to. Comparisons could be made with Pierre van Hooijdonk, but while the media were unequivocal in their support for Forest, the feeling towards Rotherham seems to be that a small Third Division side should should stop wasting everyone’s time and let Alabi sign with a club properly befitting his talent.

I have no wish for things to go back to the “good old days” of the minimum wage, when players were more or less treated like slaves, but we now seem to have gone from one extreme to another. Players’ demands could yet cause a recession which would hit the game as a whole and see clubs bigger than Rotherham go under. Surely it’s time for some kind of compromise to be reached before it gets too late.

From WSC 145 March 1999. What was happening this month

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