October 22, 2010 7:57 pm
When a football manager with the pedigree of Sir Alex Ferguson is forced into an unsavoury public showdown with his star striker over contract negotiations, it says something about the strength of player power in the top-flight game.
By extracting a markedly improved contract from Manchester United, Wayne Rooney has perhaps done no more or less than other footballers before him.
At the end of a strained week for club and player, Rooney has ended up maximising his earning potential in the relatively short time he enjoys at the top – even if the manner of doing so has hardly endeared him to fans of the Red Devils.
Since the Bosman ruling of 1995 enshrined in European law freedom of movement for footballers, the balance of power has been moving in the direction of players. The Rooney debacle is perhaps one of the more graphic illustrations of that shift in recent years.
Such is player power that professional clubs retain the best employment lawyers they can find to guard against the sudden loss of their prized assets.
“Clubs always have to be up to date with what’s going on in law,” says Chris Heaton-Harris, a qualified football referee, founder of a Brussels-based forum on sports governance and now a Conservative MP. “Every time there is a ruling, major or minor, it creates more confusion in a fairly panicked market.”
In light of the Rooney saga, Premier League managers were gunning for the agents they accuse of brinkmanship in seeking out better deals for their player clients. Ian Holloway, manager of Premier League side Blackpool, asked: “If Alex Ferguson is being bullied by a player and his agent, how wrong is the game?”
Other observers point out that the big clubs do perfectly well out of a transfer system that is the main source of income for financially strained smaller clubs and whose best players are swallowed up by their more illustrious rivals.
Nor are they averse to brinkmanship themselves. “A club like Manchester United can keep hold of players, even against their will, to the end of their contract,” says a Uefa insider. “You wouldn’t be allowed to do that in other industries.”
But as Sir Alex pointed out in his frank press conference on Tuesday, at the height of the Rooney saga, United goes out of its way to look after its players.
United is the best club among Europe’s top leagues for retaining players. They stay with the club on average for 6.36 years, according to an annual labour market review produced by the Professional Football Players’ Observatory, a Swiss-based research group.
Across the top five leagues of Europe, the rate of player mobility has gathered speed since the Bosman ruling, interrupted only by the economic downturn. “It is going up especially in England and Italy,” says research author Raffaele Poli.
As players chase the next big-money contract, they do neither themselves nor the game much good. Too many transfers in a career damage the chances of playing regularly, the research showed.
Their promiscuity also tests the loyalty of fans, says Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, the players’ trade union in England.
“It’s not been the best exercise in public relations for the game at a time of economic crisis,” says Mr Taylor. “It wasn’t the best time [for Rooney] to be coming out with these issues, albeit the lad was frustrated.”
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