The most worrying sound bite I’ve heard out of Elland Road this summer – and I won’t name names here – is the following little gem: “If a player has the chance to play for Leeds United, but turns it down for the sake of a few extra bob elsewhere, then we’re not interested in that player anyway.” Or words to that effect. Now that really worries me – and whether it’s arrogance we’re seeing here, or just naivety – I think it should worry all of us who have the club’s best interests at heart.
In case I need to remind anyone – professional football is about money, first and foremost. Really, let’s not kid ourselves otherwise. There’s a clue right there in the name: Professional Football. The players are professionals – so are the coaching staff. Even the directors are these days, though you might beg leave to differ on that one. But no-one’s in it for the pure and simple love of the game; they’re all there to earn a crust or, in the current lollied-up climate, more likely a whole bakery full of bread. This is not small boys and jumpers for goalposts. This is the hard-nosed, mercenary world of professional sport.
So when a senior representative of Leeds United Football Club says – in all seriousness one presumes – that if a player declines the honour of wearing the famous white shirt with the fat blue stripe for more money elsewhere, then he can basically sling his hook; how should we feel? Honoured, maybe, to support a club with such a clear appreciation of its own innate desirability? Pride, at the sound of our club stating its values in the face of a money-grabbing world? Or despair at the sheer, fatuous stupidity and hollow arrogance of imagining that any player worth his salt is going to put “prestige” ahead of the bottom line? Make no mistake – this is arrogance. It’s an unattractive characteristic we can ill-afford in our current, humble circumstances, and it’s one of those unwelcome features that gives our club, and indeed us fans, a bad name.
Prestige is all well and good. It’s fine and dandy to be a world famous football club, albeit fallen on hard times, yet with a history containing a certain amount of glory (together with a whole lot of bad luck and “we wuz robbed” stories). All of that is very nice, and we’re all suitably proud – let’s face it, it’s better than being Barnsley. But prestige butters no parsnips, not on its own. It doesn’t pay the rent, nor does it foot the bill for that penthouse apartment and flash car; the hallmarks of even Mr Joe Average Footballer in these Sky-funded times. Sadly, in today’s Real World, you need lots of cold, hard cash for that sort of thing, and if Joe Average isn’t going to get it at Leeds, then he’s going to say “thanks, but no thanks” and head for somewhere more financially enlightened. And where does that leave Leeds? Still holding forth about what a great club we are, and what an honour it is to play for us? Or might we perhaps, hurt and wounded by such rejection, sadder and wiser as to the ways of the world, give our head a shake and reflect that if you pay peanuts, you’ll attract only monkeys? (This is all imagery and metaphor, Mr Brown, and no reflection upon any of the current playing staff, so chill.)
If Leeds start the new season having missed out on a succession of Joe Averages, and therefore with a team populated instead by too many Michael Mediocres, and all for the lack of that extra few bob, then the notoriously easy to disgruntle body of support will have good reason to be less than happy. What, they might ask, are we trying to achieve? Can we not look to the negative example of the current government, who are achieving outstanding levels of apathy, feeble performance and general lassitude and failure to compete by the simple expedient of austerity as an alternative to investment? Isn’t investment, indeed, what it’s all about? The shimmering yet distant prospect of the Premier League with its promise of more millions than you could shake a stick at – surely that’s a prize worth investing in a chance to compete for? Well, you’d think so.
Last season, around January transfer window time, there was talk of signing Birmingham City’sChris Burke, the kind of winger that might, just possibly, have solved our goal-scoring problems by increasing the quality of supply to our starving strikers. For the want of £300,000, we now hear, that deal died a death. And yet at that point in time, the play-offs were a realistic prospect, and that small shove in the right direction might have seen us over the line, and lo! The Promised Land might have beckoned. Instead, we finished in a desperately disappointing lower mid-table position, reduced to the ranks of party-poopers for Watford on the season’s final day. 300 grand could have made such a difference, and reaped such rewards, but no-one was willing to be so visionary and to dare speculate with a view to accumulating a promotion. How depressingly short-sighted is that?
Wind forward twelve months from now and – judging by the pearls of wisdom falling from the various media outlets of Leeds United so far this summer – we might easily be looking back on another drab and disappointing season. And all because we’ve persisted with this policy of trying to make ten bob do the work of a quid. If the people in charge of Leeds genuinely believe that the kind of players we now need to get us up where we still think we belong – the equivalents of Strachan, Sterland, Jones, Hendrie and Fairclough – are actually going to sign on the dotted line because “it’s an honour to play for the club” – then they’re sadly mistaken and bigger fools than I thought. Investment is needed, if not in transfer fees – I’ve nothing against free transfers as such, there are diamonds out there in these Bosman days – then certainly in wages to make us competitive with the others who will be vying for the riches of the top flight. Surely, after too many seasons of hollow promises and under-funding, someone at Leeds must see this?