“Sometimes a player just wants to sit out his contract. That’s not cool for the club, but there are moments in which you have to accept it. And as long as the player behaves like Emre does, then I have absolutely nothing to complain about. He gives everything he has and identifies with the club” – Jurgen Klopp, January 26.
Several years ago, when employed in a ‘real’ job and handing in notice of my intention to leave, the reaction was immediate. I was moved off all major projects, and also prevented from working on anything that would continue after my departure.
That was no personal slight on me or my professionalism, merely the company’s standard practice. I had made it clear that I had no long-term future at the organisation, so why would I affect their long-term future too?
Football has to work differently. Since the ruling by the European Court of Justice in 1995 allowed players to move at the end of their contracts without a transfer fee being paid, employees have been permitted to run down their contracts and thus give notice of their intention to leave. Yet they are too valuable to be placed to one side throughout the final months of that deal, and football clubs only have one on-field project: winning. Anything other than business as usual would involve a club cutting off nose to spite face.
Given the new player power established by Bosman’s landmark victory, free transfer deals are actually pretty rare, particularly at the highest level. More standard practice is for a player to sign a new contract (often with a pay rise and sizeable signing-on fee) but with an agreement (normally unwritten) that the club will listen to offers for the player six or 12 months down the line. That way, everybody wins.
It is more unusual still for that departure to be announced ahead of time and that player to endure a tortuous, extended goodbye. Instead, we are treated to a will-he-won’t-he hokey-cokey, conflicting rumours and counter-rumours leaking out from clubs and agents as the days to the contract expiry date tick down; Mesut Ozil is the highest-profile example of this sporting-political dance.
At Liverpool, Klopp has chosen the alternate path, pointing towards the curtains behind which the elephant in the room tries to hide. Klopp does not want the issue of Emre Can’s potential departure to fester, cause unnecessary distraction or be subject to Chinese whisper. As is customary, he has said it like it is. Honesty over politeness.
You wonder what Can makes of it all. For though the illegality of post-contract restraint of trade was established in 1995, the morality of Bosman transfers remains open to debate within the game. A player worth £40m to £50m has effectively made himself worthless to his club in financial terms and will significantly increase his earning potential in the process.
Despite clubs having few qualms in getting rid of players and managers as they see fit (and to hell with the morals there), the vice versa is a little more murky. For want of a better phrase, a key player running down his contract is still viewed in some quarters as a c*nt’s trick.
At Arsenal, Ozil retains the goodwill of supporters because of his fine form but also because his future is not yet known. Were his summer departure to be announced now, his performances would be examined in greater detail, his mistakes accentuated and his demeanour over-analysed. Every poor display is suddenly framed as evidence that tools have been downed.
That difficult PR battle is the fate that now befalls Can, particularly tricky given the previous emotional response from a section of Liverpool’s fanbase when key players have made clear their desire to leave Anfield; the initial framing of Raheem Sterling as a young man with ideas above his station was established by former Liverpool players making their wounded feelings clear in the media.
Klopp’s revelation about Can’s intentions were immediately followed by a strong character reference, but the player’s actions will speak far louder than the manager’s words. If Klopp’s first bold move was to retain Can as his captain against West Brom after he did the same in the defeat to Swansea, the subsequent performance and cup exit was the imperfect conclusion.
Can has done nothing wrong, of course, and there is a link here to the ‘ambition’ paradox that exists within the English game. We want our young players to be confident and our clubs to constantly strive to increase their ambitions, but when he strives to join a bigger or better club for bigger or better money, their behaviour is frowned upon. Because we would all turn down wage increases and promotions in our own lines of work, obviously.
Even so, clean breaks are far easier to manage than extended, messy goodbyes – in football as in life. Can will quickly learn the inescapable truth: if he intends to leave Anfield and England with his reputation amongst supporters intact, he must keep the audience captivated while edging slowly towards the door. If the task is not impossible, it is at least improbable.