‘Management these days has become much more complicated, not least because of the enormous amounts of money players earn, and you cannot afford to pander to that kind of power.’
Few individuals are better equipped to discuss the phenomenon of ‘player power’ than Sir Alex Ferguson. Back in October 2011, the former Manchester United manager was speaking from a position of unique knowledge. His coaching career began at a time when clubs boasted omnipotence over players, and he was in the midst of his Old Trafford reign when the tide suddenly turned in the mid 1990s.
With the Bosman ruling in 1995, players wrestled control from clubs and were able to dictate their own futures. When Carlos Tevez attempted to follow that lead six years ago by refusing to come on as a substitute for Manchester City in an attempt to force a move, Ferguson took umbrage. This was a player with whom the Scot had his differences and he was causing a problem at the heart of his bitter rivals. Yet the United manager reserved a section of his programme notes for the upcoming Manchester derby to back Roberto Mancini, such was his insistence that ‘player power’ should be quashed.
Were Ferguson asked his thoughts on the sideshow of modern transfers four years after his retirement, he would likely turn the air a particularly dashing shade of blue. The phrase ‘player power’ has risen to prominence with a vengeance this summer, and yet never before have players actually been so powerless.
Virgil van Dijk is a prime example. The Dutchman finally allowed the mask to slip after months of maintaining a public silence while privately trying to engineer his Southampton exit. His statement last week included the words ‘frustrated’, ‘disappointed’ and ‘insulted’, and he declared that he was handing in a transfer request. It was his final roll of the dice, a desperate last attempt to get his own way.
The response was emphatic. “Virgil is not for sale in this window and it’s not personal,” said club chairman Ralph Krueger on Wednesday. “It’s not about him, it’s about an overall much, much, much bigger picture – a change of course for Southampton.”
And for football clubs as a whole. Just as agents placed the cards in the hands of the players when it came to transfers, the increase in revenue in the sport has restored clubs’ bargaining positions. Never before have clubs had more money, and with money comes power and control.
Southampton and Van Dijk. RB Leipzig and Naby Keita. Liverpool and Philippe Coutinho. Leicester and Riyad Mahrez. Chelsea and Diego Costa. Arsenal and Alexis Sanchez. The era of clubs being held to ransom by players is over. Even Tottenham, for whom selling their stars was once a sport in itself, have held firm. Danny Rose and reportedly Eric Dier have had their heads turned, but Mauricio Pochettino stated back in September that the club now have the “power” to keep their best players. The evidence is compelling.
A food chain still exists – Southampton and Leipzig have kept Van Dijk and Keita out of the reaches of Liverpool, who have rebuffed Barcelona’s approaches for Coutinho – but clubs no longer feel the pressure of needing to sell. They are able to resist the natural order. They can demand excessive fees or – the other extreme – insist that a player simply honours his contract.
“I am amazed that you are amazed,” said Arsene Wenger earlier this week, discussing Sanchez’s future. “I just think it looks unusual to the media sometimes that clubs want the contracts to be respected. For me, it looks logical. It looks normal that if I sign a contract I respect it.”
As the Frenchman suggested, the media are culpable in propagating the myth. Ian Wright claimed that Southampton have “literally no choice” but to sell Van Dijk after the player’s statement, but his club have only strengthened their resolve in the aftermath.
The centre-half has been slapped on the wrist and placed on the naughty step, but is fully expected to join in with the other children when he has calmed down and thought about his actions. It is a powerful message and one echoed by their fellow clubs.
In recent years, openly talking to other clubs, leaking details to the media, refusing to train and requesting a transfer were the inevitable steps a player would take to get their own way. Now they are simply stages of a tantrum that employers can choose to ignore.
Ferguson warned that clubs “cannot afford to pander” to player power six years ago. Then it felt like a losing battle. Now it would please him to see the power balance has switched again.