Manchester United are a club who are defined by the virtues of loyalty, the Theatre of Dreams an arena which encases a history of faithful, enduring characters. Though of questionable conviction off the pitch, Ryan Giggs is an exemplary case of the more virtuous aspects of football: dedication, allegiance, dependence. Everyone who represents the club must personify these principles – Alex Ferguson, Sir Bobby Charlton, Paul Scholes – each the epitome of a club which prides itself on a small word whose importance is unquantifiable: respect.
Perhaps Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba haven’t listened to a satisfactory amount of Aretha Franklin lately. With just two minutes of impassioned R&B the Queen of Soul could teach United’s former impudent pair a necessary lesson in reverence.
Currently Pogba’s Wikipedia page reads “Paul Labile Pogba (born 15 March 1993) is a French Mercenary…”. Though the offending sentence is unlikely to remain online for much longer, the sentiment given by whichever cheeky scamp decided to exploit the site’s open nature is unlikely to recede for some time. Manchester United fans are hurt. Not so much by the loss of an undoubtedly talented young midfielder, but instead by the scorn and contempt with which Pogba has treated the club. Pogba follows Ravel Morrison in shamelessly disregarding the openings and opportunities that the club had presented. Are these exceptional cases or a wider signifier of an ugly attitude problem in young players?
In Morrison’s instance, the anger surrounding his attempt at maneuvering an inflated contract was exacerbated by the way in which United had stuck by the troubled youngster through testing times. In fact, United’s legal team are widely recognised to have spared Morrison a prison sentence last year. Few players could have tested the patience of Sir Alex Ferguson so much during his 26 years at Old Trafford. Ferguson and his backroom team entrusted a great deal of belief in Morrison, never once doubting his potential or his ability to meander an agitated personal life into calmer waters. Yet the protracted contract saga which United fans will remember Morrison for suggests that these gestures counted for nothing, with financial gain given greater precedence over any existing sense of loyalty.
These cases are not confined to the riches of the Premier League, however. A little further down in League Two a similar scenario is unfolding with each passing day. Adam Chapman was convicted of causing death by dangerous driving in June of 2010 whilst at Oxford United. The incident occurred a year earlier with the club honouring his contract whilst the case unfolded; upon his incarceration, Chapman’s contract was kept on an unpaid basis, returning to the first-team in January of this year after his release four months earlier. Chapman has recently declined an improved offer and exists in contractual limbo, insisting he wants to remain at the club yet actively seeking a higher wage, be it with Oxford or elsewhere. It appears as though Oxford’s unyielding loyalty to the player, where many other clubs would not have displayed such patience, is not being reciprocated.
It would be foolish to make character judgements of these young players based on these scenarios – after all, players are fully entitled to desire betterment for themselves, much like employees of any other profession would do – but the cases move to demonstrate that the traditional values of loyalty and dedication are of decreasing relevance to rising footballers. It is the reluctance to be satisfied with already monstrous salaries at such a young age which grates the most. By the age of 21, a Premier League footballer is likely to have earned more than some people may acquire in a lifetime – would it be too much for these players to appreciate the concept of respect?
One recurrent theme running through all of this is the role that agents play in encouraging players to seek further fortune. During the 2010/2011 season, clubs in the Football League coughed up a collective total of £16.7million in fees for the 570 transactions which required the services of an agent, a rise of £4million from the previous year. Evidently, the agent is becoming of ever increasing salience in modern football, brokering deals of alarming sums and taking a sizeable chunk in the process – a frightening £76.8million was spent on agents fees in the Premier League during the 2010/2011 season.
With such remarkable volumes of money floating around, it is of little surprise that agents strive to develop ever more frequent moves for their clients of greater worth. Whether negotiating a new contract or a move to a new club, the agent is the primary beneficiary. The Premier League era has cultivated a culture whereby money is the principal which garners most influence in football. Footballers emerging from Premier League academies know no other world, no doubt plucked by vulturous agents at a young age and schooled in the intricacies of maximising wealth wherever possible.
There is little that doubt that Sir Alex Ferguson was correct to denounce Pogba’s actions as disrespectful to the club. Pogba is yet another example of players not so much biting the hand that feeds them, but tugging at it relentlessly for more before looking elsewhere when it refuses to submit to their self-indulgence.
But before laying mercilessly into these young players, let us first consider the world in which they are being nurtured: one of greed and gluttony, where cash-hungry agents have expanding authority and teenagers can become millionaires in months. Football has become so unnervingly disconnected from reality that players simply have no sense of what it means to be respectful. They must themselves be held accountable for this, but so too must those who tender to their off-field affairs.
Young, impressionable and unseasoned in the enterprising process of football business, players will take their agents words as gospel and presume any suggestions they make will be in their best interests – this is not always the case. Agents are increasingly driven by the bloated personal fortunes which can be gained through the transfer of a player with he players themselves often left as nothing more than a commodity to be bartered.
The likes of Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison must quickly learn the virtues of respect, dignity and esteem – and so too must those who represent them. These players are the products of the self-obsessed, capitalistic culture which prevails in the Premier League, individual cases which are representative not only of young players but of football’s fabric itself. A wider change in attitudes across the game is needed if we are to prevent future cases of young mercenaries treating clubs, managers and fans with disregard, disdain and downright disrespect.
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