Older custodians of the game can seem sanctimonious when complaining about the youth of today. The typical refrain is that these young starlets, bolstered by their aggressive agents are demanding excessive wages before they have proved their worth. But when that view is voiced by current Premier League stars such as Ryan Giggs and Didier Drogba, is it time for football to take note? These two decorated players have achieved a substantial amount and are still consistent performers in their thirties. The context in which young players break through to the professional ranks today is markedly different. By receiving too much too soon are today’s youngsters lacking the drive and work ethic of these two influential players?
At the age of 36 Giggs won the PFA Player’s Player of the Year in April and the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award last December. Cynics may argue, with some justification, that the Welshman had won the sentimentality vote. Nonetheless it was testament to the performances he has delivered over the years, being the only player to score in every PL season. When questioned in a recent Guardian interview about the substantive money now sloshing about the system, even for youngsters, he said, “It just takes your eye of the ball. And you’re not as hungry as players used to be. You think you’ve made it before you’ve done anything.”
Giggs’ long-time agent Harry Swales concurred. “They get to be 16 or 17, they score two or three goals, the newspapers blow them up to be something superhuman.” Giggs revealed that when he made his first team debut as a 17-year old he was paid around £40 a week. To say that today’s climate is million miles away would be an understatement. The former Wales international is perfectly comfortable with the concept of a footballer earning vast sumes (he is worth a reported £24 million) but evidently believes you have to pay your dues first. His comments correlate with Chelsea’s Drogba who spoke nostalgically about his formative years when returning to the club where it all began, Levallois on the outskirts of Paris. Former coach Srebrenko Repicic said, “In his first season, Didier was only paid if we won. The bonus was 200 Euros, which was a lot of money for him, but if we lost he got nothing.” His distaste for losing has persisted and he fondly remembers his time there. “This is where you learn your values, like sharing and solidarity. They are sometimes lost in pro football.”
But do the words of Giggs and Drogba resonate? They manifestly do in the blue half of Manchester where Roberto Mancini has warned Adam Johnson to stay grounded. Given the winger’s form he may have seemed an unlikely target but the Italian disciplinarian clearly maintains that he can improve and work harder. Additionally there was outrage in some quarters at the wage demands of their summer signing Mario Balotelli. The volatile but highly talented former Inter Milan starlet is yet to feature in the PL. The Milanese Champions League winners allegedly offered to double his wages but the 19-year old opted for a transfer and the opportunity to earn £180,000 a week. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp was unusually downbeat when appearing on a BBC documentary concerning England’s chances at the next World Cup. He questioned the ability of the next generation when compared to their inflated egos and forthright agents.
However young, emerging players cannot be blamed for the milieu in which they operate. Since the likes of Giggs and Drogba broke through football, for good or ill, has altered fundamentally. Would they have rejected the grand opportunities being offered to Balotelli and others. Moreover the majority of fans are unperturbed by the scale of players’ wages but particularly if they are perceived to have earned them. By definition young prospects, yet to reach their twenties, have not earned the right to command such lucrative contracts. Youngsters could still be handed these contracts but with a caveat that wages will incrementally rise in tandem with performances. The argument may seem needlessly moralistic but proven winners such as Giggs attribute their enduring spirit and character to a relatively humble start.