Today we have a guest post from @foreverheady
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run…
I don’t know much about Contract Law, and like most people have no idea about the details of anyone’s exact terms of employment. I’m even a little hazy about my own, to be honest. However, I have been hearing a lot about contracts recently, and as there seem to be a large number of Contract Experts who follow The Arsenal, either as fans or journalists, I thought I’d add a few thoughts of my own.
The first and obvious point is that most contracts are a two-way agreement between employer and employee, or for the sake of this piece, between club and player. The club decides how much, and for how long, it is willing to pay for the services of the player. In return the player decides whether he agrees with that valuation, whether he likes the thought of playing for that club, and whether he wants to tie himself to that situation for the next few years. Footballers can sign their first contract at 16, and if they are lucky with injury can expect to stay playing until they are about 33. Most players would expect to play for several teams, with the best players hoping to end up at the most successful and highest-paying clubs for the last several years of their career. Further down the food chain less successful players will tumble down the leagues, eventually finding their age-related level. The best accounts I have read of what it is like to play in those lower reaches are the two fine books by Gary Nelson, Left Foot Forward and Left Foot in the Grave. If you haven’t read them I urge you to. The whole business is a cut-throat cattle market where everyone has his price and only a few make it properly big. Players need agents to look after their interests, because the clubs are utterly cold and callous when it comes to assessing worth – and very few players enjoy careers untarnished by injury.
Indeed, it is probably the spectre of injury that gives each contract its finesse, and which causes players and clubs to either hold or fold. Much is made at the moment of Alexis, Mesut and The Ox and their current contractual situations, but few commentators point out that while running down a contract is financially worthwhile for a player, it also carries considerable risk. Any player in the last year of their contract will know they are only a leg-break away from kissing goodbye to millions of pounds, a ligament-tear to the end of career. Those 3, 4 or 5 year contracts promise a significant safety-net: without them wet Tuesday nights at Stoke become even more fraught. For our two superstars they can probably afford the risk: they are towards the end of their careers, they have World Cups ahead of them, and they have almost certainly amassed significant fortunes already. They can make their choices now for football reasons and for where they feel happiest – and for how they imagine their club careers ending. It is tempting for me to think that Alexis will be off next year, and that Mesut will stay, but I only think that because that is the way the media narrative, a narrative largely controlled by the players agents, has chosen to portray the situations. As with most things in life, I haven’t really got a clue.
But for the Ox it is very different. He has the world at his feet, but has yet to really establish himself. He has had his injuries, and his all-action style of play suggest he might pick up a few more. I doubt he would want to gamble a whole season without the guarantee of more pay days ahead. A decent offer from Arsenal would probably tempt him. But for Arsenal, how much do they want to commit to a player who is still all about promise and who has his erratic moments? A new contract worth £150, 000 a week for the next four years? A bargain if he turns into the world-beater he has suggested he might be, but a profligate waste of money if in two years’ time he is just another fringe player who is hard to sell to another club because they can’t afford his wages. £60 million from Chelsea might look attractive, but what if he is the next Bale after all?
And so when anyone talks about contracts to be extended, and who should be signed, and who should be sold – and for how much, and for how long, I would simply ask this. What would you do in the case of each player? How would you value Alex Iwobi, or Reiss Nelson? How much would you gamble on them actually becoming the stars they might be? What would you do with the Ox? Or Aaron Ramsey? Or Holding or Chambers? And if you were any of those players, what balance would you strike between ambition and security? And if you’ll forgive me a Kenneth Williams moment, all I know is that it’s a lot harder than it looks from the outside. To play the off-field game you need nerves of steel and a razor-sharp mind – which is why the club I love and support is lucky to have the finest poker-player of them all