In the modern game, the term ‘player power’ has come to be used to describe a process wherein a player’s wish to leave a club can be made real, even if his employers may not want to lose him. Any reference to a contract of course is purely incidental. Once a player’s head is turned, by the lure of loads more lucre or the tantalising glitter of silverware, club’s faced with the alternatives of keeping a dissatisfied player or cashing in, usually take the latter as the least bad option.
There is another element to this however, where player power manifests itself in a battle of wills between the manager and a particular player nominally under his charge. Some have painted such a picture with regard to the relationship between Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers and talismanic skipper Steven Gerrard.
Gerrard has been at Liverpool for some 17 years, and the iconic leader of the club for probably the last dozen of them. In that time, he’s seen a number of managers come and go, but in Brendan Rodgers, the Reds appear to have appointed a manager prepared to take the ex-England skipper off his untouchable pedestal. Yes, of course the 34 year-old is nearing the end of his career, but the he has made it clear that had he been offered a new contract in the summer, to replace the one that runs out at the end of this season, he would be staying on Merseyside, rather than shipping out to LA.
That the club didn’t do that can probably be put down to one of two things. either it was carelessness of a level of crassness difficult to comprehend or, alternatively, a calculated move to be able to still offer a new contract later in the year, thereby easing Gerrard through the door without appearing to have a smoking gun in their hand. If you think the latter is the case, further weight can be added to the argument by considering Gerrard’s comments that he knew it was time to leave when Rodgers told him he was going to “manage” the games he deployed his skipper in this season.
That Gerrard is still widely respected at the club is without doubt. Jordan Henderson has recently commented on the Liverpool’s website that, “Everybody looks up to him and to him for advice or anything like that. Over the next five or six months, we’ve got to cherish every moment, especially on the pitch when we’re playing with him.” Those moments now will be fleeting. With many pundits already saying that Rodgers’ reputation is now on the line, it’s up to the manager to prove that his decision was right. Bring success, and plaudits will follow. If not, his future at the club will be limited. Deciding to walk into the playground and punch out the biggest kid in the school is a brave move, but sometimes, it just doesn’t pay off; ask Ruud Gullit or Andre Villas-Boas. And then consider the dilemma facing Barcelona’s new head coach, Luis Enrique.
When the Ruud Gullit eased into the hot seat at St James Park, it seemed very quickly that a clash of wills was brewing between him and the Geordies’ talismanic striker Alan Shearer. Adopting a ‘this town ain’t big enough for the both of us’ sort of approach, the former Dutch national skipper resolved to break the power of the influential Shearer and demonstrate who was boss.
Initially, he approached this by dropping Rob Lee, widely known to be Shearer’s trusted lieutenant. The surrogate approach cut little ice however, and battle was fully joined when the manager decided to leave the striker on the bench for the Tyne-Wear derby at St James Park. Unfortunately for the Dutchman, on a rain-soaked evening, Sunderland plundered the points, and the manager’s goose was well and truly cooked. He was dismissed, and Shearer continued at the club, his power and influence enhanced
If some may choose to accuse Gullit of naivety in taking on the club’s most influential player in a battle of wills without first having established a power base of his own through success and silverware, a similar charge could be levelled at Andre Villas-Boas when he attempted to deliver his ‘project’ at Stamford Bridge. Apparently with the blessing of the Chelsea owner, his remit was to break the power of a cartel of influential players at the club, and bring in a much younger squad to build for the future – all of this of course without derailing the trophy aspirations of the club. Although with a couple of successful years behind him as a coach in Portugal, the challenge, which would surely have tested the most-experienced and case-hardened of managers, was however beyond him. Putting all of his chips on a team to face Napoli in the Champions League that had no place place for Terry, Lampard, Essien, Cole or Torres, he came up short, and shortly afterwards was heading out of the club.
If the persistent rumours are to be believed, Luis Enriques may be heading into a not too dissimilar situation at the Camp Nou. The former Blaugrana skipper was a popular choice amongst the Barcelona fans when he was appointed in the summer. A semi-public spat with Lionel Messi however brought his all too brief tenure into question. He left the little Argentine on the bench for what should have been an eminently winnable game against David Moyes’ Real Sociedad, and lost the game.
Fan and press reaction was both predictable and loud. When Messi then missed the next scheduled training session with a reported bout of gastroenteritis, it was widely seen as a snub – whether or not that was the case. Reports then started to leak out that the player had started to follow Chelsea on his Instagram account – he was already following Manchester City and his father let it be known that he had been contacted by representatives of Roman Abramovich. Throw the fact of a tax issue hanging over Messi’s head in Spain and the well-fed rumour gained credence – whether warranted or not.
The prospect of losing their outstanding star player was too much for the fans to tolerate, and if there was any doubt as to who the fans would support in a battle of wills, it was quickly resolved in favour of the Argentine. The chances of Chelsea, or anyone else for that matter, other than perhaps Manchester United or Real Madrid, meeting all of the financial demands to take Messi away from Catalunya are slight to say the least. A hole the size of a coach and horses would have to be driven through the FFP regulations, so they can be all but discounted. Nevertheless, no matter how small the chance, it was enough to spook the fans to show their support for him. Enrique will now probably need to think again if he is to have anything like a long term future at the club.
Neither Rodgers or Enrique should despair however. Managers can sometimes win the day. In his twenty-odd years at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson drummed big personalities such as David Beckham and Roy Keane out of the club when he deemed it appropriate. The difference of course was that at the time he had the weight of numerous trophies to support him. Although loathe to lose star players, the fans knew which option was more likely to bring continuing glory and, at the end of the day, that is the deciding factor. Although for the protagonists, it may be a matter of personality and propriety, that has little weight to bear on fans’ opinions. And, in the final analysis, that is why Rodgers will have to succeed when Gerrard departs.
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for ‘theaspirer’ website).