It wasn’t so long ago that the Christmas programme was one of the highlights of the football season. An insane bunching of fixtures would be squashed into a three or four day period, leaving managers complaining about their players becoming exhausted and players complaining about not getting to spend the festive period with their families. It’s difficult to say whether the decision to axe the festive football programme was a conscious one or whether it was borne out through through the vagaries of the calendar (the FA Cup Third Round is being played about as early as any in recent years), but it certainly has meant that the press has had to look elsewhere for their jollies over the last couple of weeks or so.
Fortunately, there have been a couple of other stories to keep them ticking over. Steven Gerrard’s contretemps in a Southport bar have given the tabloids plenty to salivate over, whilst the broadsheets have been poring over the forthcoming January transfer window. It is, indeed possible, that the transfer window has now taken over from what is left of the Christmas programme as the main news story for the end of December and the start of January. It used to feel as if booze-filled hacks played a game which involved pulling a player’s name, a football club and a stock phrase from a hat to create A Transfer Rumour. It’s a pretty easy game to play – here’s an example: [Richard Dunne] [has been linked to a multi million pound move to] [Blackburn Rovers]. Of course, it helps the story of it’s plausible. You wouldn’t get such crazy rumours as, say, Carlos Tevez signing for West Ham United or Robinho signing for Manchester city doing the rounds in the press unless it ended in inevitable disaster for the smaller club (as we saw with City’s doomed pursuit of Ronaldinho), but the rumour mill keeps people talking and, most significantly of all, it will keep them buying newspapers.
The irony, of course, is that the vast majority of transfers will make absolutely no difference whatsoever to the well-being of the club that signs them. Because he has already been linked to a big transfer, let’s take Craig Bellamy as an example. Bellamy is, well, a decent player. He’s not one of the all-time greats, but he has at least seemed to rein in the worst excesses of his behaviour both on and off the pitch. That said, he has now played for Norwich City, Coventry City, Celtic, Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers, Liverpool and West Ham United. In almost thirteen years as a professional player, he has won one trophy – the Scottish Cup for Celtic in 2006. If we offset the occasional important goals that he has scored at club level (for Newcastle United in the UEFA Cup and a couple for Liverpool in the Champions League) against the enormous strife that has has often caused through his own behaviour, it is difficult to see that many of the clubs that he has signed for have ended his time there in a significantly better position than they were in when he started with them. Certainly, none of them considered him indispensible. Despite all of this, Spurs placed one bid for him rejected and were rumoured to be tabling a much higher one.
For all of this talk of the futility of the transfer market, however, there is certainly plenty of entertainment to be had during the transfer window for the casual observer. Firstly, there’s the Mannchester City Premium. City are now subject to a transfer clause that used to apply to Chelsea – everyone knows that they are minted, so the cost of any prospective signing doubles in “value” whenever they express an interest. This is the only rational reason for their decision to pay £12m for Wayne Bridge. Bridge is a moderately talented Premier League player, who certainly was not trusted by three consecutive Chelsea managers to help them, on a regular basis, to bring the championship to Stamford Bridge. How he can be considered to be part of a plan to bring “the best player in each position” into the club is anyone’s guess.
Then, there’s this sort of thing, in which a player’s sense of his own hubris manages to scupper his chances to actually do something with his life. We have previously commented with varying degrees of disbelief that Pennant could be a member of any squad that will win a major trophy. Now, Real Madrid may be struggling by their own standards at the moment, but for a player to turn down the chance to play at the Bernabau because they won’t pay him £60,000 per week shows just how detached from reality the modern Premier League footballer has become. We shall wait and see with interest whether Stoke City or Wigan Athletic are stupid enough to accede to his salary demands. Premier League Footballer In “Considers Money To Be More Important Than Football” Shock isn’t really that much of a surprise these days, though, is it?
Finally, there’s what could be the most interesting transfer saga of the month – rumours now circulating that Shay Given as finally had enough with Newcastle United and wants out from St James Park. Given, who has been one of the Premier League since signing for Newcastle an astonishing twelve years ago, has reportedly has his request batted away by Joe Kinnear, but a goalkeeper of his quality becoming available has already alerted several other Premier League clubs, including Arsenal and Spurs, both of whom may be interested in a replacement for their own, creaky goalkeepers. Curiously, Arsene Wenger never appears to have been that bothered about his goalkeepers. He kept David Seaman past his prime and kept faith with Jens Lehmann in spite of some horrific mistakes. This year’s model, Manuel Almunia, looks moderate at best. With Michael Owen also reportedly being keen to leave and Newcastle being unlikely to bring in many big names to replace them, there is a distinct possibility that the rats are leaving the sinking ship at St James Park.
Ultimately, of course, the short term game is unlikely to work. The four biggest clubs in England have been helped along by the not-inconsiderable riches of the Champions League (if Aston Villa overhaul Arsenal and finish in fourth place this season, that will be the major achievement by any club this season) and, in three out of four cases, by very great stability. Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool have had four managers between them in the last eleven years. For the rest, though, the combination of panic (which, with just five points separating the entire bottom half of the table, is greater than ever this year) and the misplaced belief that you can simply buy success without making many concessions to doing the groundwork for building a successful club is startling. This January looks like being more entertaining than usual for the rest of us.