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The real footballers' lives

By Mark Andrews | Football | Published:

As the plane touched down at Birmingham Airport, a young African man hid, trembling, in the toilet. He knew somebody was waiting for him in the arrivals hall, but the fear was too much.

When he finally emerged from the plane, it was clear all was not well. Lorna McClelland, who met him at the airport, became increasingly disturbed as the young man hunched over in her car, his hands covering his ears. When asked what was troubling him, his reply came as a surprise to say the least: he said he had never been to such a large airport, and was terrified by the noise, the lights and the crowds.

But the young man in question was not a refugee, fleeing persecution in his war-torn homeland. He was not a migrant worker escaping poverty. He was about to make his debut in the Premier League, having been spotted as an exciting prospect by Aston Villa. Suffice to say, his introduction to top-flight English football was not exactly Roy of the Rovers stuff.

Sympathy for professional footballers is pretty thin on the ground, particularly among fans struggling to meet mortgage payments, or worrying about whether the ageing Mondeo will make it through another MOT. But Alan Gernon says that while it is easy to view the football lifestyle as being about supercars, champagne-fuelled parties and VIP lounges, the reality is often a nomadic existence of modest wages and budget-hotel rooms hundreds of miles from their families.

Gernon, a stand-up comedian turned football writer, is the author of a new book, The Transfer Market, which argues that for every big-money move by the likes of Neymar or Pogba. there are countless transfers which slip under the radar. During every transfer window, hundreds of players are moved from one lower-league club to another, for little or no money, and often against their will.

While Paris Saint-Germain may have shelled out something like £200 million to secure the services of Neymar, the average League Two footballer actually costs less than some people spend on a television or washing machine: the princely sum of £672.

"In theory, you could buy 315,789 League Two players for the price of Neymar," he says.

"Or closer to home, the starting 11s in all of the 24 clubs in the fourth tier would cost about the same price as Leeds United paid Leicester City for Allan Clarke. In 1969."

"The transfer market for those at the bottom is a world away from the razzmatazz of Sky Sports's deadline-day coverage."

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He says that almost 30 per cent of footballers transferred for a fee were pressurised into joining a club against their wishes, or a club not of their choice.

"When some footballers sign for a new club and hold aloft a scarf it might as well read 'I didn't want to leave my last club', 'the best my agent could get', or 'my 12th club already'," says Gernon.

"One player I spoke to admitted his main thought every day is about the instability of his job and that it sometimes gets him down. He often wonders why he can't have 'a normal job where I know what I'm going to be doing next year, where I'm going to be living'."

During the course of writing the book, he spoke to Martin Roderick, a self-proclaimed 'failed footballer', who was unable to make the grade at Portsmouth. After being forced to quit the game through illness, he spoke to 50 professional footballers as part of his PhD studies. The results were later published as a book, The Work of Professional Football: A Labour of Love?

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He says: "Most players left one club and joined another not because they were wanted, and could negotiate huge fees, but because they were unwanted and they were trying to secure employment. In situations where they were realising they had very few choices."

Roderick says the majority of players he spoke to were on short-term contracts dependent on how many games they played in a season.

"Contracts over one year were very limited unless the club really fancied a young player," he says Roderick.

"The older players weren't on anywhere near the money people thought they were on, and they were in very precarious situations, where a lot of them did have agents, but those agents didn't really care about them."

Gernon says while many agents do look after their players, the cut-throat nature of the business means that some operate in a shadowy world, often leaking stories to the media in an attempt to engineer moves for their players – regardless of whether it is in the players' interests or not.

This, he says, is in no small part down to the deregulation of the industry, which means that anybody with £500 and no criminal record can register as an 'intermediary'.

"With an almost 300 per cent increase in the number of agents since 2015, competition is rampant, leading to some adverse decisions on behalf of players," says Gernon.

Football agent Rob Shields, of Evolve Sports Management, adds: "A lot of agents are worried now that if they don't find a deal for their client, someone else will, and could be giving their players the wrong deals. There's a lot of poor deals being handed out because of that."

Gernon also examines the bizarre story of Liverpool fan Sean Cummins, who created a spoof alter-ego as an 'in the know' online blogger using the name Duncan Jenkins.

Jenkins' endless feed of bombastic, self-promoting opinion and lofty transfer predictions was intended as a joke, but actually led to him being fated as something of a sage. He was even being given a regular column in a football magazine, despite his 'information' being based on nothing more than guesswork and what he had read elsewhere. But the joke turned nasty when Liverpool communications director Jen Chang became convinced Cummins was getting his 'inside information' from a mole in the club, and issued the prankster with a series of threats. Chang left the club shortly after.

As for the big-money signings, many of these are also destined to end in tears – although it is just as likely to be the managers and billionaire club executives who will be doing the weeping. Analyst Paul Tomkins studied 3,000 transfers, coming to the conclusion that only 50-60 per cent of the mega-money deals are actually considered a success.

"Every expensive player bought during the Premier League era had to have done some pretty special things in the past for people to pay a high fee, but almost half go on to fail," he says.

"Any time there's a major change, a player's fortunes can change. If a player is at his original club, and a new manager arrives, his fortunes can change for the better or the worse.

"But a move of club for a big fee means that every single area of his game, his relationship with other players, his home life, his training regime, his role within the team and so on, all automatically change."

*The Transfer Market, by Alan Gernon, is published by Pitch Publishing and priced £12.99.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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