Seventy five minutes into the Arsenal – Bournemouth match last Saturday afternoon, Alexis Sanchez replaced Danny Welbeck, and was greeted by a completely mixed reaction around the stadium, and one that I have to say took me by surprise. The smattering of boos that were later drowned out by cheers, revealed that for many in the ground he is now being seen as a villain in the same way that other players who have left will always be seen, Fabregas and Van Persie to name but two.
The shock factor to this reaction came from my previous understanding that it was the ownership and management’s ineptitude that was seen as the reason that Alexis hadn’t signed a new deal, and was eventually offered to Manchester City on Transfer Deadline Day; rather than any agitation by the player himself, Sanchez having been notably silent on the whole situation and in no way seeming to be the sort of player that will down tools as he hasn’t been granted a reunion with former manager Pep Guardiola.
What struck me most about the situation was how it reflects the misguided sense of entitlement of the modern football fan; the feeling that because we pay for our tickets we are somehow owed by the club and the players themselves; and that a player looking at other options, being ambitious and wanting a move is somehow disloyal and has in some way betrayed the supporters. Arsenal are the sixth club that Alexis Sanchez has represented, including loan moves, since his top level debut in 2005, why would we expect him to stay beyond the length of his current agreement?
Maybe it is a cynical view, but I stopped believing in loyalty in football some time ago; the Bosman ruling and the implications for players seeing out their contracts in order to secure a mega payday, handed all the power to the players and their agents. Although intriguingly this summer the huge financial resources at the disposal of Premier League clubs has suggested that, for the first time since that watershed ruling, the power may be swinging back towards the clubs, at least in England.
Arsenal’s gamble on forsaking a reported £60 million transfer fee for Alexis in the hope that he will contribute to securing qualification for the Champions League gravy train once again, alongside Liverpool’s strong stance on refusing to sell Phillippe Coutinho to Barcelona; suggest that clubs may be increasingly prepared to see the investment in players with a more short term view. To judge squad depth only with regard to the current season and to review and rebuild each summer.
One of my other great sporting passions is the game of baseball, where for years players have been seen as commodities, mercenaries if you will. Playing rosters are constructed based on available payroll for the season; players are jettisoned to cut costs as soon as it becomes apparent that a team is unlikely to make the playoffs, and are then normally picked up by those clubs still in contention, even as the season continues.
Perhaps this is how we should start to see football players, to view their commitment only in terms of the length of their contract and recognise that while we can expect them to give everything to the cause while they are with our team, if we expect anything further we are simply setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Football has changed beyond all recognition over the last two decades or so, gone are the days when youth team players drawn from the local community were the bedrock on which top flight clubs were founded; a simple glance at the nationalities of the players in Premier League teams’ academies will tell you that. Rather than expecting career-long loyalty perhaps the modern football supporter should adopt a shorter term view and simply view their club in terms of whoever happens to make up the squad on a season by season basis.