Tuesday 6 December 2016

Brian Kerr: The football world is a fairly immoral one and the money in football today is morally repugnant

Dundalk's bargain-basement heroics restore faith in football after a summer of outlandish spending

Brian Kerr

Published 20/08/2016 | 02:30

Paul Pogba made his 'second' debut for Manchester United last night after his high-profile return to Old Trafford Photo: Reuters / Darren Staples
Paul Pogba made his 'second' debut for Manchester United last night after his high-profile return to Old Trafford Photo: Reuters / Darren Staples

All summer long the headlines have screamed money. 'United to splash out £100m on Paul Pogba'. 'Arsene Wenger says a £200m signing is just around the corner'. 'Premier League clubs set to break their own spending record'.

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No-one doubts that third prophecy will come true. With an estimated £837.48m already spent, and with Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham likely to enter the market any day soon, it seems inevitable that this transfer window will be the most lavish in history, surpassing the £870m spent in 2015.

The success of Stephen Kenny and Graham Byrne at Dundalk has been achieved by outstanding management and local goodwill Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
The success of Stephen Kenny and Graham Byrne at Dundalk has been achieved by outstanding management and local goodwill Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Now there's a case to be made for saying, 'so what?'. That the market dictates prices. That football, like the television and film industries, reward the biggest stars with exorbitant salaries because that is the price the public is prepared to pay.

I accept all that. Yet a bigger part of me still finds the whole thing morally repugnant, this recycling of billions of pounds around a very small, but very wealthy, circle. When I look at the world's problems - the refugee crisis, the vast numbers of people being bombed into poverty - it is impossible not to view the surge in transfer fees, and players' wages, as madness.

Obsessed

Yet while I have difficulty with all of that, I'm not a manager anymore. I'm not in the shoes of men who can't, and don't, spend time thinking about society's issues - but who instead are focused, and in most cases obsessed, with getting their teams to be the best they can.

Wesley Hoolahan playing for Shelbourne Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Wesley Hoolahan playing for Shelbourne Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

The reality is that the football world is a fairly immoral one, completely at odds to what we are used to here, where the enduring popularity of the GAA stems largely from its localised roots but also partially, you suspect, from the fact it remains an amateur organisation, even though their players now receive grants towards their education, and expenses towards their mileage costs.

And while rugby has turned professional, the spending in that sport is nowhere near football's level. Hardly any Irish rugby player earns €1m a year - whereas in the Premier League, there are not too many earning anything shy of €1m per season.

What bothers me about all this is where the money ends up. So we have a situation where Pogba is transferred for £100m but £20m of that goes to his agent, £76m to Napoli in exchange for Gonzalo Higuain, before AS Roma receive the loose change from the Pogba sale, as well as some spare cash Juventus had lying around, to get Miralem Pjanic on board.

In a nutshell, players and agents get rich, and clubs like Napoli get enough dough to reinvest and stay competitive. But what you don't see is the money driven down through the game. Okay, it helps to sustain the wage levels for the existing players on Napoli and Roma's payroll and facilitates those clubs to employ more coaches, sports scientists and analysts - specialists who generally receive a modest income for their services.

In the main, though, this is an industry where only the agents, club chief executives, managers and players become wealthy and where those working at the more mundane tasks in clubs - stewards, caterers - are often struggling to even get the minimum wage.

So I'm not expecting Pogba's transfer fee to benefit those guys and I'm certain we won't see any of that money trickling down to grass roots level to improve facilities, or pay for underage coaches.

Instead, cynicism and a general disrespect for (other people's) money prevails.

Of course there are exceptions. There are people like Arsene Wenger, a man who grew up in a different era with a different set of principles. His policy of developing young players is wholly admirable.

Sadly, though, there are plenty who don't share that view. Within the Arsenal fan-base, an increasingly vocal section feel his time has come and gone and are no longer urging him to spend, but are pleading with him to go. In addition, you have a media machine which drives these things, which argues that you have got to invest mad money to move from fourth to second to first, but which isn't aware of the financial pressures within the club.

They may remember, though, the previous Paul Pogba. His name was Patrick Vieira and his case tells you how the game has changed in the last 20 years. When Vieira was signed by Arsenal from AC Milan in 1996, he cost just £2.5m, mainly because he was a player of promise (having featured in just two games for Milan when Arsenal lodged their bid) but also because it was a different market.

Now a similar type of player (albeit a vastly more proven) costs £100m. Yet despite the difference in experience, Pogba remains a box-to-box midfielder, not a Platini or a Zidane, never mind a Ronaldo.

Those players were game changers whereas it is Pogba's transfer fee that is the game changer this time - because if this is what clubs are prepared to spend on a midfielder in 2016 then how much will they spend on a goalscorer in 2017 or 2018? As Wenger suggested, a £200m signing may not be too far away.

With all this circling around my head, I took my seat in the upper tier of the west stand in Lansdowne Road on Wednesday night, and watched the Dundalk players emerge from the tunnel for their Champions League play off against Legia Warsaw.

I thought about the fact their top earner earns less than €50,000 a year, that their manager is their only full-time employee, that their entire squad cost just €17,000 to assemble and then thought of the fact they were at the same stage of the competition as Manchester City, Roma, Porto and Ajax. Remember that City made £96m in TV money last year where Dundalk weren't handed a penny.

So for me, this is an incredible success story, because they haven't progressed off the back of some oil tycoon. They've built it on the back of outstanding management and local goodwill.

What their story shows is there is an opportunity for Irish teams to do these things, even though they are abysmally underfunded.

Yet the challenge for everyone involved in League of Ireland football is for this to happen again - which will prove extremely difficult when the inevitable occurs and wealthier clubs sign their best players, the kind of thing that happened in the last decade when Keith Fahey impressed during European matches for St Pat's, when Kevin Doyle lit up Turner's Cross with Cork City, when Wes Hoolahan did the business for Shelbourne.

European success earned clubs money - and the League respect. English clubs realised there were decent players here and shopped around to find them - David Meyler, James McClean and Seamus Coleman following the initial shipment to England.

However, the transfer fees have rarely reflected the players' potential (Doyle went for £78,000, Coleman for an initial fee of £60,000, remember). So if clubs can build appropriate structures where they sell on players for reasonable profits that would allow them to reinvest in their squad and their club, then the path forward may not be full of potholes.

That's the hope.

Yet something else has to be borne in mind. I have read in several places how the Dundalk story has been compared to the Leicester City one. Another sporting fairy-tale, we were told.

But consider this. Leicester have been crowned as the world's greatest underdog story. Yet their wage bill is £55m per annum. Dundalk's turnover is £1.5m. Leicester are the 24th richest club in the world. They made £91m in TV money last season, while Dundalk could not even get their first game in this year's Champions League televised.

So, when you think about all this, UEFA should be complimented for creating a pathway where a club like Dundalk to make it, just as Apoel Nicosia from Cyprus, Astana from Kazakhstan, BATE Borisov from Belarus did before them.

The big clubs in Germany, Italy, Spain, England and France don't want fairytales. They want to increase the number of teams from these countries with high-paying television audiences. UEFA have stood up to them, though, accepting that their responsibility is to spread the game across the continent.

So hats off to them. But while we are at it, we must also doff our cap to Stephen Kenny and his players. Even though they lost to Legia on Wednesday, they won something greater, proving that in an era of £100m transfers that the little guy can still make it onto the big stage.

The journey those supporters have been on is something money can't buy.

Irish Independent

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