Tuesday 12 December 2017

Vardy dilemma shows 'big' clubs no longer call the shots

England's Jamie Vardy during a training session at Stade de Bourgognes, Chantilly Picture: PA
England's Jamie Vardy during a training session at Stade de Bourgognes, Chantilly Picture: PA

Sam Wallace

There is always a temptation to believe that a footballer such as Jamie Vardy would, in some bygone era when the professional game was played by men who got the bus home, stay with their heroic, overachieving smaller club rather than leave for one of the big beasts.

There are a few great names who played their whole careers outside the traditional elite - Johnny Haynes, Bobby Moore, Matt Le Tissier - although often their staying was part accident over design. It was a strange confluence of factors that stymied the usual momentum required to prise out a club legend, which does not change the fact that at stages both Haynes and Moore harboured ambitions to play beyond the clubs with which they are associated.

Otherwise, the story of the professional game is one of upwardly-mobile players and managers seizing opportunity to move on. Vardy's decision is by no means clear-cut but there is an interesting parallel that goes back 91 years, and shows not much changes in football, in Arsenal's poaching of Herbert Chapman, the great manager of the 1920s, and the man who established the club among the English elite.

Chapman, like Vardy, was at the champions of the day, Huddersfield, when he accepted a bigger salary to manage Arsenal and lay the foundations for their dominance of 1930s football. He did so having won two League titles and an FA Cup at Huddersfield and repeated the feat at Arsenal - indeed, he would surely have won much more at Highbury had he not died relatively young, in 1934 aged 55, from pneumonia.

The point being that even in the 1920s, and even for a son of Yorkshire in charge of a small-town club enjoying the highlight of what remains Huddersfield's entire history, Chapman knew his chance when he saw it. At that point, Arsenal did not even have a major honour, but they offered a better salary, a modern new stadium in the offing and greater power in the transfer market and, as it turned out, a much bigger future.

By and large, that is the story of British football in its professional guise: that rising escalator of fortune and opportunity that no man who lives just a 10-to-12-year playing career can afford to ignore. It took Alan Ball from Blackpool to Everton; Kevin Keegan from Scunthorpe to Liverpool; Bryan Robson from West Brom to Manchester United; Ian Wright from Crystal Palace to Arsenal; and Wayne Rooney from Everton to United.

Not that any two decisions are ever identical and Vardy's is made unusual because he already plays for the champions - champions of a gloriously unusual season, but champions nonetheless. He may yet leave Leicester for Arsenal but the very fact he even has to think about it hints at a flattening out of the old hierarchy of English football.

Inevitably, the consideration has always chiefly been financial for leaving what we might term, with finger-quotes mimed, a smaller club. Leicester's counter-offer to Vardy means that there is not much to choose between the two.


The other factor is prestige, but what does that really mean now to a new generation of players who see a much more homogeneous landscape, certainly among the big clubs of Europe, and increased movement of top players and managers?

Of course, Arsenal have a bigger stadium, greater profile and more fans than Leicester, but in a world in which every footballer is a multi-millionaire that clinching factor of financial reward is not quite so definitive. Instead, Vardy is given to consider other factors such as the effect of leaving a team who play to his strengths, and even the camaraderie of unlikely title-winners.

Leicester are still vulnerable to predators picking off their best assets, and they have to be wary of the cumulative effect of one or two big departures leading to five or six, but you get the feeling that they have more of a fighting chance of keeping the team together than would have been the case 10 years ago.

There was a period when it seemed like the money pouring into the English game would make the upper reaches, populated by the biggest clubs, even further out of reach of the rest. That was the case for four seasons between the years 2004 and 2009 when the top four places in the Premier League were the same four clubs, in different orders.

Now, with the miracle of Leicester's season, there is a chance that a new dynamic could emerge. As football becomes more atomised, with greater emphasis on the individual player - his style, his image rights, his brand - the reliance upon the platform that a traditional big club might offer is that much less. Of course, United, Arsenal, Liverpool and the rest will always offer the greatest exposure but for Vardy, who does not have years ahead of him to establish himself in a new team, there is much to be said for the scale at which Leicester operate, too.

In the strange democracy of the Premier League, where every ordinary club can be rich, and some might even challenge at the very top, Vardy's agonising is a sign that the old order might not be as entrenched as it thought. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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