Richie Sadlier: Getting down and dirty to stop a player leaving
Clubs are not powerless in the battle with want-away players like Virgil van Dijk
Virgil van Dijk: Chairman Ralph Kreuger said this week that the Southampton defender is going nowhere. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA Wire.
A former international coming to the end of his career was posing a significant problem for his club. He wasn’t in the manager’s plans but was earning big money at a time when the CEO was tasked with reducing the wage bill. It was time to nudge him gently towards the door. When that didn’t work, an entirely different approach was required.
His contract stipulated the club had to provide accommodation for the player, which at the time was a four-bed house he shared with his wife and kids. The CEO informed him they would not be renewing the lease at the end of the month, offering him a room in one of the club’s houses instead. He’d be saying goodbye to the family and living with three of his team-mates, a prospect which understandably infuriated him.
Both he and his agent were livid, but they knew the club were still technically honouring the terms of the deal. It was enough to convince them, however, that his time at the club had come to an end. If the club were willing to stoop that low, he didn’t want to hang around a moment longer. A horrible job done well by the CEO.
In football players don’t hold all the power. Wanting a transfer won’t necessarily mean it’ll happen, whether you request it in writing or not. Sulking about it publicly won’t always force it through either. You can stay away from training, fake injuries if you like, but your move will only happen if the club signs off on it. You’ll often hear it said that it’s a battle the clubs can’t win, but they’re not powerless to prevent want-away players from leaving. It just depends on the tactics they’re willing to use to keep them.
Southampton chairman Ralph Kreuger said this week that Virgil van Dijk is going nowhere. He’s not for sale at any price. On Monday, Chinese businessman Jisheng Gao and his family completed a deal to buy 80 per cent of the club. This could be a negotiating ploy to entice ridiculous offers but it could also be a statement of intent from the new owners. Unlike the last three summer transfer windows, maybe Southampton are no longer happy to sell their best players.
You won’t want him around, he won’t play anywhere near his best, so you’ve got to swallow your pride and accept it’s an unwinnable war.
I’m sure they’ve already had people challenge them on their stance. It’s admirable but unworkable. Van Dijk’s presence will be disruptive, they’ll be warned. The toxicity of an influential player that’s desperately unhappy cannot be underestimated. You won’t want him around, he won’t play anywhere near his best, so you’ve got to swallow your pride and accept it’s an unwinnable war. Even keeping him at the club doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily won because his sell-on value will keep decreasing the less he plays.
They could ignore all of that, of course, and go exactly where van Dijk is hoping they won’t.
You don’t want to play for the club anymore? Fine, train with the development squad. We won’t play you at all. See how your international career is impacted by that. See how attractive to other clubs you are once they see your behaviour. See how that impacts your mood. Your self-esteem. Your standing in the game. Get used to wage-slips without appearance fees or bonuses. Do all the poor-me interviews you like, but we’ll fine you for every critical word you say about the club. You’re unhappy now? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
And before you point out we’ll lose money on your eventual sale, we’re happy to take a hit on this one to make a broader point. We’ve never been wealthier anyway. You’re under contract here until May 2022 and we’re going nowhere. Thanks to you, actually, no player will ever take this stance against us again. Your career will become nothing more than a cautionary tale.
Brinkmanship, bluffing, playing hard-ball. Call it what you like, but it’s a card that clubs can play. It’s harsh, but that’s the world of professional football. If the message is understood that leaving isn’t an option then work can begin on making the best of the alternative. As long as the manager has remained good-cop throughout, a full return to first-team duties could be on the cards. Normal service resumed.
Joseph Ndo was the player in the opening anecdote. St Patrick’s Athletic was the club and I was the CEO. He was in Cameroon’s 2002 World Cup squad but his earnings were out of kilter with what we could afford in 2009. It was a solo-run on my part, nobody else at the club knew I was using this tactic.
In terms of going low, threatening to separate a man from his wife and kids is hard to beat. Removing them from their home was the nuclear option but I was confident he wouldn’t call my bluff. Just as Kreuger said of van Dijk, it was nothing personal. I had to ensure the outcome was the one that best suited the club and that’s what happened. How I would be perceived by Joseph was of secondary concern. It was business.
Southampton may decide to sell van Dijk before the end of the month. It’s their call. If he stays he’ll either play in their team or he won’t. But clubs aren’t powerless when it comes to battles like this. They’ve just got to be ready to roll up their sleeves and get dirty.