Opinion: Modern Fans and Clubs Have Killed The ‘One Club Player’
With this summer’s transfer window offering a perhaps increased insight into player morality, the prospect of a one club players is seemingly becoming lost. Brandon Bethune explores the idea that players can establish themselves as club legends, while still making moves for their own career.
Perhaps more than any other transfer window in recent memory, this summer has challenged player loyalty more than ever.
Especially after the European Championships, in which pride and loyalty to your country were key traits to be lauded over during the tournament, it’s been fascinating to see the discourse surrounding players departing the clubs where they made their name.
My fellow ENRG Sport writer Calum Muldoon covered this discourse in a great article on Jack Grealish leaving Aston Villa, citing his lack of club loyalty in swapping boyhood side Aston Villa for Manchester City. Furthermore, Calum said this wouldn’t allow Grealish club ‘immortality’ like that of famed one club man Francesco Totti at Roma.
This brought with it the bigger discourse surrounding the death of the ‘one club player’, one which Calum mourned in an age of disloyalty and shocking football transfers.
Considering this summer has seen it’s fair share of this type of transfer saga, I found myself completely disagreeing with Calum’s piece on the nature in which players deny themselves ‘immortality’. It’s not that I disagreed much with Calum’s point on Francesco Totti, but more so the the way he discussed Grealish ‘throwing away’ his chance at a legendary status at Aston Villa by taking the Man City payday.
Calum was far from malicious in his approach to Grealish arriving at the Ethiad, yet his wording struck me with a sense of sarcasm and bitterness about the death of the one club player. Perhaps the reason I was so affronted by this is I believe Calum’s perception of the debate is one stuck in an old mentality which doesn’t fit with the modern game.
This mentality is one that may seem innocuous on the surface, but when confronted with the actual departure of a club favourite, can come with drastically toxic results.
Take the response from Liverpool fans to Steven Gerrard almost leaving for Chelsea in 2005, for example. Stevie G had done everything bar win the Premier League with Liverpool, and was fresh off the legendary Champions League final comeback in Istanbul against AC Milan. However, Liverpool had finished fifth in the league and were well off the pace in the hunt for league glory. And with Chelsea tasting their first title in 50 years in ‘05, the transfer seemed a natural fit for the midfielder at this stage in his career.
The reaction to this was toxic to say the least, as it didn’t seem to matter that Gerrard had just single handedly guided Liverpool to Champions League success and had already cemented his legacy in Merseyside. One switch to Chelsea would’ve apparently seen all that hard work flushed away – shirts were burned, respect was lost, and names like ‘Judas’ had been thrown Gerrard’s way.
Ironically similar to the Totti saga of ‘04 though, Gerrard decided to stay at Liverpool because he loved the club, with Liverpool remaining in much of the same place in the Premier League as Roma in the Serie A over the coming years, and all having been forgiven of the summer saga.
Yet, unlike Totti, when Gerrard did eventually swap Liverpool and cold wet nights at Stoke for sunny LA in 2015, nobody batted an eye.
My point here is – a player can cement themselves as a club legend even if they depart.
Even in being past his peak, Gerrard leaving for LA Galaxy was seen more of a sad circumstance rather than an outright betrayal, and this is because Gerrard had already cemented his status as a Liverpool legend, to the point that fans could now respect his decision. This could’ve still been the case for Gerrard in 2005, and while the idea of departing to a league rival obviously differs from that of an MLS side, the toxic reaction to even the slightest notion of a Gerrard departure was still reprehensible. Imagine being Gerrard or Grealish, having devoted your life to a club and having the fans who support you so quickly turn their back because you want to make a move for your own career.
Clubs themselves don’t actually make it easier for players to stay sometimes either, inciting this dangerous fan reaction rather than fanning the flames of discontent. Two far bigger examples that have shown that this summer have been the sagas involving Harry Kane and, particularly, Lionel Messi. Two club legends whose loyalty to their clubs have arguably become something of a device used to manipulate them to stay, rather than to encourage them to continue their legacies there.
In the case of Kane, he has been more than amicable with Tottenham regarding a departure. He tried keeping it behind closed doors last summer, but needed to take it to a public forum this year to show Tottenham and their fans that his departure is not a decision taken likely or with bad intent, but rather one of professional growth. Yet the club, despite their obvious mismanagement and vast decline in performance, remain steadfast in their desire to prevent their star man from leaving. While understandable, this has seemingly been gone about in the wrong way.
Barcelona have been even worse in their handling of the Messi situation. While Barça being unable to register him due to their obvious financial issues was the main roadblock surrounding his departure, their mistreatment of him cannot be understated.
Messi actively tried to take a 50% pay cut to stay, and even after a dip in team performance, negative relationships with management, and mistreatment of him and his friends (such as Luis Suárez’s departure for Atlético Madrid last summer), one of, if not THE greatest player of all time still can’t leave or even be allowed to stay under respectful circumstances because of club treatment or financial mistakes.
Johnathan Liew put it wonderfully in an article in The Guardian discussing Messi’s departure, saying “How is it possible the greatest player of his generation – a man who has created more wealth, more content, more pure joy than any footballer who has ever lived – is denied basic agency over his career?”
The fact that Messi’s Barcelona career ended in tears during a small press conference is an incredible indictment of how football clubs can treat their most loyal and legendary players in the modern game. One whiff of a lack of loyalty or challenge to the system, and you’ll be out. No wonder the one club player seems to be a thing of the past, with fans and clubs so willing to turn on that player at any given moment.
Calum said in his article that Totti withstood disrespect and a lack of trophies in order to represent his beloved Roma – my response to that would be why should players like Kane and Messi suffer through the same disrespect just to stay a club that doesn’t love them back?
Getting back to Grealish, he finds himself at the same stage Gerrard did in ‘05, yet he actually pulled the trigger on a move. Does this mean Grealish has butchered his Aston Villa legacy? Absolutely not, in my opinion. Have Messi and (potentially) Kane hurt their legacies by leaving their clubs? Give me a break.
While not the type of legacy of a Kane or Messi, or even a Gerrard or Totti, Grealish’s Aston Villa legacy is one of never forgetting where you came from, and the same can be said for every player who departs their home club with good intent.
He has grown up at Aston Villa, and the club has grown with him, going from Championship fodder to European contenders. The sacrifices he has made for the club have delivered in spades, making him not only a household name but putting Villa in a great position to compete in the Premier League once again.
To repeat Calum’s point from the end of his article, there is absolutely no shame in Grealish choosing Manchester City. As much as football is about togetherness and loyalty, it’s just as much about business and personal choice. Some may not like that, but that’s the way it is. The window for a professional athlete to compete at the highest level is small, and Grealish choosing Man City over Villa at this point in his career is, in my view, the better option. Just as it would be for Kane, one of the best strikers in his generation, to join Grealish under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage.
It means more money and more opportunities for them and their families personally, and professionally allows them to cement themselves in the annals of football history. Calum noted in his article how Grealish may become just another great player in a great team, but that’s no bad thing. If Grealish or Kane is the man to finally lead Man City to Champions League glory, just as = Gerrard did for Liverpool in 2005, they’ll be considered a legend there, just as they should be already at Aston Villa and Tottenham.
It’s this idea of loyalty being more important than success, that often causes the aforementioned toxic reaction to players deciding to move on from their beloved club. However moving into a new generation, players like Grealish may look past that and take a more amicable approach, casting aside the ‘consequences’ of fan backlash.
If I were a football fan who has this form of tunnel vision regarding player loyalty, I would reassess the Grealish, Kane, and Messi transfers, and not paint the ‘one club player’ debate with such a broad brush.