Football clubs, like West Ham, have no right to play the loyalty card

Let's get one thing straight. Loyalty in football is the preserve of the supporters. They are the ones who maintain it and make sure the game isn't just a barren wasteland inhabited only by the fickle and the flaky.

Thursday, 19th January 2017, 1:00 pm
Dmitri Payet

For the footballer, loyalty is something that was once tangible early in your career.

You can feel it. Touch it. Smell it. The feeling seems mutual. It’s like a love story. You’ll do anything for them and vice versa.

That loyalty helps drive you on to sprint that little bit harder. It motivates you to get up in the morning, to throw yourself into tackles that that might injure you.

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But that’s all right, the club will look after you, won’t they? Won’t they?

Well, not always.

You see, footballers are commodities to be bought, sold or discarded as the club sees fit and to expect anything more than that would be too much.

I’ve seen too many players refused moves then thrown onto the scrapheap within two seasons.

I’ve seen too many players who have suffered injuries and need another six months to get fully fit again released because they would just be a hindrance.

I’ve seen players practically beg for acknowledgement when they approach their testimonial year.

Clubs do not owe their players a living and regardless of their commitment, footballers should never expect their club to provide them with one.

That’s how it works. That one-size-fits-all answer you’re given is one that papers over an earthquake of cracks. You’re just told ‘that’s football’ and you get on with your life.

When you’re a kid, you get drawn into the romanticism of it all. The boyhood dream of leading your hometown club out at Wembley in the FA Cup final, captain’s armband tightly embracing your left arm.

But that ideal is chipped away by the realities of the game so that by the time you’re 25 and part of the 1% of the 1% of players who are still playing full-time football at the age of 21, you’ve woken up to the truth.

Dmitri Payet has come in for a lot of criticism for the way his inevitable departure from West Ham has been handled but it’s more than just about the money.

Too late in life did it dawn on me that there was more to life than football and only recently have I accepted that happiness comes in different forms and not just what football can provide.

We wrongly assume that the playing in the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League is the be-all and end-all that will make every footballer happy, but it isn’t. We castigate players for having the temerity to accept huge deals from China that will set them and their families up for a life without financial worry but forget that they didn’t come to play English football in the first place because the weather is nice.

Payet and his family are clearly unhappy in England and if they are, I can’t really understand why someone would hold that against him.

He should be applauded for putting the happiness of his family first rather than selfishly pursue his own career.

People might question his motives for signing a new contract but that contract also secured West Ham a fee double in size they paid for him. And he certainly won’t command the same wages at Marseille as the reported £125k a week salary he gets at West Ham.

All we’ve heard so far is Slaven Bilic telling us how hurt he is that Payet now longer wants to play for West Ham. That he wishes to return to the club he never wanted to leave in the first place and was only sold to ease their financial difficulties. That last part is something I can relate to.

While Darlington were experiencing financial difficulties, Ayr United - in the second tier of Scottish football - made an offer for me and I was summoned to the manager’s office to be told either the club sold me or the rest of the players wouldn’t be getting paid for the third consecutive month.

I was still living at home at the time but the players who had families and mortgages to pay were struggling and the way the situation stood, I had no choice in the matter.

Did I want to go to Ayr United? No offence, but it wasn’t move the move I’d been dreaming of.

I went home feeling like I was due at the gallows the next morning. The transfer fee might have been giving Darlington a stay of execution but it felt like I was being consigned to the death penalty.

Luckily for me, Darlington were taken over within a matter of days and I was allowed to have some say in where my future lay.

I drew the line at writing “SLAVE” across my cheek like Prince in protest against his record label, but it seemed pretty unfair at the time.

The things is, if you are naive as I was back then, you just feel grateful for being a footballer at all. You feel so lucky that someone has given you the opportunity that you just take what they give you. And when you are so desperate to be a footballer, clubs can take advantage of the model professionals who are loyal.

The ones who take pay cuts to stay at clubs because they are happy where they are and don’t want to move.

That was me. That’s how I thought and I was wrong because you can’t use loyalty for anything when your career is over.

It’s nice that people appreciate your effort and see that you really cared, but you’re left feeling naive and green behind the ears. The clubs will see this as a good bargain on their behalf, taking advantage of the loyal player. Good business.

But when it’s the players who look at it with a business-like manner, they don’t seem to like it. Which is tough really, because they are the ones who made it that way.