Brian Clough dragged Derby County from the depths of the second tier to Championship success in the early seventies and gifted Nottingham Forest a similar fate later that same decade. Blackburn Rovers were not a byword for silverware when Kenny Dalglish (and Jack Walker’s millions) spirited them to the Premier League title in 1995. And though the face of football has changed since the dawn of the Premier League era, more recently Harry Redknapp has overseen Tottenham’s return to premier European competition, something that David Moyes did in a short lived dalliance with Champions League football at Everton in 2005.
Today, none of these, perhaps with one exception, constitute a “glamorous club”, or as the more tactful player might say, “one which matches my ambition”. Today, the domestic honours are repeatedly shared by a small and static select few. The ambition for a player used to be that he wanted to make it as a professional footballer. But as more and more players and, in the curious case of Mark Hughes, managers alike demonstrate, the “ambition” now is to be snaffled by a club that has spent years building a legacy and a reputation for winning (or Manchester City), so that they can climb aboard the glamorous bandwagon, and ride on the coat tails of this freight train to success.
Take Ashley Young as a topical example. If we are to believe the press reports, he wants to win things, and to play at the highest level. For Ashley, the easiest way to do this seems to be to leave Aston Villa and join a successful team. As opposed to helping create one.
Craving success does not make Young special. If any one of the professional footballers plying their trade in one of the 92 league clubs in England were to suggest that he in fact didn’t want to win things he’d need his head examining. Call me naive, or old fashioned, but if young Ashley wants to win things, I would suggest he spends less time on his laptop and more time believing in the potential of 11 men on a football pitch, even if those 11 are wearing claret and blue. It’s remarkable, Ashley, what eleven men all pulling in the same direction can achieve.
To hear Mark Hughes come out and say that Fulham didn’t match his ambition struck me as almost cowardly. The club that Mohammed Al Fayed bankrolled from the old Division 2 to Premier League mainstays cannot be said to lack ambition. But ambition is relative to one’s circumstances. In many ways, Fulham FC has already exceeded many expectations, thanks to the groundwork done by the likes of Adams, Keegan, Coleman and Hodgson off the pitch, and many other committed souls on it. Hughes found himself in the Fulham hotseat on merit. He could have guided Fulham to their highest ever top flight finish. He could have won a domestic trophy. But he didn’t have the hunger. Instead he decided that his ambition meant he was owed a shot at ‘the big time’. With Chelsea seemingly turning to Guus Hiddink to fill their managerial vacancy, it’s hard to see how with his decision, Hughes succeeded in doing anything other than shooting himself in the foot.
Hughes and Young, and scores like them are more and more common in today’s game. In theory there is nothing stopping clubs like Fulham and Aston Villa qualifying for the Champions League. In theory there is nothing stopping Tottenham or Liverpool winning the Premier League title in the next two seasons. But the “ambitious” players don’t seem up for the fight.
Sam Allardyce was quoted last year as saying, however tongue in cheek, that he was more suited to managing Real Madrid or Inter Milan. “It wouldn’t be a problem to me to go and manage those clubs because I would win the double or the league every time. Give me Manchester United or Chelsea and I would do the same”. Yeah, me too Sam. Whether he realised it or not, Allardyce gave credence to the assumption that, when dealing with a well oiled footballing machine like Manchester United or Barcelona, even a blind monkey would struggle not to succeed (witness Avram Grant at Chelsea – he didn’t win anything but when compared to his efforts at Portsmouth and West Ham…).
Whether you are a manager or a player, the appetite to succeed, to make a name for yourself (and your teammates) a la Clough, or dare I say it, Steve McClaren at FC Twente, to achieve something against the odds, is giving way to a sense of entitlement. It is becoming accepted that the possibility of Champions League football is restricted to maybe 6 clubs in England, and instead of striving to beat them, today’s rising stars are content to join them.
In the same way our media hectors youngsters for wanting to grow up to be “famous” or “a celebrity”, wouldn’t it be nice if those in football realised that really really wanting success is not enough to justify your “ambition”. Time was, players and managers pulled together and exceeded expectation to truly achieve something.
Where would Manchester United be now if, after his first two seasons, Alex Ferguson had walked away, sick of not winning anything, claiming the club did not match his ambition? He stepped up to the plate and created a legacy. Mark Hughes saw the plate and demanded someone pass it to him.
For those players at Tottenham Hotspur in the years prior to Champions League qualification, theirs is a sweet success. For the stalwarts at Chelsea and Manchester United, who have played their parts in numerous domestic honours, their toil has been rewarded. But until the call comes from an Inter Milan or a Real Madrid, a Chelsea or a Manchester United, every aspiring Zidane out there would do well proving his worth and perhaps earning a big move on merit, rather than declaring that he is ready to win the league now, then sitting back waiting for the phone to ring. Who knows, in the meantime, with all those focused and top performing players out there, who’s to say their side won’t be visited by success? At which point the young and ambitious might realise that sometimes by just getting their head down, they can earn the glory that a big money move would afford them by default.
I don’t begrudge the likes of Young a move to Old Trafford – far from it. But until your services are actually bid for, why not concentrate on helping Aston Villa into the Champions League? Denilson and Nasri – look around you and get behind the potential of the squad at Arsenal. Make some positive noises and you might encourage other Arsenal youngsters to believe in the club and to stick around, making it stronger. If you don’t want another trophyless season, there’s something you can do about that on the pitch. By flocking to the silverware magnets, these guys are cementing the status quo. And seeing a greater variety of sides challenge for honours is becoming rarer and rarer as a result.
In the age of the X Factor pop star, whatever happened to forging a name for yourself and doing it the hard way? Instead of achieving success, players seem content to declare themselves worthy of it. Wherever you play or manage, until you’ve earnt that move, until there is a bidding war for your signature, try achieving your ambitions with a bit of hard work. Maybe next season Wolves will win the Cup and Wigan will qualify for Europe. Fulham could finish top 4 and Tottenham could be champions. Why not? Give it a shot lads. The glory tastes so much sweeter.
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