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Whatever Happened to Earning Success? Mark Hughes, Ashley Young And the Lure of the Established Order

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.

Follow me on Twitter @sk_roberts

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  1. craigles

    June 9, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    As a villa supporter i completly agree with everything that you have said. I have seen my favourite player leave to a champions league club almost every year and this sickens me. Dwight york, gareth barry, james milner and now ashley young. But atleast this will be the end of it. PHEW!

    Eh, downing dosnt want to sign a new contract because he wants champions league football. Well for F@@K SAKE!

  2. Nelson

    June 8, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    The notion that Teams cannot break the top 4 or 6 teams because EPL players and managers have a lack of ambition with there current club is ridiculous. Your article suggests that these players are not giving 100 percent for their little club because they are holding out for a big club that makes winning easier. It can only be blamed on the financial desparities of clubs in the league. I would hope all EPL players give it there all no matter who they play for. Look at MLB. Virtually every baseball team in the league has won a world series. Based on your arguments you must believe iis because these players all try hard and have great leadership skills and have more motivation to win? No.

  3. Nelson

    June 8, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    The notion that Teams cannot break the top 4 or 6 teams because EPL players and managers have a lack of ambition with there current club is ridiculous. Your article suggests that these players are not giving 100 percent for there little club because winning is too much work. They would rather save there energy for inquiring into big clubs so they can win the easy way. This is laughable. Very little of a teams shortcomings can be blamed on the players’ lack of effort. It can all be blamed on the financial desparities of clubs like Chelsea and clubs like Blackpool. With that said it seemed to me that the players on Blackpools team were trying harder than anyone his year. If you suggest that up and coming players like Young are holding back because they know they can win with a ManU signing sometime in he future is speculation at best. I would hope all EPL players give it there all no matter who hey play for. Look at MLB. Virtually every baseball team in the league has won a world series. Is his because these players all try hard and have great leadership skills and have more motivation to win? Hell, even teams who have only existed a year or two have won ( Marlins, Rockies). The EPL landscape will not change because of players it will change when there is reform and relegation from the top. Salary caps and financial fair play that hopefully levels the suing field.

    • @sk_roberts

      June 8, 2011 at 6:01 pm

      I haven’t suggested that players like Young do not give 100%. Instead, my piece is a comment on how players believe that they have to join a “top 4” club to fulfill their ambition, and thus the top 4 clubs remain the same year after year. Some loyalty and belief from players like Young and managers like Hughes could actually transform the fortunes of a club like Villa or Fulham. It’s just a hypotheses to spark a discussion, and I appreciate your point!

      • Nelson

        June 9, 2011 at 6:27 pm

        Okay, I see what you are saying. However, a lot of players give it their all for several years without any pay off, whether that be Champions League football or League titles. With that said I can’t blame them for jumping ship and going to a club that had promise. I hate that this is the case. It won’t chane until some reform takes place to even the disparities between teams.

  4. Taylor

    June 8, 2011 at 10:52 am

    There are different aspects why Young, etc want to move clubs. With Aston Villa, I think they see that how the club is managed by Randy Lerner and don’t think that the club can match their ambitions through his actions (e.g. Martin O’Neill’s transfer budget, appointment of Gerard Houllier, etc). And I symphatize with AVFC fan – the club was really driven to the ground by Deadly Doug.

    There’s a balance between earning success and knowing that your team won’t be able to support your ambition. If you play for Spurs and want to leave to achieve success, then you’re trying to buy success because Spurs are really close to be a successful team and ready to contend. But if you play for Everton or Blackburn, then you know that it’s extremely unlikely for those teams to challenge for the Premiership title.

  5. Guy

    June 8, 2011 at 10:10 am

    “Mark Hughes saw the plate and demanded someone pass it to him.”

    Now that’s sweet. 🙂 However, as I recall, Hughes had the plate (City) and couldn’t figure out which way to turn it. If he’s holding his breath waiting to be contacted by a “big” club he’ll be turning blue shortly.

    • PaulFromMiami

      June 8, 2011 at 10:20 am

      yea he is not at the top of Chelsea’s list. Villa got a new coach. Hughes looks like he will join Carlo A. in taking a year off.

  6. PaulFromMiami

    June 8, 2011 at 9:12 am

    You sound more like a Villa Supporter than anything else. And yes you are naive for writing this article. He’s been at Villa for 4 years and the best they have done is 6th place(which is an achievement). To be in the champions league they would have to buy players and the kind of players that can help them get there will demand a lot of money to come to a non-Champions league team.
    I can understand you writing this article about Hughes because what he did was wrong. He is not even at the top of Chelsea’s list. As for Young, a footballer’s career is short, so i understand him wanting to move to Old Trafford. United won the title this year but lost in the semi-final of the fa cup and the final of the champions league. If he can help them achieve a treble or even a double next year, that will be an achievement in itself. Nothing as a player to want to play at the top level. You don’t get those opportunities often.
    Your Comparison to Phil Jones doesn’t make sense. Phil Jones is 19, he is happy just play first team football in the premiership.

    • @sk_roberts

      June 8, 2011 at 9:39 am

      I’m not a Villa supporter. And I don’t begrudge Young the move, it’s the trend of players agitating for moves, whilst under contract, that I refer to. If he stayed, or if Rooney had stayed at Everton as per the commenter above, it is feasible that other top quality players would be inclined to join a club like Villa. I made the naivety comment knowingly, as practically speaking my argument may not stack up but I think, when talking about ambition, it is a point worth making. Thanks for the feedback!

      • Mekias

        June 8, 2011 at 10:01 am

        Top quality players won’t join a club without wainting to get paid top quality wages. I know Everton are skint. The owners haven’t put any money into the club so they’re limited by their turnover and are already spending slightly beyond their means. Randy Lerner has poured money into Villa in the past but won’t be able to continue that kind of spending. Their turnover is only slightly more than Everton’s.

        The only team outside of the Sky Six that might be able to compete in the near future is Newcastle, but only if they spend their money wisely.

        • PaulFromMiami

          June 8, 2011 at 10:27 am

          this is a direct result of Rich owners buying EPL teams and the EPL’s financial success. Teams around the world are demanding an arm and a leg for players now. ever since Caroll went for 35 million and Torres(not in form) for 50 million, teams are expecting to balance their books on every players they sell.

  7. Mekias

    June 8, 2011 at 9:11 am

    Individual players and managers can do very little to combat the current football landscape. Money buys success. A club outside of the Sky Six can get to Champions League and can win the FA Cup but the realistic chances of that happening in today’s climate is incredibly small. Now that Financial Fair Play will start counting, it’s no longer even possible to have a new billionaire owner bankroll a run for the cups. The line between the haves and have nots is larger than it’s ever been.

    Asking a player or manager to wait it out (on often lower wages) in hopes of that one magical season is unrealistic. As an Everton supporter, do I wish Rooney would have stayed with the Blues? Sure. Was it ever going to happen? No. He’s now making over 3 times what our highest paid player is. In order for a player to be the top of his sport, he has to have ambition. That kind of ambition inevitably leads him to one of the big money clubs. It sucks but it’s not going to change any time soon.

  8. VillaPark

    June 8, 2011 at 8:32 am

    As a Villa supporter, I can go along with your sentiment. The question I would ask someone like Ashley Young (or James Milner. Or Gareth Barry. And hopefully not Stewart Downing) is why aren’t YOU good enough to lead a team to the Champions League or to win a trophy? It seems like in these situations someone like Young is saying “I’m no better than the fourth or fifth option on one of the best teams” and not “I am so good that I should be able to lead my team to the promised land myself”. If you are so good that you are the difference-maker for England, then maybe your team should have some better results because of you during the season, eh?

    • @sk_roberts

      June 8, 2011 at 8:36 am

      Nicely put! At least someone like Phil Jones got his big money move (to United today) by keeping his head down and working hard rather than mouthing off in the press. Good luck to him.

      • James

        June 8, 2011 at 10:15 am

        No comfort to Blackburn! In some ways it’s still rough on him because of his age and the fact he may or may not get a lot of first team experience for the next couple of years. Also, he is an admitted fan of Blackburn and a lot of fans aren’t going to understand or be sympathetic towards his move for that reason alone.

    • StellaWasAlwaysDown

      June 8, 2011 at 9:32 am

      Spot on. I’m an AVFC supporter also, and Milner/Barry/Young/etc. could have been Villa legends. But they have all looked for the easy way out. Besides looking like chumps chasing glory instead of creating it, they are also hurting the parity of the league. Unfortunately, this is happening in almost every major sports league out there. UTV

      • PaulFromMiami

        June 8, 2011 at 9:40 am

        are you living in a dreamworld? how were they gonna do that at Villa?

        • StellaWasAlwaysDown

          June 8, 2011 at 10:05 am

          How else? Player development and signings that won’t run for greener pastures at every chance for a pay raise. Villa had a horrible season and still finished 9th. 3 spots off the past 3 years. Villa has a good academy with young talents coming up. We just need some veterans who believe in the club and the mission.

  9. Evan

    June 8, 2011 at 7:38 am

    Your idea of success would be fine if we lived in a fantasy world.

    • @sk_roberts

      June 8, 2011 at 7:48 am

      For the purposes of this article my idea of success is winning a title or Champions League qualification. Arguably, by keeping their best players, many teams outside the “top 4” would have a shot at achieving either of these.

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