WHAT PRICE LOYALTY?
At the conclusion of the 1960 county cricket season, Tom Graveney was sacked as Gloucestershire’s captain. Not a little peeved and believing this was the right moment to reboot his career at another county, he joined Worcestershire. It made sense. Worcester was but a short drive from his home in Cheltenham and he had always found the Worcestershire team a congenial bunch. “It was the best thing I ever did,” he said in retrospect, “It gave me a new lease of life and the runs flowed once more.” You can say that again. According to contemporaries, Graveney got better and better as he progressed through his 40s, which is unusual for a Test match batsman. Gooch is another one that springs to mind but I cannot think of any others in the post-war years.
But hang on a minute. The move to the next-door county was not achieved without complication. In accordance with the arcane rules at the time, Graveney had to fulfil a year’s registration at Worcestershire, which meant that he was not eligible to play in the county championship for the whole of the 1961 season. What a waste! One of England’s senior batsmen forced to kick his heels playing 2nd XI matches in the week and club games at the weekend. “Still, I got a lot of decorating done,” he added cheerfully.
Now, permit me to jump sports, from cricket to football, and many decades, from the 1960s to the present day. On the back page of my daily newspaper, there is a picture of Steven Gerrard, smiling and holding up an Aston Villa shirt. A few days ago, he was taking training at Rangers, encouraging, cajoling, importuning his players to bust a gut ‘playing for the badge’. I wonder what his team felt at the sudden abandonment of the “Rangers Project’, so enthusiastically espoused by their manager, as Gerrard peremptorily upped sticks to seek his fortune south of the border. Or maybe professional footballers these days have become cynical about their managers abruptly changing horses mid-race. It happens so often
that they probably shrugged their shoulders and had a quick sweepstake on the identity of their new boss.
These two cases are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Clearly, one year’s sanction in the wilderness if you want to switch employment is disproportionate. But 24 hours is not entirely honourable either. Perhaps I am being naïve by juxtapositioning ‘football’ and ‘honourable’ but the fact that managers – who are meant to set an example, by the way – can join another club at the drop of a hat does not sit comfortably with me. I am not singling out Gerrard for particular censure. He seems a decent enough chap and his playing experience speaks for itself. He is after all only doing what countless managers have done in the past. But what price loyalty nowadays? A big fat cheque, that’s what.
‘It’s no use bellyaching about what you think is wrong,’ my wife constantly tells me, ‘unless you have a workable solution.’ This may not be a workable solution – more like pie in the sky – but it has the advantage of being ethically sound. Take my other line of work – schoolmastering. A headmaster might get the sack, or he might suddenly resign for personal reasons, but there is no likelihood of his being replaced immediately by a headmaster from another school. Certain conventions, not to say contractual obligations, decree that a headmaster has to give at least a term’s notice of his intention of taking up a post elsewhere. That period of time at least gives the school which he is leaving time to seek a successor. Why should the same standards not apply to football managers? They can leave, or be sacked, at any stage mid-season, but they ought not to be replaced until the end of the season. In the meantime, a temporary appointment can be made, but only from within the club. That would perhaps dissuade chairmen from making knee-jerk reactions to a run of poor results and slow down the giddy managerial merry-go-round. At least the players could sleep easy o’ nights, secure in the knowledge that their erstwhile boss is not planning their destruction at another club. Or do footballers sleep easy o’ nights come what may, safe and comfortable in their gated mansions in Cheshire, Surrey or Hertfordshire?
Now that I am lord and master of all that I survey, with one of my remits being the supremo of English football, I would immediately do away with the mid-season transfer window. It’s unsettling – for everybody, players, managers, owners, fans…with the exception perhaps of agents, who lick their lips at the prospect of engineering multi-million pound transfers. Take Harry Kane, for example. I’ll bet a pound to a penny that he moves to Manchester City after Christmas. On his own admission, the saga of his possible move from Spurs during the summer has taken a toll on his mood and his form. Sympathetic though we may be for his inner turmoil – tempered it has to be said by the fact that he had not long ago signed a five-year contract – would it not have been better for all concerned if he had no option but to lace up his boots and play for Spurs for the rest of the season as if there were no tomorrow? I am sure that he is too diligent a professional to let unworthy thoughts enter his mind whenever he pulls on that lilywhite shirt. But it is perfectly feasible that someone not so honest might ease up a little when playing against the club he intends to join in
two months’ time, the club that could well be challenging for the title. It’s a murky scenario.
As we are on the subject of loyalty, I am reminded this week of the passing of a Wolverhampton Wanderers legend, Ron Flowers. His legendary status owed as much to his ‘one-club’ status (he made 467 appearances for Wolves) as his half-back skills, which earned him 49 England caps. That he did not move clubs can probably be put down to two reasons. One, why should he? At that time, throughout the 1950s, Wolves were the premier team in the land. He won three league titles and one FA Cup during his career at Molineux. Two, it would not have been allowed, even if he had asked for a move. It was not until 1964, when George Eastham took his club Newcastle United to court for not sanctioning his desired move to Arsenal that a near-feudal system was swept away. He won his case, the judge decreed that the system of ‘retain and transfer’ was a clear restraint of trade and players at last were free to move clubs on completion of their contract.
Cricket – as usual – was slower off the mark. In 1973, my old mate Bob Willis announced his intention to move from Surrey to Warwickshire but his former club demurred and he had to sit out a ban until July of that season. Coincidentally, at the same time I sought permission from my parent county, Surrey, to enable me to play for Hampshire, but on this occasion, Surrey did not object. Funny that. The formation of the Professional Cricketers’ Association in 1967 eased the movement of players from county to county but it was not until 1970 that the first player, Tom Cartwright, was allowed to move freely from his parent county, Warwickshire, to Somerset, without the former’s consent. But that was a one-off, bitterly contested by both sides. Britain entering the Common market in 1973 increased freedom of employee-movement and the restrictions were quietly dropped. These days, cricketers seem to move from club to club as easily as their footballing counterparts.
A good thing or a bad thing? It’s hard to say. Certainly the landscape is very different some 50 years later. But there, so is the East End.