‘Home is where the heart is’, or so the saying goes at least, more and more though home seems to be wherever the biggest pay check is for today’s sporting stars. The idea of a club side being made up of entirely local players is now so outdated that in the Barclays Premier League it would come as a shock to have more than one or two local lads in the squad, let alone the starting 11. It seems there will never be a repeat of Celtic’s European Cup winning ‘Lisbon Lions’, all of whom were born within 30 miles of Glasgow.
Of course there are still exceptions, true ‘one club men’ are few and far between though. People like Gary Neville, Steven Gerrard and Marcus Trescothick are a dying breed, seemingly being replaced by ‘hired mercenaries’ such as Ashley Cole, Kevin Pietersen and Gavin Henson. Should we criticise these people though? Or are their actions simply symptomatic of the way sport has changed since television money flooded in? Is it realistic to expect an athlete to forsake a greater salary and a higher quality of competition simply to remain at their childhood club? And is this even a problem? Do fans really care about where their players are from anymore? Or is success on the pitch all they worry about?
Sports fans are a fickle bunch and I would suggest that when their team is succesful, they don’t really worry about the origins of their players. Of course they would prefer to have a team of home-grown world beaters but that just isn’t feasible anymore. Even Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy has only half its intake from Catalonia and perhaps the most famous of their alumni to date is Argentinian maestro Lionel Messi. When a team isn’t doing so well, and is made up of foreign imports and players with no connection to the local area then it is very easy for fans to turn on them and voice their displeasure. It is at this point that calls are often heard to ‘blood the youngsters’ as they ‘can’t be any worse’, calls that are rarely heard when that same band of merry men are winning and the youth players daren’t be risked for fear of a dip in form.
So if fans show little loyalty to their players then why should the players show any loyalty in return? Could anyone say for certain that Gary Neville or Steven Gerrard would not have left their boyhood teams if they weren’t so succesful and so handsomely rewarded for their efforts? Indeed Gerrard did have his head turned by Chelsea in the summer of 2004 but decided to stay put and commit his future to Liverpool. A commendable decision but not exactly one that risked his family’s financial security, or his ambitions to play in the Champions league, or his position in the England squad.
It is important to distinguish between talented and ambitious young players and those who move simply for the money. Fans will forgive a local young fledgling spreading their wings and flying off to clearer skies, providing they feel that said fledgling has served their apprenticeship, they’ve developed as much as they can at their home club and that they get a bit of money in return for the departing player’s services. What fans will not forgive is a player holding their club to ransom with contract demands that are perceived to be born out of pure greed. The perfect example of such a case is Ashley Cole, who allegedly declined to sign a new £55000 a week contract at Arsenal, apparently disgusted at their ‘derisory’ offer. He was also found guilty of touting his services to Chelsea whilst still under contract with Arsenal and fined £100000 for doing so, later reduced to £75000 after appeal.
The idea of a playing for your childhood club can often be relegated to no more than a dream for those growing up in America. The draft system there gives emerging talent little to no choice over where they will start their professional career, but for a select few the dream does come true. LeBron James is one such player, the high-school basketball sensation that didn’t bother with college and declared for the NBA draft as soon as possible having graduated high school. Hailing from Akron, Ohio, his local team were the Cleveland Cavaliers who fortunately for him had done particularly badly in the 2002-03 season and so had a high chance of getting the no.1 pick in the draft lottery for the 2003 draft. They did, and proceeded to select local hero James, seen by many as the saviour of basketball in Ohio.
Unfortunately he couldn’t quite bring the success that the state so craved, he almost single-handedly dragged the Cavaliers to the playoffs for five consecutive years from 2006-10 but failed to win the NBA championship, falling at the final hurdle in 2007. ‘King’ James was loved throughout Ohio, but when his contract came to an end at the end of the 2010 season he refused to confirm whether or not he would re-sign for his home franchise and so sparked a bidding war for his considerable services. The Miami Heat were the eventual winners, landing James, along with fellow free agent Chris Bosh, and the re-signed Dwyane Wade (all class members of the 2003 draft) to give them a superstar trio hopefully capable of bringing a second NBA championship to South Beach. The rather expensive gamble seems to be paying off as well, Miami currently lead the NBA Playoff Finals 2-1.
James is now despised in Cleveland and widely disliked across the country, this didn’t have to be the case though. James had given seven years of his professional career to his home-state franchise and taken them to the edge a championship. Most people would forgive him leaving for pastures new and a better shot at a title his immense talents (James has two NBA MVPs, and countless other awards to his name at only 26) so richly deserve. It was the manner he did it in though which left a bad taste in America’s mouth, after making it clear that he wasn’t going to automatically re-sign for Cleveland the whole saga dragged on for far too long and finally came to a head with an hour-long special entitled ‘The Decision’, broadcast live on American sports network ESPN. It is reported that he didn’t officially inform Cleveland that he wouldn’t be re-signing for them until just minutes before the show went on air, a move widely criticised by veteran players.
Another similar example is the reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose, who grew up on the basketball courts of South Chicago. He now plies his trade for the Chicago Bulls having declared for the 2008 NBA draft as a college sophomore (2nd year) and been selected by the Bulls as the 1st overall pick. Rose is four years the junior of James, and is still showing off his wares in his home town but his career path does seem to be taking a similar trajectory to that of the fallen ‘king’. The journey so far; home town hero brought into a struggling side, takes a couple of years to get up to speed with the league but drags his team into the playoffs where they lose in the second round having been named the league MVP, has a familiar ring to it. Chicago do seem to have built a better supporting cast for Rose than Cleveland ever could for James, but only time will tell how many more barren years Rose can take before the lure of a championship ring at another franchise takes his fancy – or if it even will. Rose seems more of a down to earth character than James, he does his talking on the court and leaves it there, he is very thankful to his Mother for raising him, and his three elder brothers for teaching him to play on the tough neighbourhood courts of the windy city. So it remains to be seen whether he will turn his back on Chicago or whether he can become the next ‘Mike’ and deliver a championship to Chicago.
So there is still loyalty around in sport, but present in ever diminishing amounts. Money now talks louder than geographical allegiances ever did and it doesn’t look set to change any time soon. But are we expecting too much from our sporting stars when we the fans can promise very little in return? We’ll be loyal to our clubs, but should a player so much as dare to misplace a pass then we don’t hold back in letting them know how we feel about it. I’d like to know your opinions on whether players are too easily swayed by money nowadays and whether we’ll ever see the likes of that famed Celtic team again, or even get close! Leave a comment below and we’ll see what everybody thinks.