Lee Wellings: The Disappearing Players

What motivates footballers? Playing or their bank balance?

It’s easy for critics to say footballers are mercenary.

But it’s also easy to trot out the old adage: ‘players just want to play’.

I think we’d agree that for most young players, the chance to earn fortunes while doing what they love is a winning combination. But if one of these pivotal factors is removed, where does that leave a footballer?

I’m talking about the many players in the modern game who move to wealthier clubs….and find themselves not getting a game.

You can split transferred players into three categories.

In Gareth Bale’s case – at the time of writing he is still a Tottenham player – he would be category one. Whenever and wherever he moves he will be a key ingredient, or THE key player. No-one, not even in the crazy world of football business, would spend well over $100 million and hands the player a nice cosy tracksuit to sit on the substitutes bench.

Category two has become increasingly prominent in the last decade, as rotation and recovery have become part of the manager’s mantra. This is the player who is not guaranteed a first team place.

We are talking about players like Modric at Real Madrid or Podolski at Arsenal. Only they will be able to tell you how happy they are about the amount of games they are getting. Some of these players, like Mandzukic at Bayern Munich last season, can elbow out their main rivals and exceed expectations of playing time.

The player in this category who really intrigues me is Javier Hernandez at Manchester United. Will he be used more by Moyes than Fergie? Isn’t he one of the world’s best strikers? Is there actually a better old fashioned predator in the penalty box? In other clubs you wouldn’t dare leave him off the pitch for a second. Are Manchester United really that good? Or have they ‘stacked their bases’ with quality strikers while the midfield options can underwhelm.

Which brings us to another Manchester United player, who sadly fits into category three…the disappeared. Young Nick Powell.

Who? It occurs to me you really may not know. He is either Manchester United’s fifth choice striker or a developing midfielder, depending on what’s going on inside the Aon training complex, Manchester.

Unless my eyes have been deceiving me he really can play. Forgive me I’m basing this mainly on watching him play televised games for Crewe Alexandra. His chances at United have been so limited there were more sightings of the Glazers at Old Trafford last season. Okay, perhaps that’s taking it too far.

Rights issues prevent me incorporating a link, but please do type the words Nick Powell and ‘wonder goal’ into You Tube and you’ll see what he’s capable of, in this instance a goal that took Crewe to promotion in a play-off final, showing not a hint of nerves in the biggest game of his career to that point.

Alex Ferguson had already decided to bring him to Manchester United for £6 million and who could ever quibble with his judgment of a player. But what happened next should at least be challenged.

Powell got six games in ALL competitions last season, most as a substitute, with no starts in the Premier League. He scored a great goal on debut but that’s not the point. I’m sure he’s thrilled to be Manchester United. I’ve no doubt training with such quality players is invaluable experience. But should he not be playing a bit more? Could he not have been loaned out?

It’s a quaint, old fashioned notion to suggest that as a 19 year-old he’s not ready. David Alaba was in the Bayern Munich team at 19. Was he not ready?!

The last thing Manchester United will worry about is whether this slow development is keeping Powell out of the England squad – I’m serious. He’s better than most England internationals we’ve had the misfortune to watch toiling in the last decade.

What’s worse though – for player and country – is when a player is the finished article, and a transfer kills their momentum and career…until they move again.

In the Premier League there have been a succession of these, often involving Chelsea and Manchester City.

Where was Scott Sinclair last season? Swansea’s best player became Manchester City’s Mr Nobody.

Does Scott Parker regret going to Chelsea a decade ago? His chances were limited with such quality for Mourinho to call upon. Only when he left Stamford Bridge and emerged blinking into the sunlight did he revive his club and international reputation.

What about Shaun Wright-Phillips? He dazzled on his England debut v Ukraine in 2004. Then he stagnated after moving from Manchester City – then more of a selling club – to Chelsea for £21 million. Progress? Did you see him play for Queens Park Rangers last season? At the risk of his famously protective, legendary Dad Ian coming for me, I better go for diplomacy. He wasn’t exactly brilliant.

The most infamous disappearing player was Dutch international Winston Bogarde. He spent four years at Chelsea at the turn of the century and played nine games. His reported salary of £40,000 per week was the stuff of legend, as was his apparent apathy. I think we can safely say he wasn’t crying at the lack of first team opportunities though. Hardly a man trying to establish a career.

I have never spoken to one ex-footballer, not one, who says they prefer managing, coaching, punditry or life away from football to actually playing. Sometimes when that buzz cannot be replaced they are vulnerable to the demons of drink, drugs and gambling. Anything that can fill that hole.

So in the world of seven substitutes. Of packed fixture schedules. Of foreign tours. Of 350 days per year football, a player should be able to get a game or they might just be better off forsaking a dollar or two.

It is about playing. No-one who plays football has ever walked past a kick-about in a park and asked if they could spend a bit of time watching and picking up experience.

Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at ten.a1701200355reeza1701200355jla@s1701200355gnill1701200355ew.ee1701200355l1701200355. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport