At the beginning of every summer, a list of free agents is circulated amongst British clubs and managers. Here, Dan Mobbs of the excellent Three Match Ban speaks to a player who unwittingly found himself on last year’s register.
Unemployment and the anxious search for work are simply not things associated with top flight football, as being a free agent from a Premier League club is ostensibly a financially profitable position to be in; attracting a bumper signing-on fee and an increased wage packet in the absence of a financial transfer lump.
The wages in top flight football across Europe ensure that in most circumstances, players are unconcerned about the threat of their bank balance dwindling and bills piling up on the kitchen table. As a result the job of being a Premier League player seems beyond the pale of work as most people know it, but contrary to popular belief, excessive wealth and football are not mutually exclusive.
Away from the glitz, glamour and Ford sponsored Super Sunday of the top flight though, the game of football is something which most of us can more readily associate with. Players are still living fans’ dreams of earning a wage to kick a ball around a park, but the lifestyles they lead are far more comparable and both share in the fear that the threat of unemployment brings.
In fact the vast majority of professional players in Britain face the same responsibilities as the rest of the population in both a personal and financial sense and as a result don’t live in a care free world where no worries or troubles exist.
Such a financial squeeze was felt last summer by Glen Southam, 31, who captained League 2 Barnet for the 2010-11 season, as when his contract expired he found himself unemployed.
Barring a brief venture as the Barça gaffer on Football Manager, supporters tend to be largely unaware of this aspect of football and the mechanics involved in players finding a new club. However, the process at this level is far more complicated in reality than in a computer game, as I found out when I first spoke to the former England C international.
Within my first breath to him, I immediately exposed my ignorance to his plight, diving headlong into the conversation with all the grace of Giant Haystacks struggling to squeeze into a tutu, by daring to suggest he was ‘released’.
Riddled with implications of inferiority Southam graciously and politely replied that his contract had merely expired. However, as the conversation developed, it emerged that it was far thornier than simply being given his notice and a hearty handshake of thanks.
Southam was one of a number of players at Barnet who were unfortunate enough to find themselves cast aside and on the hunt for a new club, but having previously been assured that his position as the club was safe, his departure was seemingly all the harder to stomach.
“It was a bit of a broken promise really from their point, which I wasn’t too happy about.
“Last year [Barnet] didn’t do too well as a team, but as a person over the period of games that I played, obviously I was out injured for the last 10 or 11 games of the season, but before that being captain playing every other game I actually had a decent enough season on a personal level, so it was quite strange to be honest.”
The team’s lowly league finish of 22nd, a whisker away from dropping out of the Football League, plus the conveyer belt of managers that passed through Barnet’s compact Underhill ground last season arguably didn’t help Southam’s cause. This was exaggerated by a lengthy injury, which undoubtedly complicated his contract re-negotiation.
When he was given the opportunity to impress, though, he was keen to produce an eye-catching performance to help him towards a new deal, even if it meant playing through the pain barrier.
“It wasn’t too straight forward, as there was a lot of change at Barnet last year and obviously Lawrie [Sanchez] came in when he did and I was out injured at the time and I wasn’t fully fit.
“I played in a game against Oxford and to be honest I’ll hold my hands up, I just wanted to do whatever I could to help the team stay up and if I was called upon and needed at the time, albeit it probably wasn’t right that I played, I still did, but I sort of put my neck on the line.”
Southam is nothing if not pragmatic about the situation, though, having previously experienced the anxiety of being a free agent.
“It’s just one of them unfortunate things, I think it came down to my wages at the end of the day, as they basically said that because I was one of the highest earners the club couldn’t afford to pay them in as many words, so that was how it worked.
“Take it as you want it that could be anything. That could be just their way of saying they didn’t want me, but if you speak to a lot of people in and around the club there were a few people who weren’t particularly happy with how I was treated to be honest with you.
“It was quite frustrating; it took a couple of weeks for it to be done before I was told.”
Premier League stars in similar situations begin shifting uneasily 18 months before their contract finishes, desperately searching for security in their long term employment. This isn’t a luxury that Southam and players beyond the top flight are always afforded.
Furthermore, there was no grand re-negotiation for Southam; it was a case of face-to-face meetings and verbal agreements without the presence of hideously overpaid agents in five star hotel lobbies. This sounds like an agreeable alternative to the formal arrangements of the football a-list, but the outcome wasn’t a complicated contract filled with bonuses and release clauses. Instead it was something far simpler. It was something far more impersonal.
“It was a case of waiting on a phone call.”
Surprisingly, this is accepted as merely an occupational hazard of playing in England’s fourth tier.
“They have a time on their contract where they can leave it two weeks before they have to notify you on whether they’re taking up the option on you or not. I don’t believe it’s the club’s option anyway, if I wanted to leave I could’ve, but obviously being a local club and having a good relationship with the fans, all the staff, it was a bit of a bitter pill to swallow if you like.”
Southam was born in Enfield, making the experience of playing for Barnet a special one, so when describing his departure, he treads carefully, mindful of straining relations at a club that he still maintains an affection for, whilst also guarding his words for fear of upsetting the apple cart over the practised process used by clubs nationwide.
“Getting the phone call on the Friday before the two weeks is up, it’s just… I don’t think it was done in the right manner and I’m not the only one, there are few [at Barnet] that it’s been done to.”
Waiting until the climax of the season before finding out whether he’ll have a job next year is surely a nervy experience, but to continue training for the club after his contract expired, at the end of a gruelling season, must have tested Southam’s mental and physical strength.
To a fan this appears to have been an unnecessarily nervy situation to be in – effectively on a trial contract at the club he captained last season – especially considering that Barnet had all that time to assess whether an extension was merited, but the midfielder was willing to accept the added time assessment.
“It’s after your contract’s finished. It lasts until the 1st June or July, but they have two weeks where they can take up the option that the club say they have on you if they want to”, he explained.
Far from the process being akin to a strict business deal, it had more of an air of an indecisive gentlemen’s agreement that failed to materialise and typified Southam’s season of bad luck.
“I’d spoken with the chairman and I’d spoken with other people and it was a case of we’ll have a sit down and we’ll sort your contract out in the next couple of weeks and then I receive a phone a call basically saying ‘no we’re not going to sort it out and this is the reason why’.
“That sums up the whole year for me, the way the things were run and done.”
The situation was further exacerbated by five different managers taking the helm at Underhill, with the eccentric Martin Allen returning to the club before leaving for Notts County only three games into his tenure, having replaced Mark Stimson in charge. The former Northern Ireland manager Lawrie Sanchez then oversaw the final four matches of the season and helped to secure the club’s league survival, with Paul Fairclough and Guiliano Grazioli stepping in as caretakers when needed.
And the cavalcade of managers was seemingly not the only weight on the club last season.
“There was so much of last year that wasn’t right off the pitch and I don’t want to go into that and I wouldn’t say anything as I’m not bitter about it, as it’s a lovely club and I’d never speak badly about it.
“It’s just the way that things were done and run was not how professional football people should run a club.
“But that’s the problem you get these days in football where a lot of clubs are run as businesses and that’s how they do things, so you have to live by it and sometimes football can be a cruel game.”
Such a sentiment is usually echoed by downtrodden supporters, who’ve witnessed a dominant performance snatched from their grip by a calamitous last minute own goal, or their club’s best player joining their local rivals and scoring the winner on the final day of the season to seal their relegation. Rarely though do you hear it from a footballer regarding the business side of the game.
Southam has undoubtedly experienced many such cruel twists on the pitch, but was seemingly unprepared for the one that Barnet handed him.
“I didn’t look for another club at all, because as far as I was concerned I was going to be at Barnet. That’s what I was led to believe and told so that’s how I left it.”
Like so many in his position, unemployment presented him with the choice of a career change, but the enjoyment of playing to earn a crust was seemingly immeasurable.
A phone call from Aldershot manager Dean Holdsworth led to a trial at Barnet’s League 2 rivals Aldershot, but the two failed to agree a deal, before in late August, Blue Square South side Dover Athletic announced that Southam had signed a one year deal at the club.
Premier League players could face a bump back to the real world in the absence of a club, but Southam is all too aware of the fragile nature of his employment, making his determination to stay in the game all the more admirable.
On the south coast, the former England C international has found security, but only for another season, as he could once again face the same employment trials this coming summer.