MARK SCHWARZER has picked a bad time for his contract brinksmanship. The golden oldie keeper wants a new deal to give him “security” up to the next World Cup in 2010 and has been rattling the cage Down Under to nudge the club into action.
The Socceroo shot-stopper has just 12 months to go on his current deal and you can’t blame him for looking to the future but thinly veiled threats that he will let his contract run down and walk away on a free – “doing a Viduka” as it is now known on Teesside – if he does not get what he wants will force the club into making some tough decisions at a time when several underlying factors are starting to conspire against him.
The Golden Oldie – he wants a deal to take him up to the age of 37 – is raising the stakes at a time when the club is taking a conscious turn to youth and to players who are committed and want to play for the club …. and a time when there are a lot of quality keepers on the market.
The Aussie outlined the situation succinctly and honestly in the Oz press, to much gnashing and wailing among supporters back home, many who have long ambiguous about his ability.
“What I want to do is be settled and have my future settled up until the next World Cup and the question is whether that will happen at Middlesbrough or somewhere else. I’ve got to the stage where I’ve been at Middlesbrough for 10ÃÅ years and I’ve given them very good loyalty and service. If that means I need to move on and go elsewhere, then that’s not a problem, I’ll do so.”
“There’s a lot of factors involved. I’ve got one year left on my contract, so if they don’t want to let me go they don’t have to accept any transfer fee for me. By the same token, we don’t need to agree to a new contract and come January, I can talk to anyone I want to within Europe.”
That’s fair enough. Everyone knows the moves of the ritual dance when the clock ticks down on a contract. If he doesn’t get what he wants he will move – and to underline the reality of that threat and claim some moral high-ground he invoked the case of compatriot Mark Viduka.
Boro took a high-risk approach to the striker contract and did not make a concrete offer of a new deal in his final year, preferring instead to hold out the possibility of a bumper contract as a motivational tool, a strategy that proved succesful on the pitch and brought a storming finale to the season from the Aussie but which ultimately failed to prevent him moving despite a belated and generous offer of almost ÃÂ£60,000 a week. The approach had been used the year before with George Boateng when Boro let his contract run out then made a once and only full and final offer and told him ‘if you can get better, then go’. You win some, you lose some.
“I’ve taken it to be quite normal at Middlesbrough, they do leave things very, very late and they tend to do things only when they’re under pressure to do something. It’s unfortunate because it’s not just with me, it’s with other players like Mark. You would think with the more experienced players and the important players in the squad you would look to tie them down earlier and not let things drag on but for some reason, and unbeknown to most of us, Middlesbrough tend to leave it until very late to sort it out. “
There is an element of playing to the gallery in those quotes. Rather than it being “unbeknown” to the players, in fact the dressing room are well awarer of the club’s stance. And he will no doubt be aware of the nature of the club’s offer to Viduka. Boro certainly weren’t forcing the striker into penury and at the end of the day it was his choice to leave. Schwarzer appears to be trying to use the widespread discontent over the Viduka saga and his departure to one of the Boro’s most bitter rivals to twist the club’s arm a bit, and you can’t blame him for that but it may have been ill-advised for him to talk so openly.
Going public is a double-edged sword as while many will think he has a valid point about Boro’s negotiating position just as many will have their hackles raised by some of his comments – and indeed by his frequent reference to Boro as them rather than us – and will not take kindly to seeing the club held to ransome, especially by one of the better paid players. And certainly not by one who already divides opinion.
The timing is all wrong for Schwarzer to be involved in a public raising of the stakes. Firstly, the club is has made a recent high-profile statement of intent about the type of players it wants as Gareth Southgate carries out his own revolution: younger players with a hunger and passion for the game and a commitment to Boro. “Players who want to play for Middlesbrough Football Club and who are past their best and just here for a pay day” as Keith Lamb explained and Steve Gibson later underlined. In short, the very people Mark Schwarzer will be negotiating with have already made a mental leap to a new demographic at Boro.
Secondly, it comes at a time when the club are wheeling and dealing in order to reshuffle the pack. Yakubu is a key player yet there are plenty of hints that he may well be sacrificed to release the funds to rebuild the team in other areas. If there are so many balls in the air and demands on resources the prospect of Schwarzer being a chip to be cashed in may even help . If he has threatened to do a Viduka and leave for nothing next Summer it may force the club’s hand and prompt them to sell now – he may realise ÃÂ£1m-ÃÂ£2m – in order to fund his own replacement.
Schwarzer has been a great servant to the club and his statistics make him a brilliant value for money buy. He has played in two Wembley finals, was outstanding in the Cardiff cup triumph, made a penalty save from Robbie Fowler at Manchester City that clinched a first ever European qualification and was key to keeping Boro on the road to Eindhoven with brilliant displays at Rome and Bucharest.
His contribution and ability was spelled out by Southgate earlier this year as he clocked up ten years at the club and it is hard to disagree that he has been a great player.
But there are plenty of keepers up for grabs right now who offer just as much and who are younger, hungrier and, crucially, represent a better investment over the next three years. Jerzy Dudek is available on a free, Jussi Jaskelinien is going cheap and Scott Carson could possibly be lured away for ÃÂ£3m. Carlo Cudicini could be rescued from Chelsea reserves. All would be better long term prospects for a club looking to launch a new era than an ageing custodian who is “not sure what he’s doing at the moment” and who thinks leaving the club that has given him glory and riches for a decade is “not a problem”.
Such a nonchalent appraisal of his position at the club will not go down well with passionate fans who care beyond cold blooded employment realities and who make an unconditional emotional investment. They expect the players to be heroes: to fight and belief and show steel and spirit in the service of the club. They make a fetish of commitment. Where they will tolerate – just – a player of questionable ability who busts a gut they will not accept a talented one without the heart for the fight who thinks he is doing the club a favour by being there.
Which makes the timing and insenstivity of his ill-judged Aussie outburst all the more incredible because it is those passionate fans that Schwarzer will be expecting to fork out for his testimonial tickets and ultimately pay his wages. For all his years of service he now faces a backlash from some sections of the crowd and has made himself the boo-boy elect.
He has already blotted his copy-book once after slapping in a transfer request in January 2006, a dummy spitting incident that followed hot on the heels of a dressing down from Steve McClaren and being dropped in favour of Aussie understudy Brad Jones following a poor punch handed Newcastle a late leveller as the relegation battle hotted up.
Back then he made it clear he expected to be quickly snapped up and he was widely “linked” with Arsenal and Manchester United. In fact the only club who inquired were then struggling Portsmouth who quickly backed off when they found out how much he was being paid. With no takers before the transfer window closed he ate humble pie and came off the list and to be fair, upped his performance levels and was among the best of the bunch in the UEFA Cup run.
Despite a “link” with Bayern Munich it is hard to see how the transfer geography has changed too much. There will no doubt be interest if he did make noises about moving but would it be from clubs at the same level? Would they pay the same wages? And would he get the three years he needs to take him through to the 2010 World Cup? I doubt it.
Which raises another point. He said there had been some interest. Look…
“My agent is in discussions with Middlesbrough and they’ve indicated that they want to offer me a new contract, but as yet we haven’t agreed to any terms. Plus there is interest from other clubs Ã¢ÂÂ one or two in England but a couple from abroad as well.”
How can that be? He is not on the transfer list. No one has agreed a fee. Surely any such contact from another club, no matter how superficial, would constitute an illegal approach?