ON NO, JOE! After the exit of Joe Bennett – £3m down, up to £4.25m if he gets a game plus a sell-on fee – there have been some squeals about lack of ambition and the folly of selling young talent but the harsh reality is that this is Boro’s new sustainable business model kicking-in. It is a move that brings the structure of Boro into sharp focus.
Since the realisation that the club were living beyond their means and the seismic financial dislocation of relegation and the real risk that it brings – see Leeds, Portsmouth, Charlton, Sheff Wed, Southampton, Leicester and many many more – Boro have been consciously working towards a formula that balances the books and perpetuates itself.
In short, for the foreseeable, there will be no big spending on over-priced older players on big wages over long contracts and with little resale value. Instead the club will be geared to spotting and nurturing young talent of our own – hence the significant £2m plus annual investment in the Academy, a position geared to protect the club from poachers as much as coaching the kids – and spotting bright young things lower down the leagues.
The flip side of that though is the implicit need to sell those youngsters in their prime, when they are most marketable and at the optimum moment to maximise the price. Inevitably that will mean when they are ‘hot’, when they are playing at their best. And that is when ideally you would want them to sign a new contract – which in turn will give them a pay rise and shift them closer to the fine line of being a liability rather than an asset.
It is a difficult balancing act to pull off. For instance, when Rhys Williams and Marvin Emnes were given new deals last term. That didn’t stop the speculation over them or fundamentally change the financially reality: if a big club comes in with the right offer they will still go – anything else flies in the face of the logic of the model – all that changes is the notional point along the fee//replaceability indices at which the club believe it is the “right offer.” As Mogga said it was always about the numbers getting to the right level.
Equally, making that difficult judgement that will inevitably mean public disquiet and occasionally a bit of a backlash. No supporter wants the club to lose their best players. But hey, guess what, we are a selling club now. It is part of the economic landscape. That may be hard to swallow but it is a reality.
Selling players as they peak will bring in money to help run the club, balance the books, prevent the wage bill rising, fund the purchase of other players and pay for the Academy, the engine that can keep the machine ticking over. It is the Arsenal model.
In recent years those sales – the likes of Downing, Johnson, Wheater, Morrison are the big hitters but a host of others too – have brought in £35m to keep the wolf from the door. And in the post-Premiership era that income becomes proportionally far more important. The alternative is more cuts, more borrowing or asking Gibbo to throw in even more money – and that latter is a possibility that will be squeezed dramatically over the next three years as Financial Fair Play clicks in.
More specifically, on Bennett himself, I’m relaxed about it.
On a personal note, he had to go. If you are a young and ambitious Championship player and a Premier League side come in you really HAVE to go. You may never get the chance again. Even if you are at a club that has a decent prospect of promotion and you are a fixture you never know. Football is a fragile and cruel industry and even if you are a fixture, the flavour of the month and flying anything can happen – a new manager with a new shape, new prejudices or preferred personnel, or more often, an injury. One break, tear or twist and you can lose a year and momentum and profile and the moment has gone and you are cast on the scrapheap of regret. Ask Batesy.
On a financial note, it makes sense for the club. They have had a decent offer for a player who cost nothing and realising a fee is the logic of the entire system. There is no point formulating a model then getting cold feet at the first moment of truth. And for Bennett too it makes economic sense. This move can secure his future, probably double his wages and open the door to the big time. He could wait and gamble on the prospects of getting there with Boro … or he could go route one and sign up now.
And on a footballing note, I’m relaxed about the move. Bennett had a sparkling year when he was taken off the naughty step and rehabilitated by Mogga. Especially when he was playing protected by Andrew Taylor, a shield for his own positional weaknesses and occasional moments of indiscipline. He had a bright spell and forced his way into the England Under 21 set-up amid a flurry of plaudits.
But injuries, illness and a reshuffle in the squad meant he stagnated last year. Some may say he even went backwards. Maybe the change to the team’s shape have asked more of him. Maybe he struggled with the weight of expectation. Maybe he took his eye off the ball. Certainly Mogga several times made pointed comments about his need to knuckle down and learn his trade. Once or twice he was dropped as a symbolic kick up the pants.
Since then Mogga has brought in George Friend who after a couple of storming displays has hinted at being more solid in defence than Bennett was and has also shown he can get forward just as effectively. And in pre-season Andy Halliday has impressed in that role too. Suddenly Bennett is not irreplaceable.
Whatever his relative potential in years to come, right now it would be hard to argue that Bennett he should be in the team ahead of the new boy – and if he is not in the team and someone wants to pay £3m it would be crazy to turn it down. And for Bennett, he may as well be on Villa’s bench with a payrise and a shot at the big time as on Boro’s.
He goes with good wishes. He has been OK at Boro without ever really hitting the heights we hoped he could. If he goes on to realise his potential elsewhere, good for him. It won’t be an indictment of Boro if he succeeds at another club (although it will gnaw a bit if it is at Villa, once for a brief spell our nursery club). Players come, players go; only the fans are a constant, the rest is in flux. That’s the football industry for you. It is just a job with a highly mobile workforce and limited windows of opportunity for players who have a sporting and financial imperitive to take them when they come. Don’t take it personally.
That’s why fans should never get anyone’s name but their own on the back of a shirt.
GILLINGHAM…. just a quickie. I was doing match report, writing up interviews and doing the stats etc for today’s paper and the wi-fi wouldn’t work so I had to effect hotel room running repairs didn’t get finish and get to bed until 2am. So no time for a blog. Then got up at sparrow’s fart, tweaked a few things and had breakfast then jumped on a train. Now I am making my way home bleary-eyed and jet-lagged – can you be jet-legged from Gillingham? – and looking life a refugee from a stag night so my batteries are no time for any serious writing about the game. It’s a glamourous life.
So in brief: a frantic finale but job done. A very polished first half with lots of passing and pace and lots of promise plus some real steel in the second as Boro dug in against a spirited and direct fightback to collect a first clean sheet of the season and a place in the next round. And two more pearlers. Does this team score ordinary goals? All the lads must be ribbing Seb Hines for his bundled tekkerless effort.