Watching football fans watching the football
The former Liverpool manager, Graeme Souness, once despaired at the lack of desire shown by signings he had made during his time in charge of the club.
He'd succeeded Kenny Dalglish and gambled on an array of new signings in the hope that they would form the base of the next great Liverpool side. Unfortunately for them – and for Souness – what looked like an inspired managerial appointment turned into a spectacular failure, largely due to the lack of success enjoyed by those signings.
As a man who won numerous league and cup medals during a distinguished playing career, Souness knows a thing or two about desire. But in the day of average journeymen players becoming millionaires and making hunger and desire increasingly rare qualities, the transfer policies of three men show the value of an educated eye.
David Moyes, Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce have mastered the art of steady club building, despite not having budgets in any way comparable to those of the top sides. All three have specialised in securing the signatures of players with a point to prove, and so far this season are yet again being rewarded for doing so.
It's no secret Moyes is one of the Premier League's best; with the pressure constantly mounting at Everton and the ongoing need to slash running costs, it's a superb achievement to even have them in contention for the top 10.
His most recent signing, on-loan Real Madrid winger Royston Drenthe, has looked like another exceptional addition to Everton's emaciated squad. Drenthe was once the subject of a transfer tussle between Chelsea, who wanted him in 2007 to replace the outgoing Arjen Robben, and Real.
Yet to make the grade at the Bernabeu, he was sent on loan to Hercules last season where he impressed before rowing with them over unpaid wages. Still not wanted by Mourinho at Madrid, Moyes signed him in the transfer window and it'd be no surprise if this wounded animal proves to be one of the season's best signings.
Tim Howard has been another admirable acquisition for Everton. After making several high profile errors at Manchester United, the assumption was that Howard wasn’t up to the task yet, since 2006, he’s been one of the most consistent goalkeepers in England.
It's an approach that’s worked for Moyes before – with the signings of Louis Saha, Phil Neville, Mikel Arteta and others – and it's one that he's likely to continue to use, regardless of the finances at his disposal.
Pulis, meanwhile, may have greater funds with which to play, but not to the extent of the Premier League's top six and it's a right he's no doubt earned - when he was first given the Stoke City manager's job they looked destined for relegation to what was then Division Two. Now competing in the Europa League, Jermaine Pennant, Matthew Etherington and Jonathan Woodgate are key to his plans.
A classy winger once hailed as David Beckham's successor in the England team and one of the outstanding natural talents of his era, Pennant’s never fulfilled his potential.
Problems on and off the pitch and his failure to make the grade at Arsenal or Liverpool meant Pennant was widely thought to be a negative influence. Pulis saw past that. He gave him a chance and now has one of the most consistent supplies of crosses anywhere in England.
On the opposite wing is Etherington, the self-confessed gambling addict believed to have lost around £1.5m on greyhounds, horses and poker. He arrived from West Ham – where he’d been failing to impress for some time – and slotted straight in to help inspire Stoke’s Premier League survival in 2009.
That he’s once again a respected footballer is no formality: Etherington owes Pulis much. A former team-mate of his at West Ham, Roy Carroll, knows how difficult it can be to get a second chance in this most ruthless of businesses.
“It has pretty much ruined my career, the drink thing. Managers keep bringing it up – drink – and it is so frustrating,” he told the Sun in February. “Since then, whenever something bad has happened or I made a mistake, it has been ‘Roy Carroll has a bad attitude – he drinks and gambles’.”
Pulis, Moyes and Allardyce break this trend. Woodgate is another of Pulis’s signings. Possibly the most talented defender of his generation, his career has been ruined by injury. Where no-one else felt prepared to chance it, Stoke signed him and could now have one of the league’s best defenders at their disposal.
Allardyce achieved such success he took Bolton from Division One into Europe. He invested time and money into reputed rogues such as Nicolas Anelka and El Hadji Diouf, and signed several free agents, all with hunger.
Kevin Davies was a big-money failure at Blackburn and languishing in Southampton’s reserves. Last year, for the first time, he represented England – it was Allardyce that gave him his chance.
Now at West Ham, Allardyce has signed David Bentley and Kevin Nolan, unwanted at Tottenham and Newcastle respectively, and now key components of a side looking destined for promotion.
To be able to identify those with a genuine desire to make an impact from those seeking a final payday is a scarce skill; it’s not nearly as simple a process as finding a player with talent who’s simply deemed to be a risk. For every Kevin Davies or Danny Murphy (a bargain signing for Fulham from Tottenham Hotspur), there’s a Francis Jeffers or a Benni McCarthy, a mercenary content to live off past promise and receive a substantial wage in exchange for a negligible return.
The words of the now notorious Winston Bogarde, once of Chelsea, serve as a warning to those doubting the danger of supposed ‘steals’: “This world is about money, so when you are offered those millions you take them. Few people will ever earn so many. I am one of the few fortunates who do. I may be one of the worst buys in the history of the Premiership, but I don’t care.”
Bogarde’s not the first, and nor will he be the last to adopt such an attitude.
Moyes, Pulis and Allardyce specialise in reviving individuals in the nadir of their careers - those who can seriously contribute to the cause of a team with no room for passengers, those who’d rather play at a reduced fee than sit out a season like Wayne Bridge has decided to do at Manchester City, no doubt consoled by every single one of the 90,000 pounds that boost his bank balance on a weekly basis.
Football will always have underachievers like Bridge, playboys like Jeffers and leeches like Bogarde. Their talents are theirs to waste but a club’s money is not, at least until a short-sighted manager or director of football monumentally misjudges their intensions and, by extension, wages.
Certain clubs have to make the right signings or their progress is halted. Everton, Stoke and West Ham are amongst those – they can’t afford to get it wrong.
Fortunately for them, their managers rarely do.
Follow Declan on Twitter @decwarrington
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