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How Town came up short
28 July 2004
In one of my old jobs there was no annual inflation-linked pay rise. You got any sort of rise at all only for taking on more work and more responsibilities, and even then it was far from guaranteed. But if the chance to do this never arose – if nobody 'above' you left their job or no new products created more work – or if you just felt you had enough on your plate as it was, then your wage was stuck fast while your rent got steeper and the price of a pint left holes in your roof on its way to the stratosphere. You were doing the same work, year on year, for a salary that was worth progressively less.
This being the case, it rang a bit hollow every year when the boss stood up at the Christmas do and said how great we all were.
So one afternoon a group of colleagues and I decided that, just as some companies 'incentivise' wage rises by introducing performance-related pay, so we would give our management a little motivation to pay us properly by initiating a system of pay-related performance. If the average rate of inflation over the year had been, say, 3 per cent, then we would do 3 per cent less work in the subsequent 12 months, in accordance with the diminished value of our salary.
For the benefit of any future employer who may chance upon this piece, I should emphasise that we were only kidding, boss. But a dark, disaffected, eye-strained reality underlied the humour. Eventually, everyone in that place probably was, unconsciously, introducing pay-related performance. (It wasn't just the pay, but this convoluted intro is going on quite long enough already without me adding in the horror stories.) You can have the best attitude in the world but if you feel you're being treated like a slab of meat then sooner or later you're going to perform like one.
Now I'm not about to profess any knowledge of the working conditions at Grimsby Town Football Club. When I write, I may well be trying to impress you, but not with friends of friends of friends who occasionally nod at Peter Furneaux on some golf course. The odd scraggy morsel of gossip may find its way to me here and there, but all of that exhibitionistic putting together of two and two and getting a £5m Great Coates land purchase by Lawrie McMenemy's brother is getting increasingly tedious and, as the kids used to say, is a bit sad really.
No, what I am concerned with here is simply the effect on a player's mojo – and on the collective vibe of the squad, baby – of the current tendency towards short-term contracts.
The case has sometimes been made that players whose positions are insecure – the nearly out of contract; the loaned-out; those who are released from the last three months with their existing clubs to join on short-term 'permanent' deals – are motivated by the fact that they are playing for their futures as professionals. And on the face of it, this makes sense. We've read all these post-ITV Digital reports about unemployed footballers; we've seen (and hardly believed) Wayne Burnett and Bradley Allen drifting down into non-League.
But anyone who saw the Mariners during the awful, awful 2004 relegation run-in will never, ever accept this argument again.
We ought to have seen it coming. Or at the very least, the chairman ought. Rewind a year to the summer of 2003. After finding that Town couldn't cheat gravity forever, Furneaux suggested that the side's relegation from Division One was due, at least in part, to an over-reliance on loan players. Instability. Chopping and changing. And John Oster buggering us about. No more of that, he said; Paul Groves is signing ten players on permanent contracts.
But what was the rationale for replacing Graham Rodger with Nicky Law? Law had more contacts in the game; he could bring in even more new players very quickly. Never mind that Rodger had won three games out of six and looked capable of keeping us up with the existing squad. The stability mantra was forgotten. The result was Mickael Antoine-Curier.
What motivates players, then, is not fear but trust. Far from bringing out the best in a player, the threat of unemployment only hinders, hampers, inhibits their play. When a club won't commit to a player by signing them up for longer than the current injury crisis, is it reasonable to expect the proverbial hundred and ten per cent in return? Footballers can perform to their best only when their minds are free from anxiety about contracts and conditions, and when they feel somebody believes in them. This means their clubs coming up with deals of a sufficient length to back up their managers' press conference smiles and "he can do a job for us" platitudes.
So has the lesson been learned? It appeared so when Russell Slade's first signing was announced. Not every former Sheffield Wednesday defender is rubbish, and it was encouraging, as the new manager agreed a two-year deal with Greg Young, to hear him speak of the importance of demonstrating your belief in younger players by signing them up for more than just a season at a time. You can't help but wonder, though, how this announcement would have sounded to Ashley Hildred, who signed up to stay at Blundell Park at around the same time as Young – but was trusted only with a six-month contract.
And when the new recruits started coming in, what sort of vote of confidence did they receive? From Justin Whittle to Rob Jones, it was mostly the sort that says: you're only getting a year in case you turn out to be useless. A year is fair enough for 30-somethings like Whittle and Terry Fleming, but what about the young 'uns? OK, so Hockless's agent is filling his head with nonsense, and letting him keep his options open might have been the only way of keeping him at all. But Slade has been talking up Simon Ramsden as "the future of this club". That's one year, with the option of another year (whatever that means). Some future.
We all know why it's happening this way. We all know about the finances. But it is precisely this nervous recourse to the short-term contract that has caused these hope-sapping, heartbreaking non-performances, making recent Grimsby teams so much less than the sum of their parts – and has ended up costing the club over £1m in the lost TV money and empty seats that result from successive relegations. Two seasons of reluctance to commit to playing contracts of a reasonable length have proved to be a tragically false economy.
And without a change, the club could be stuck in this cycle of underachievement. If 22-year-old Thomas Pinault is good enough to play for Town, then he's good enough to play for Town for three seasons. Slade may be bringing in some perfectly able footballers – just as Groves did before him – but the club's unwillingness to back his judgement by awarding them the contracts he presumably feels they deserve runs the risk of turning them all into Stuart Campbell. You can have the best attitude in the world but if you feel you're being treated like a slab of meat then sooner or later you're going to perform like one.
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