Short Term Contracting Fever
Adam Tanner looks at Swindon Town’s tendency to get contract lengths wrong and the implications for Lee Power’s sustainability strategy…
As Swindon fans, we often complain that our star players leave the club on the cheap. And we have a point. Over the course of the last 25 years, we have often lost young, marketable talent for a fraction of its market value.
Let’s compare ourselves to Peterborough United, a club of similar size. They signed Dwight Gayle from Dagenham & Redbridge in January 2013 for £500,000. Six months later, he was sold on to Crystal Palace for a reported £8.5million. Peterborough then used a fraction of the windfall to sign Britt Assombalonga from Watford who, within a year, had gone to Nottingham Forest for £5.5million. So that’s £14million for two young, prolific strikers. We have had three of those (Sam Parkin, Simon Cox and Charlie Austin) inside the last decade, and they have gone for a combined fee of around £3.5million.
The main reason behind the massive difference is contract length. Gayle signed on for four and a half years, and Assombalonga for four, meaning that they had four and three years respectively to run when they were sold. None of our star three have been contracted for longer than two and a half years at any stage during their Swindon careers; and, on average, they have had little over one year remaining when sold. The value of the players has therefore been drastically reduced.
Ironically, during the same period we have often been stung by awarding excessively long contracts to older players. Many top clubs, including Arsenal and Chelsea, are notoriously unwilling to offer more than one year at a time to players aged over 30, so it isn’t just retrospectively that the decision to hand two years in summer 2013 to 34-year-old Darren Ward, who was showing distinct signs of weakness, seems baffling. And don’t get me started on the previous management displaying typical indulgence in giving three years to Andy Williams, the ultimate Westcountry journeyman forward, who had managed less than 50 league goals in over 250 games in the Conference and lower leagues for Hereford United, Bristol Rovers and Yeovil Town.
Since we now have probably the youngest squad in our history, we must consider whether we have learned from previous mistakes, and left ourselves well equipped to capitalise on our many young assets in one way or another. The aim of a club with our structure should be to benefit from plenty of appearances from “slow burning” players as they develop in the longer term, whilst receiving a good price when we cash in on those who outgrow us more quickly. However, when our first team regulars (who I consider to be players who have started at least three games so far, plus those who we signed on Deadline Day) are divided into three categories, it becomes apparent that the coming year could be quite a turbulent one for us:
- Loan Signings
We really have to assume that these players (Louis Thompson, Brad Smith, Jack Stephens and Jordan Turnbull) will return to their parent clubs in the summer, and will not play for us again. Anything beyond this would be a bonus.
- Players whose contracts expire in summer 2015
Wes Foderingham, Nathan Thompson, Raphael Rossi Branco, Nathan Byrne, Ben Gladwin and Andy Williams all fall into this bracket.
As we all know by now, the Bosman ruling enables out-of-contract players aged 24 and over to transfer between clubs for free. By July, probably the two most saleable assets in the above list, Foderingham and Thompson, will both have hit 24, meaning that, if they choose to do so, they can leave for nothing.
It’s feasible that others, such as Byrne, could choose to leave on the back of a strong season. Although we would be entitled to a fee for younger out-of-contract players such as him, this would probably be set by a tribunal, and is unlikely to reflect true value.
- Players whose contracts expire in summer 2016
Strikingly, we appear to have only four players contracted with us beyond next summer; Massimo Luongo, Yaser Kasim, Michael Smith and Jon Obika. Each of their contracts expires in summer 2016, meaning that every member of the squad is now committed for less than 2 years.
Although the longer terms of these lads give us a little breathing space, we must be aware that Kasim, Smith and Obika will all have reached the magic 24 by the time their contracts expire. Kasim and Smith are currently among our most saleable assets, and letting their contracts run to the limit would not represent great business sense. Meanwhile, we are probably all now accepting that this will be Luongo’s last season with the club, and that keeping him beyond January would be an achievement.
Consequently, it’s very possible that, regardless of how this season goes, we will lose the majority of key players inside the coming year. Of course, the club can try to address this by offering extensions before 2014 is out, but that is easier said than done. The majority of our first teamers are now well-established at this level, and are unlikely to feel the need to commit to longer periods unless all conditions, not least wages, suit them. Of course, the sad fact is that the longer deals handed to the likes of Ward, Williams and Ryan Harley prevent us from offering financially attractive deals to our young stars.
If we are to continue to operate under the current model (and I certainly hope we are), the club must become smarter in terms of contract allocation. In simple terms, this means giving out longer deals to young players who we recruit for a fee. Whereas this creates an element of risk, Mark Cooper and Lee Power have an extremely high success ratio with this category of signing, and are entitled to trust their own judgment.
Of course, the players also need to consent, but I expect, upon signing for us, most young lads, with little or no first team experience behind them, would be only too pleased to commit to a longer term, in the same way that Gayle and Assombalonga did at Peterborough. They can then sleep easy in the knowledge that, if they reach their potential, they will inevitably be sold for a tidy fee, which will look great on the CV… whilst, if they fail for any reason, they have some security, and a bit of time to develop. By contrast, as soon as the player has established himself as a success in the side, the balance of power rapidly swings, and an extension becomes a very long shot for the club.
As much as I genuinely appreciate what Cooper and Power are doing, I can’t help but feel that allowing the contracts of all of our assets to expire so soon, and so close together, leaves us exposed to having our excellent squad severely shaken in one hit, and without getting the financial rewards that we deserve.
“Wes Foderingham, Nathan Thompson, Raphael Rossi Branco, Nathan Byrne, Ben Gladwin and Andy Williams all fall into this bracket.”
That is scary. I’m less concerned by the departure of Williams, however seriously Town cannot afford to let Fods, Thompson, Branco, Byrne and Gladwin all depart, can they..?
Is the issue surrounding Town’s short termism of contracts based on the limited wages we can offer? I can imagine a player being unwilling to commit to a 3, 4 or 5 year deal if the wages weren’t impressive or provisions in the contract for a significant yearly wage rise. So given our limited wages can we then not expect only 18 month or 2 year deals – like the recent Obika deal which is less than 2 years?
I sort of agree with much of the observations above, however, the club is still in transition from past mistakes. Until all the high earning old contracts are cleared then Power and Cooper are still held in check financially. After this summer I think you are more likely to see this change. Also Peterbough have been willing to splash more money up front on wages right from the get go. We have to have faith that Power and Cooper will be able to sort this out as they have more success with young player development. COYR.
Neil makes an excellent point – we can’t afford the promises of Peterborough or previous regimes. Remember Ferry and Devera? Fairly average players but we put them on wage escalators and suddenly couldn’t afford them. We certainly don’t want to do that again. Peterborough don’t care about that. The owner’s subsidy covers that.
What if Gladwin had been given a long deal but wasn’t suited to League football? That longet deal would have been a millstone. Same with many others. The key will be in the timing of the sales – like bringing in Reeves to cover L Thompson’s sale.
I don’t think we should also forget the demands of players and agents in this, as Gunter Netzer said “There are 11 businessmen on a pitch, each looking after his own interests”.
All players know that hitting 24 makes a huge difference to them financially. That move out of contract can be extremely lucrative, hence wanting deals which lapse at 24. Both Mass and Wes have been very clear about their ambition to move on we know Wes has been promised that he can go if the Championship comes calling.
I don’t mean this to sound too happy clapper but contacts are far too clouded to know really what is going on. Plus, at the moment Power has shown enough nous in sales and purchases to extract better value than the Diamandis boards etc did.
When we signed Devera on a Bosman, he was 24 and had spent 6 years at Barnet. The chances of him going on to play at the top were minimal so I agree that he shouldn’t have been given a long contract… for the same reasons as I’ve said above that Williams shouldn’t have been. Ferry had already played 40-odd games for Swindon, comfortably long enough for us to conclude that he was average and, at 22, wasn’t likely to improve much… again, he shouldn’t have been given a long contract. But the likes of Luongo are from a different bracket.
I expect Dagenham pay peanuts, so if we were to sign a player from them (as Peterborough did with Gayle), I can’t imagine a big wage would be required to tie him down for a few years… especially if, like Gayle, he is a new pro with little financial security. Sure, it could go wrong. But look at the rewards if it goes right… an £8million profit in the space of 6 months. That will cover an awful lot of mistakes.
Ok, players signed from deep into non-league, such as Gladwin and Branco, can be taken short contracts, as they are highly likely to accept extensions if they are offered during the early days. I’d be fairly confident that Gladwin would sign one now, as he’s only played a handful of games. The same applies to Branco. But now is the time to tie them down. We know they are good enough, and if we wait until Christmas, the lie of the land could be different.
Luongo’s contract expires when he’s 23, so if he were to stay he wouldn’t qualify for a Bosman, but I don’t think a player of his quality will lose much sleep over that. He knows that, if he plays well enough, he will be sold to a higher level club who will pay him a tidy wage.
Having most / all players on short-term contracts is a position that suits a squad with an average age of 30… not 22. At the very least, I would expect the club to attempt to tie down likes of Byrne, Gladwin and Branco before it’s too late.