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.