Date: 9th August 2009 at 4:25pm
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Derby players give up bonuses, but how strong is the bond between players and supporters of all football clubs?

This week Derby County players agreed to waive their bonuses if they did not achieve a play-off place come the season’s end. This gesture is one which has been met with positively by fans, and shows that the players are deciding to give something back (or at least have decided not to take something more). The question remains whether or not they should even rake in bonuses for average seasons, and the rumoured £300 per point which the players earn (£16,000 last season) is surely an unnecessarily extravagant bonus for an average achievement. As a young Derby supporter, having a season ticket since 1997 at the age of 7, I have never felt remotely close to any of the players, building fragile relationships with them only through their on-field exploits. Today, much is made of the supposed alienation of supporters from the players and it is often said that the sheer size of the salary of some footballers is enough to put a barrier between fans and playing staff, creating something of a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality.

But is this the players’ fault? Have the vastly inflated wages they receive corrupted them so that they simply don’t want to be involved with those coming to watch them? Unlikely maybe, but the commercialisation of the game has undoubtedly impacted upon the player-fan relationship.

The ‘problem’ of money dividing the two vital aspects of the sport, those who play it and those who watch it, began in 1961 with the abolition of the maximum wage for footballers. Although there were initially no wage increases comparable to the current state of affairs, they became steadily more affluent until today, where even average Championship players wallow in wages disproportionate to their talent and the superstars of the game earn vast sums of money which could hardly fail to sicken somebody scraping to get by, especially when they witness some of the ludicrously pathetic petulance exhibited by those at the top of the footballing pyramid. The stories that players used to travel on the buses to matches and drink in the same pubs as fans are a far cry from the current situation where players swan around in lavish sports cars and drink in mini bars in the comfort of their own homes. Of course, whether players are allowed to drink so regularly in pubs nowadays is another matter entirely; pot-bellied players in the Franny Lee mould are things of the past.

These modern ultra-fitness and fulsome lifestyles are a long, long way from those of historical footballing greats; the like of Tom Finney, the former Preston and England right winger of the 1950’s had to work as a joiner in the summer months when the season was over. Is it just me, or is it hard to imagine David Beckham, the current England and former Preston right winger, donning his overalls and calling round to fix a broken door?

Of course, there is still a certain amount of contact with players now, albeit somewhat manufactured. Signings are a good way of introducing players to fans, but they tend to build more of a relationship between the club and the fans; the players, whilst being key to this process, are allowed no more than a few words with supporters as they attempt to get through long queues. The contact is inevitably speedy and whilst it may fascinate children and encourage them to become involved, it isn’t particularly nourishing to adults. For the purpose of the contact with children, the process is useful, but still, there is a veil-like barrier separating the two entities. My Dad has been a Derby fan since the time of John O’Hare and the like, and he cannot remember any autograph signing sessions in those days. The lack of a club shop for a start meant locations for such sessions were lacking, but still, there is something pleasurable about the thought of a football club without rampant commercialism and the need to generate profits through ancillary markets. Still, if the process is for the good of the team, it may be regarded as a necessary evil. Nevertheless, it still emphasises the ever-increasing importance of the gold stuff in the world’s most popular sport.

So, having discussed physical contact, is the mental link between players and fans a factor in the apparent distance between the two? It is much harder to feel a connection with a person if their fortunes are so different from your own. The old cliché that ‘footballers earn more in a week than I do in a year’ is sadly and unjustly true to many a football fan. It is hard to envisage the average supporter having a huge amount in common with pampered players, certainly in terms of lifestyle; one often not particularly prosperous, and the other very well-off. There is certainly the issue of alienation. Equally, it is difficult to expect relationships to be built with players due to sheer physical factors, such as the ratio of supporters to players, ie 30,000:11. Premiership players in particular are in the habit of buying expensive mansions where all they need is on a few acres, guarded by security firms and brick walls ten feet high with the standard Premiership football prerequisites; a swimming pool, sauna and cinema. New Manchester City striker, Carlos Tevez, is apparently close to buying former teammate Cristiano Ronaldo’s Cheshire mansion for many millions, although it has been rumoured that fellow new boys Kolo Toure, Emanuel Adebayor, Gareth Barry and United winger Antonio Valencia have all lodged rival bids. I wonder if average Man City fans can empathise with the four that miss out on the luxury home?

Closer to home, and the matter of our player’s bonuses being waived, Adam Pearson wrote in ‘The Ram’: “In difficult economic times I would like to thank the first team squad for showing such an innovative approach to standard bonus payments”. Whilst I and many other fans agree that the action is commendable, the fact that these bonuses for average achievements exist is indicative of the economic farce that football finds itself in.

Of course, very few footballers are monsters, and they merely take what they are entitled to by the system. Robbie Savage, for instance, is an example of one such player in our squad. Undoubtedly, and in his own words might I add, ‘a bit of an idiot sometimes’, he has his heart in the right place, and was one of those who proposed the giving up of bonuses. Strangely enough, the blonde midfielder represents two sides of football that are both prominent in the modern game, but couldn’t be further apart in terms of desirability. He is good natured, will help out if he can, and displays a positive attitude (of course, you only see these positives if he is at your club), but he also embodies the superficial money-saturated existence so many top footballers live. His strange decision to flaunt his brand new £160,000 Mercedes during the height (or rather depths) of our infamous 11 point season did nothing to improve the mutinous mood of so many disillusioned Derby fans. But on the other side of the coin, he did give a couple of stranded Derby supporters a lift to a game in that very same campaign.

So, maybe travelling to the game with a player isn’t as much in the past as was previously thought. However, the circumstances are slightly different. Travelling by Mercedes or Trent Barton? No contest.

Rob Bentley