The Square Ball Week: Boy For Sale

In 2019-20 articles, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

The transfer of an eighteen-year-old footballer makes clairvoyants of all of us. The only way of knowing if the deal is good, for either club, the player, the agent or fans, is to wait and see what happens in the future. But that’s not good enough, because football demands opinions now.

There’s no shortage of those, with every pundit and fan putting a glass to their ouija board to receive communications from the World Cup final of 2030, player ratings through the ether reporting on Jack Clarke, of England, on the wing.

The most mystical in this situation are the managers, coaches, directors of football and accountants involved in the chain of either giving or receiving £10m in exchange for the right to pay a footballer millions more in wages and hope he plays well in their team. Leeds United were confident enough in Jack Clarke’s future to sign him to a professional contract; now Tottenham Hotspur have seen enough in their palm reading to buy that contract and multiply it many times. £10m and £30,000 a week is a lot of faith in one young boy’s future.

Marcelo Bielsa shuns all this fortune telling, one of his traits that make you wonder how he became so devoted to soccer when he seems temperamentally opposite to so much of the game. All through last season he brushed aside requests for predictions with variations on the theme that football is designed to make anyone predicting its future look foolish. It’s what drives his compulsive dossiers, the 300 hours of analysis, and what I’m now calling ‘illicit scouting’ so that I don’t have to write ‘spygate’ anymore. Bielsa uses it all to build a wall between himself and one of football’s key mechanisms: guesswork.

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If it’s odd that Bielsa should bring such disdain for rune-reading into football, it’s even stranger that he should end up practising his rationality at Leeds, where the pitch has been put in the care of priests and gypsies, where director Robert Wilkinson’s lucky tie in the 1940s was beaten by Don Revie’s lucky suits in the 1960s, where an AGM was once interrupted by a black cat leaping onto the top table in front of the manager, Major Frank Buckley. But Bielsa’s pragmatic battle against football’s uncertain futures is what we’re relying on to get Leeds United out of the Championship, and what means selling Jack Clarke makes uncomfortable, miserable sense.

Swapping potential for ten million has always been the way for football clubs to make money, but the economic circumstances of the Football League Championship in 2019 make the deal for Clarke impossible to refuse. The story of his sale doesn’t begin in the boardroom of Leeds United, but in those of the Football League and Premier League, where the Financial Fair Play rules in the Championship were immediately made unfair by allowing a more relaxed set of rules to apply to clubs relegated from the Premier League, on top of handing them parachute payments; while at the same time a broadcasting deal was struck between the EFL and Sky that makes running a club in the Championship not so much uneconomic as Kafkanomic.

The Championship is an absurd trap. At Leeds, three years of broadcast revenue comes to around £23m. In that time, a relegated team that stays down will receive broadcast revenue through parachute payments of around £100m. FFP regulations mean that if Leeds United’s owner wanted to make up the difference in budgets from their own pocket, they could only invest and spend up to a loss of £39m over three years; even if you spend everything you can, all of the £23m broadcast revenue and all of the £39m allowed loss, you still only have a budget of £62m over three years, around £40m smaller than a relegated team. Those richer, relegated teams are driving player wages up; if Leeds United wanted eleven Patrick Bamfords in their squad for three years, that would cost around £43m in wages alone; almost twice what Leeds get in broadcast revenue, but less than half of a relegated team’s budget. This simplistic version of the story doesn’t even consider that clubs have running costs beyond paying players’ wages, while adding matchday revenue and commercial income to this — and Leeds are among the Championship’s biggest earners of both — still doesn’t do much to close the gap created by broadcasting revenue to the richest clubs, who have matchday and commercial income of their own to add on top.

All of which means the future of Jack Clarke is not only decided by the incoming fee from Spurs, but by the saved expense. To keep him in defiance of interest from Premier League clubs would mean increasing his wage from around a reported £1,000 a week at least to somewhere closer to £15,000 — still half the rumoured Spurs wage. That’s an annual £780,000 for a player whose minutes on the field were equivalent to nine full games last season; just over £85,000 per ninety minutes. If you have the opportunity to swap that for £10m of income that could pay fees and wages for four players on loan from the Premier League, there simply isn’t a rationale for turning it down, no matter what cosmic glimmers we can see in Jack Clarke’s twinkling, starlike toes.

We’ve come this far without even mentioning what Clarke can do with a ball at his feet. That’s the worst aspect of what the Championship has become. It would be a joy to be able to write about the potential of a young player without grabbing a calculator and feeling the quicksand of FFP slurping around our boots, but here we are.

But as a player, Jack Clarke is still a mystery. He looks young for his age, but his confident tricks fooled enough full-backs for him to become Bielsa’s go-to substitute, after the more straightforward Jack Harrison lulled opponents out of their wits. After his fit on the bench at Middlesbrough Clarke became a Jekyll and Hyde performer; he lost the element of surprise in the Championship, and became too keen to make up for it with audacity in the U23s. He became hard to watch at either level, struggling to beat the types of players he’d embarrassed in his first appearances in the first team, and overplaying in the development side to an extent that wasn’t helping the team and wasn’t fun. His best moment was perhaps the assist for Pablo Hernandez at Sheffield United, in his fifth appearance; goalkeeper Dean Henderson, made uncertain by the approaching teenager, lost all sense of boundaries and gave Clarke the ball; Clarke lifted it over Henderson’s dive with a touch that showed instinctive awareness and control. His best game was the second half away to Aston Villa; he kept running and running at their defenders, and that alone was more than they could cope with. But when he began starting games, his impact was reduced after a strong show against Derby; he played all of the defeat to Stoke, was taken off at half-time against Rotherham, then again at Middlesbrough, a game he ended ill in hospital.

What that means for next season is anybody’s guess, and perhaps it’s better that finding out is Tottenham’s problem. After the years of selling young players up to this point — Delph, Byram, Taylor, Cook, Mowatt — this might be the first sale we’ve done right, because unlike those players, Clarke is not a first team mainstay that we’ve run into the ground by forcing them to carry the team on their shoulders. Delph, Byram and Cook weren’t just players with potential when we sold them, they were the best players we had. Clarke has not approached that importance, and he’s being sold for more than any of them.

That’s an indication of what Mauricio Pochettino sees in Clarke, but we’re back to the beginning now, crossing ProZone’s palms with silver and relying on second sight to predict the outcome of future confluences between players, clubs, coaches, agents, injuries and lifestyle choices over the years to come. One of the joys of football, that Bielsa seems to reject because it makes him anxious, is imagining those futures and seeing how reality resembles them, dreaming of Clarke repeating his namesake’s feat of scoring the winner in an FA Cup final for Leeds, and keeping the chance that it might come true. Now, though, is not the time for anxious dreaming.

If Financial Fair Play and Championship economics are the imperatives behind Jack Clarke’s sale, they must also provide the impetus for getting out of this division as soon as possible. The Premier League, hateful as it is, is the only escape, and anything that doesn’t contribute to that target is a distraction, including Jack Clarke’s future. Individual talent won’t lift Leeds out of the Championship unless its potential is realised in performances now; exchanging one player’s uncertain future for the means to acquire more players with proven track records moves the odds of this season’s gamble in Leeds United’s favour.

Every football season is a gamble and impossible to predict, and that’s the heart of Bielsa’s analytical war on chance. He is famous for his reference to ‘the nobility of the resources used’ in a game of football, and for his insistence on resources he can rely upon, whether that’s equidistant lightswitches at the training ground, 300 hours of analysis, or players he can call upon to perform consistently. Not for his sake, but for Leeds United’s, Bielsa needs all the resources he can get this season, because this season Leeds have to gamble on promotion and win to break the cycle of selling players to compete with other clubs’ parachute-packed budgets. That will continue until either football’s financial structures and regulations are reformed, or Leeds are promoted. After gazing into my crystal ball, I wouldn’t bet on the first any time soon. ◉

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(photo by Lee Brown)