Stephen Cleeve: Contracts - the good, the bad and the ugly

Former King's Lynn Town defender Alex Brown is now at Kettering

Alex Brown - now playing for Ian Culverhouse at Kettering... the same manager who didn't want him at King's Lynn Town - Credit: Ian Burt

Football contracts can be a huge minefield that need careful consideration.  

When issuing contracts there are many matters to consider and some of these are not always obvious.

Recently, the 30-year-old striker Ollie Palmer left League One Wimbledon and joined National League Wrexham on a three-and-a-half-year deal for £300,000.  In addition, the player received an enormous upgrade on his salary and a large signing on fee.  

From the player's perspective, why would he drop down two divisions unless the financial incentive outweighed the kudos of playing two leagues higher? From Wrexham’s perspective they need to protect their investment so that the player can’t move on a few months later for nothing. In my view the player here has had a real result and so have Wimbledon, who picked him up on a free transfer from Crawley in the summer of 2020.

Using Palmer as an example, what would happen if he shoots the lights out and another club decide that they want his services? Firstly, that club is not meant to contact the player unless the club that owns him agrees to them doing so. In reality, his agent is often used as a back channel to ascertain interest and financial requirements. I have even heard of players speaking to team-mates when they play internationally; it is not meant to happen, but it certainly does. Clearly, if Wrexham wanted to sell and the price was to their liking they could cash in, and it would be left to the player to agree personal terms. Of course, the player could refuse to go and then Wrexham would not be able to sell, or the player may want to go, but Wrexham could refuse to sell. All these scenarios take up a lot of time and clubs have a lot less power than one would assume. No one really wants a disgruntled player in the camp.

On the flip side when a new manager joins the club it often means that the club has not been performing to the best of its ability and a change of style and personnel are needed. This may mean that some players who have not featured at the club get a new lease of life whilst others may need to find employment elsewhere.

In our case, it was clear that under Ian Culverhouse the defence was letting in too many goals. Tommy Widdrington saw the problem, brought in some new players and tightened it up, resulting in the club conceding just one goal in the last four fixtures. This has directly translated into points. Under Ian Culverhouse the club accrued eight points in 17 games. Tommy has achieved the same number of points with just 10 games played.

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There are now some players who were playing previously and are under contract to the club, but cannot get a game. This does not mean that they are not good players, it just means that the new system is not built for them.

Players respond differently to setbacks – I have always understood that good players need to play, and it can ruin their career if they hang around on the sidelines for months and hence, I will make life as easy as possible for them to move on.

As an example, in March 2020, Culverhouse, our then manager, approached me and asked me to sign Buxton’s left back Alex Brown. There was a fee involved, but Ian felt that Alex was worth the money and the deal was done. Some months later Ian had changed his mind and he told me in no uncertain terms that Alex had no future at the club and would not be in his team any more.

Alex was a nice lad and was understandably upset, but it was clearly best for all that he moved elsewhere. Eventually Kettering came in for the left back, but they did not want to pay a transfer fee. I tried for a sell-on, but failed. The agent did the best that he could for his client in tricky circumstances and brought me a fair compromise that showed an understanding of the situation from their side. I felt it wrong that Alex should be the loser in these circumstances and deserved a stage to show his talents - the situation was not his fault. The club did not pay any settlement to the player, and I put the whole episode down to experience.  

The move has worked out well for the footballer who has been performing well - although, as a quirk of fate, Culverhouse has now arrived at Kettering and is once again Alex’s manager. Sometimes a player just needs some confidence and game time to get his Mojo back.

We have one player currently who has turned down offers from multiple clubs to play elsewhere and would rather sit in the stands than be involved on the pitch. Often this can be caused by agents trying to get pay-offs for their players when at our level the amounts involved are simply not worth it; it is far more important for the player to get game time.

Players who sit tight and refuse to move give out warning signals to other clubs – you have to learn to read between the lines, but it can tell you a lot about players' personalities which in turn will usually determine how they progress.

Agents will tell you that it works both ways and when you have a player under contract then you do not need to let them go. This I have never found to be true.  

Firstly, I don’t want to hold players back so if an offer comes in from a club higher up the food chain, the player will usually know about the approach before I do. We want to attract the best players to the club, so we do not like to stand in the way of a player’s progression. This in turn makes our recruitment easier when we show players what a great option we can be to revitalise their careers.

I have known many clubs that have refused to sell contracted players and all sorts of games can be played, from downing tools, training badly, attitudes changing and exaggerated injuries.

In essence, therefore, the players have all the power. If they want to go, they usually can and if they don’t, they can sit tight. I have always said that you never really own a player, and his contract means very little; it simply gives you the rights to negotiate a compensation payment at some point in the future.

King's Lynn Town's Olly Scott dives for the ball inside the Altrincham penalty area - Credit: Ian Burt

Olly Scott - wanted to play so did it for free, and earned himself a contract at The Walks - Credit: Ian Burt

In my experience attitude is everything – recently our manager signed Olly Scott after a tip-off from an associate in his native North East. It was never about the money with Olly, he simply wanted a chance after being let go from Sunderland’s academy. He paid his own hotel bills and even played for free for the first couple of games. I was delighted for Olly that he was rewarded with a contract, and I am sure that he will have a big future in the game.

There are other players at the club who, through no fault of their own, find themselves not involved on a match day. Some of these players will be advised by agents to sit it out and aim for a payoff. This won’t happen and they are wasting their talents; what they need is a fresh start and as a club we would be delighted for them if they succeeded elsewhere.

I believe that players play best when they are loved by fans, managers and directors; and sometimes players do not realise this until they move to a new club and realise that they are starting from scratch – it really can be a case of a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.

The system is certainly not perfect, there is no question that players are “tapped up” at all levels of the game and equally having a contract at a club but not being in the manager's plans can be a career killer for any player. Strangely, the optimum solution for both player and club are usually identical, their stars are aligned even if they cannot see it at the time.