Heart Of Football

Mending the fences not easy with lingering acrimony

The transfer window is closed, until the next one in January.

The football rebels who turned their backs on team-mates in the belief that they were moving on to richer pickings must go home to pick up where they left off.

Players and managers must re-open doors they thought they had closed. The human process of reintegrating star players begins. Philippe Coutinho, Alexis Sanchez, Riyad Mahrez, Virgil van Dijk, Ross Barkley, Jonny Evans and perhaps even Diego Costa, have to put their careers, and some bruised relationships, back on track.

It will require more than the gatekeepers to recognise their Bentleys and let them back in. It will require give and take, man-management, and maybe even a process of rebuilding morale not just of the returning players but of those they attempted to abandon.

And it has to happen quickly. No sooner will this week's World Cup qualifiers be over than the Premier League resumes. No sooner does that happen when the Champions League and the Europa League start again.

Oh to be a fly on the dressing room wall when - if - Diego Costa returns to Chelsea after being sent a text message from his manager Antonio Conte and told repeatedly that he "is in the past" as the No. 9 of Stamford Bridge.

Costa said he would go nowhere else but Atletico Madrid, and holed up in his parents' home in Brazil to await confirmation that the deal was done. The feisty striker, a Spanish international by choice, will find that his locker and his number have been taken by Alvaro Morata, a true Spaniard and a £70 million (S$123 million) purchase from Real Madrid.


Chelsea's Diego Costa in happier times, celebrating with the Premier League trophy last season. The striker has been frozen out at Stamford Bridge, having been deemed surplus to requirements by Antonio Conte. PHOTO: REUTERS

The miscalculation was on both sides. Chelsea believed they could sell Costa off to China where several former Chelsea players, from Ramires and Oscar, were shipped on.

At one time, Costa fancied the money. Then he fancied a move back to where he considers home. Alas poor Diego, Atletico are barred from signing any player this summer and, for some strange reason, appeared unwilling to part with Chelsea's £45 million asking price for a rebellious player they could not use until January.

Every player and every situation is different. Costa and Conte are a broken relationship between fiery characters. Even if their paymaster Roman Abramovich sought to knock heads together, there is now the substantial process of reinventing the attack around Morata and Eden Hazard.

Alexis Sanchez should get a far warmer reunion at Arsenal. He was, after all, by far the Gunners' best and most committed player. But after Arsenal's capitulation against Bayern Munich, Sanchez (along with Mesut Ozil) became not just disenchanted with their team, but also openly apathetic to the cause.

It was muddied, somewhat, by both players making wage demands they never expected to be met. When the board offered them what they wanted, the response on the field against Liverpool last Sunday was so insipid that even Arsene Wenger would have sold if he could.

Seven days to sell off Sanchez, even with Manchester City bidding, might have worked. Getting in a replacement proved impossible once Thomas Lemar decided he would not be rushed through the back door as a £92 million panic buy.

It will require more than the gatekeepers to recognise their Bentleys and let them back in. It will require give and take... a process of rebuilding morale not just of the returning players but of those they attempted to abandon. 

Meanwhile, Riyad Mahrez absented himself from Algeria's national team to try to force someone, anyone to take him away from Leicester. Roma were keen, but not at Leicester's £50-million valuation. Arsenal, and others, denied they were interested in the Premier League's Player of the Year in 2015, who did a disappearing act on the Foxes' wing last season.

Philippe Coutinho we know all about. The ink on his new five-year contract had barely dried when Barcelona called, and kept on calling.

Liverpool's owners, just like Southampton's stance on van Dijk, kept insisting he signed on for the long term and was going nowhere.

Coutinho didn't train with Liverpool, but shot off to play for Brazil. Van Dijk trained, but alone, outside the group he made it crystal clear he felt he had outgrown.

Liverpool were the common link: The Americans in the boardroom played hardball in denying Coutinho his move of a lifetime, while Southampton claimed the moral high ground in refusing to let Liverpool purchase yet another of their players.

Ross Barkley, meantime, got as far as arriving at Chelsea's training ground for a medical although the England midfielder has since come out and clarified that he did not do so, preferring to weigh up his options in January instead while he recovers from a long-term injury.

Explanations are aplenty. At Everton, where they have spent a fortune signing Gylfi Sigurdsson to replace Barkley, the word was that Barkley had refused £100,000 per week wages and wanted to leave.

Chelsea were bemused and suggested Barkley's agent led him through the door, but the player got cold feet and left before the medical examination could begin.

Had they put a stethoscope on his chest, they might have found that Barkley yearns to play for Tottenham Hotspur, and in particular for Mauricio Pochettino.

Spurs, however, did not put in a bid. Their chairman, Daniel Levy, the king of deadline dealing, had his hands full signing up players that Pochettino can coach immediately.

So Barkley is in limbo, back at Everton, back on the treatment table, and looking wistfully towards the January window in hopes of wearing a Tottenham shirt in 2018.

I have, deliberately, not mentioned the players' agents. Their business is ubiquitous. Their methods of selling their clients to the highest bidder stirs up a twice-yearly hiatus.

Ultimately, though, the player needs to take responsibility for his own career. Whether he breaks the trust of colleagues is down to himself.

But long, long ago, in another era, another lifetime, a player turned manager called Joe Mercer spelt it out.

"Genius is great when it is on song. When it goes sour, it contaminates," he said, referring to George Best.

Old Joe, an Evertonian who moved on to play for Arsenal, managed four different clubs including Aston Villa and City. Even then, over 40 years ago, players and managers followed the money.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 03, 2017, with the headline 'Mending the fences not easy with lingering acrimony'. Print Edition | Subscribe