Who can win in Modric transfer row?

Luka ModricIt wouldn't be summer without a protracted transfer saga to fill the back pages and this year Tottenham Hotspur's Luka Modric (right, in blue) has the starring role where previously Manchester United's Wayne Rooney and Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas trod. But could this particular saga be a turning point?
Modric is a gifted midfield playmaker from Croatia who signed for the North London club in 2008 after coming to prominence with Dinamo Zagreb. Spurs paid £16.5m for the player and gave him a six-year contract. Last year, he was voted fans' player of the year and was given an improved six-year deal.

On signing the deal, Modric had this to say. "Tottenham Hotspur gave me my chance in the Premier League and I want to go on to achieve great success here with them. Yes, there have been enquiries from other big clubs, but I have no interest in going anywhere. I feel I can continue to improve and go on to achieve everything I want to at Spurs."

Champions League

Spurs finished the season in fifth place, meaning they did not qualify for the Champions league, the pinnacle of European club competition. That sparked speculation that Modric might leave, because he 'must' play in the Champions League. And so the saga began.

There were initial reports that he wanted to leave. Then it was reported that Chelsea wanted him for big money. The player was reported to have told the pres he wanted to go. His agent 'clarified', saying that Modric had merely said he would go if he was sold.

Spurs chairman Daniel Levy took a tough line, saying: "We are not prepared to sell, at any price, to Chelsea or any other club." That's about as unequivocal as it's possible to get, especially as Levy has a reputation for coaching his statements with provisos. He has rejected bids of £22m and £27m.

Daniel Levy

Now Modric has said he is angry that Levy, in his view, broke a gentleman's agreement to let the player break the agreement he signed last year. And today it's reported he has submitted a written transfer request. But Levy is said to be furious, and prepared to let the player sit it out in the reserves.

For fans, it's yet another thing which is making more and more increasingly cynical about the game. They watch stars who benefit from the loyalty that generates the very good money they earn apparently say whatever they think they need to about whichever club catches their eye.

And they are heartily sick of the reasoning in which a player says that he 'must' play at a higher level after being part of a team which didn't achieve the right to do that. Spurs fans remember legendary 1978 captain Steve Perryman refusing to consider a move after the club was relegated because "the team went down on my watch and it was my responsibility to help them back up".

But the modern game is very different, and even those, like me, who have been traditionally sympathetic to players' freedom to get the best deal they can now wondering if the pendulum has swung too far. But for Spurs, the club I support, it's about more than us fans and our misplaced loyalties.

Gareth Bale

If Modric goes, it sends the signal that the club cannot hold on to its stars. If the sale happens Gareth Bale, a great talent with years ahead of him, would not be far behind. Spurs, once seen as a club that bought the best, would be firmly labelled a selling club.

In 2006, Spurs sold Michael Carrick to Manchester United for £18m. The team was being built around him, but the sale, it was said, would help us build for the future. In 2008 Dimitar Berbatov went the same way for £30.75m and the same thing was said.

At some stage, tomorrow must turn into today, and Levy and the Spurs board are acutely aware that constant promises of jam tomorrow will not sate the appetite for success. And if a club wants to break into the top four positions in the Premier League, it cannot keep selling its rivals its best players.

Some think Levy has been unwise to state so unambiguously that Modric will not be sold. Especially now the player has handed in a transfer request. How, they ask, can you keep an unhappy player at the club? But as I've argued above, this is about more than one player.

Reputation

It's also about Levy's own reputation. Often criticised for being 'too clever by half' and, as one contact told me, never knowing when to stop negotiating, Levy must realise that if he does back down and sell it will be extremely difficult for anyone to ever believe a word he says again. Every utterance would be seen as nothing more than a negotiating stance.

So this is a key moment. Levy must run the business as well as the club, and the pressure to accept a bigger offer will grow if Chelsea come back again. But the long-term prospects of the business and the club will be damaged if he does.

While I feel uncomfortable about restricting anyone's freedom of employment, I believe Levy is correct to take the stance he has – and not only because I support the club. And some stage someone has to make the point that contracts mean something, and that the sport of football is not just about instant gratification but about building and achieving.

Professional attitude

Let him follow through with his threat to stick Modric in the reserves if he throws a moody and we'll see how long a professional decides he does not want to be professional. But I'd also say don't write off the longer game.

Transfer talk will continue to swirl until the window closes at the end of August. Then what happens on the pitch becomes the focus until the window opens again in January. By then, we'll see how Modric is bearing up, and Tottenham's prospects will be clearer.

If the club is out of contention in the League, then the pressure for a move will be virtually impossible to resist. Spurs will still be able to command a big fee for a player on a long contract who is not cup-tied in the Champions League. And Levy will have some wriggle room.

Even then, he could hold out until a club elsewhere in Europe comes in with an offer – selling to a domestic rival would be too much of a double whammy. In any case, by holding out Levy will have made the point that players have responsibilities as well as rights.
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