Players and their agents once again seem to hold all the cards, says Mikey Burrows, who feels the way release clauses are being used is changing.
There was something very significant about the transfer of Demarai Gray from Birmingham City to Leicester City.
Not the fee, not the scouting policy that spotted him, not the speed at which the deal was concluded after the window opened. Leicester have undoubtedly picked up a huge talent with great potential, but it’s not that either.
No, what is so significant about this move is that it signals a new weapon in the agents’ arsenal that could cripple smaller clubs.
Release clauses are nothing new of course, but the way in which they’re used is changing.
A year ago Birmingham rejected offers of over £5million for Gray from then promotion-chasing Bournemouth despite his contract at the time running out.
For a club who had sold off the likes of Jack Butland and Nathan Redmond in recent years for fees way below market value, all in an effort to raise funds to keep the club afloat, the rejection of Bournemouth’s cash was a bold statement of intent to keep Gray.
The teenager duly signed a new deal, but in August reports emerged of a clause in that contract that would allow Gray to leave on his own terms. What was clear was that Leicester were well aware of that clause too, albeit late in the window, and seemingly they made the decision to wait and see whether Gray could match his exploits of the previous campaign.
One goal in 26 appearances this season doesn’t sound overly impressive, but Leicester know they are not signing a ready-made replacement for someone like Riyad Mahrez. They are getting potential, they are getting a player with all the attributes to be a top winger: pace, trickery, the ability to carry the ball down either flank and most of all an attitude and character that hasn’t been fazed by carrying the hopes of your hometown club.
A scout once told me you could tell a lot about a player’s potential mental state by looking at his family. Gray was surrounded by his during his medical and contract talks last weekend.
In short, he is worth far more than the £3.75million paid by Leicester. Herein lies the issue, in agreeing his new contract last summer, Gray’s agents insisted on the release clause. Without it they would have allowed his contract to run down and let another club pick him up via a tribunal.
Traditionally release clauses have been the fee it would take to buy a player out of his contract. At times they have been used to allow a player to move to a certain level of club for a fair fee.
When Christian Benteke left Aston Villa for Liverpool it was because they’d met his buyout figure of £32.5million.
Villa maintained the power and upper hand in that negotiation – but they too have had their own ‘Gray’ moment in Fabian Delph, who moved to Manchester City for just £7million six months after agreeing a bumper new deal at Villa Park.
He too had told the club that if they didn’t agree to his own valuation, one that in the era of Financial Fair Play would be more than appealing to the big clubs, he would allow his contract to expire and move for nothing.
There have been many intricate shifts in the way football operates since the much publicised ‘Bosman Ruling’ allowed freedom of movement when players were out of contract, and it appeared clubs had regained some modicum of control. Now it seems we are entering a period where the players and their representatives are once again dominant.
If agents can now start setting asking prices, the less wealthy clubs will lose out significantly. Many simply won’t be able to afford the value or length of deals needed to stave off these scenarios.
Letting a player enter the final year of a contract will effectively give his agent the opportunity to decide when he eventually leaves and for how much.
Gray could and probably should have commanded a fee at least double what has been paid. With the riches on offer in the Premier League it wouldn’t have made a huge difference to Leicester’s balance sheet, but you can bet it would to Birmingham’s.
To a side that has maintained a play-off push on an incredibly tight budget, the opportunity to strengthen in multiple areas could be the difference between success and failure this season.
For years we’ve seen complaints that Football League clubs overvalue players and the big clubs treat it as an excuse to fill their squads with cheaper foreign imports. But the opportunity to find, nurture and then sell on a promising talent is what keeps many clubs going.
For varying reasons in the last four years, Birmingham have seen Jordon Mutch, Nathan Redmond, Jack Butland and now Demarai Gray come through the ranks and depart for a combined figure of around £10million, less than Fulham paid Leeds United for Ross McCormack.
Further proof if any were needed, that football is indeed a funny old game.