What Would Three Yoan Gouffrans Get You?
Once upon a time £1.5 million was a lot of money – this seems outrageous as most of us won’t come close to earning this amount in our entire lives, but to the upper echelons of our formerly working class game, it has become a drop in the ocean.
It wasn’t until 1981, when Bryan Robson joined Man United, that we saw the first British transfer hit £1.5million, following the Trevor Francis deal earlier that year which broke the £1m mark. Since then, we’ve seen some notable arrivals at Gallowgate for around this figure or less, including Shay Given, Nobby Solano round two, Sebastian Bassong (£500k) and Mike Williamson (£1m).
The value of the utility player, both numerically and footballing, has fallen in modern day football with a perfect recent example in James Perch. The former Nottingham Forest captain arrived in the summer of 2010 for a reported figure of the magic £1.5million, with little expectation on the shoulders of a player we knew little about. Few could have predicted how it would turn out.
A series of utterly inept performances left many calling into question not just his Premier League credentials, but his footballing credentials altogether. He looked clueless, weak and scared. He looked so far out of his depth it was almost beyond belief. What happened next was nothing short of remarkable.
Employed in various positions, Perch began putting in a series of excellent displays, cementing his growing reputation in a complete performance as a second half substitute away at Blackburn in 2012.
Perchinho was born, a nickname that marked his transformation from a figure of ridicule to cult hero. He looked a completely different player, composed, strong and almost clever with the ball. He seemed a foot taller, strong and accurate in the tackle, positionally sound and perhaps most importantly, was clearly giving everything he had in each and every game. Credit must be given to the manager and coaches (believe it or not) for bringing out the best in what seemed a total lost cause, but the attitude of the player must be given the highest commendation.
Perch quickly became one of the most important players in our squad. Coloccini, Simpson, Santon and Tiote had all looked crucial to our first XI, with rumours of an injury to any of those four sparking apparent chaos on Tyneside. Instead of this came a quiet recognition and confidence. ‘Perch will do the job.’ Nobody would have believed it in the summer of 2011, but Perch became the man who single-handedly provided adequate cover and balance to a very small squad. Perch was very unfortunate in not commanding a regular starting berth in the side, and likely for this reason, departed to Wigan for a reported £750,000 in the summer of 2013.
Regardless of the reason for the sale, probably a combination of the player’s desire to play week in week out, and the club’s desire to promote the likes of Dummett and the incoming Haidara, or a miraculous return to the first team fold for forgotten man Dan Gosling, Newcastle did not get value for money in terms of a fee for a player capable of playing four positions effectively.
How we could have used Perch this season, particularly in covering the often injured Debuchy, rather than relying on the totally ineffective Yanga-Mbiwa, or Pardew’s baffling decision to try three at the back.
Looking at the bigger football picture, it’s probably not fair to use the crazy boardroom decisions at NUFC as a barometer. The Premier League is devoid of utility men nowadays. The last of a dying breed retired at the end of last season and is now Assistant Manager at Man United, hardly a surprise considering a breadth of knowledge on the game is necessary to really shine as a utility player. But even Phil Neville went to Everton after he was deemed surplus to requirements at an evolving Man United as they became the financial powerhouse they now are, with the ability to afford and maintain happiness of a number of top quality players in each position. They now have Phil Jones filling a similar role as Phil Neville, stepping in where necessary in the absence of starters, although this is likely leading to him taking a long-term centre half berth.
Anyway, back to £1.5 million. This is the reported figure received from Aston Villa in 2005, back in the glory days of our team being managed properly, for the services of Aaron Hughes. The Northern Ireland captain came through the ranks at NUFC before making his debut at the Nou Camp in the first of 279 appearances for the club. Aaron was employed as a right back, left back, centre half, central midfielder and wide midfielder as part of some of our greatest sides. Hughes was a composed, disciplined defender who always gave his all whilst being effective in doing so. He never complained about being played out of position, unlike some of his more high profile colleagues, although judging his career here, it would be difficult and unfair to choose which position that was his best.
Not once can I remember Hughes letting us down in any way and he quickly became a fan favourite, appealing to a fan base that has always loved a ‘grafter’ playing above his ability. Perch and Williamson also fit this profile. Whether this is fair to say about Hughes is up for debate as one could see his total commitment, applied for each and every one of his 450 Premier League appearances, as a fundamental part of his ability and not a supplementary attribute. Unlike Perch, who found both a starting berth and his real level in the Championship, Hughes carried on as a starting centre half in the Premier League until the end of last season, amassing an appearance total second only to Ryan Giggs. Never spectacular but never found wanting, Hughes excelled in an ambitious Fulham side which reached the Europa League Final in 2010, as well as captaining his national side until his international retirement in 2011.
So why did we sell him? Again, there was probably an element of Aaron seeking guaranteed first team football particularly in light of the signings of Babayaro, Boumsong and in particular, Steven Carr, coming in as a replacement in the role most occupied by Hughes, right back. Carr cost £2million and likely a significantly higher wage packet than Hughes and cannot possibly be argued to have been an improvement. Whilst not a ‘natural right back,’ Hughes was infinitely more effective in the position than Steven Carr ever turned out to be in a black and white shirt.
He would never have commanded huge wages, and the fee received would amount to only £188,000 per season had he stayed with us until the end of his top flight career. Hughes is currently playing for QPR in the Championship, having signed a short-term deal in January this year. Should they make a return to the Premiership next year, a distinct possibility with QPR qualifying for the play-offs, don’t be surprised to see Hughes offered a new deal and resume his Premier League career.
So, what can you get for £1.5 million? Roughly three Yoan Gouffrans, and based on his performances this calendar year, having three of him would be a disaster. We’ve spent more on Sibierski, Rozehnal, Xisco, for whom Hughes’ fee would pay for only 6 months wages…Routledge, Obertan and Yanga-Mbiwa amongst many more.
I would rather have Hughes back than have signed all of these players. Additionally, since he departed we have deployed the following at right back, amongst less notable others: Steven Carr, Geremi, Habib Beye, Ryan Taylor, Danny Simpson, Yanga-Mbiwa and Debuchy, who arrived after Hughes left Fulham. Only Debuchy and Beye have proven better and Beye’s stay on Tyneside was brief as he jumped ship following relegation, something which undoubtedly would not have crossed the mind of Hughes.
Playing through the era of the decline of the utility man, Hughes used his proficiency in the role at NUFC as a springboard to a very successful centre half career. Good on him. No one will ever convince me that he wouldn’t have been worth his transfer fee ten times over had he stayed and occupied the troubled right back position, or simply covered where necessary. Hughes was a truly exemplary professional who should have started and finished his career at NUFC, and his sale still ranks as one of the worst footballing decisions made at SJP in recent times
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