Van Dijk and the staggering hubris of striking footballers

Words By Stephen Tudor
August 12, 2017

Britain has a long tradition of striking that we can be immensely proud of. In 1888 workers in a match factory protested against the absence of safeguards that resulted in many of them contracting ‘phossy jaw’, an unimaginably gruesome condition caused by exposure to white phosphorus. In 1912 a million coal miners downed tools in order to secure a minimum wage. Seven years later the Battle of St George in Glasgow meant that shipbuilders could no longer be forced to work every hour God sent or face the boot.

A century on, a professional footballer earning £65k a week fancies trebling his wages away from his present employers a short while after signing a lucrative six year contract with them. Aghast at this perfectly reasonable request being denied, Virgil Van Dijk is currently continuing the noble cause of fighting sociological wrongs by withholding his labour. He is quite literally striking a blow for the common man. Good luck to the lad I say. Solidarity and power to the people.

It is extremely difficult not to be childishly sarcastic when referring to the Southampton’s defender’s protracted and sordid agitation for a transfer to Liverpool. It’s either that or vomit onto the page. Yet it’s not entirely accurate to state that the 26 year old has been on strike at all these past couple of weeks. He certainly hasn’t been circling a burning brazier while holding aloft a placard reading ‘Saints are sinners’. Instead he has been forced to ‘train with the kids’, isolated from a squad of team-mates who still have Southampton football club’s best interests at heart with a demanding season at touching distance. Van Dijk felt compelled to point this technicality out in a press release on Tuesday while confirming that he had handed in a transfer request. The statement is a perfect study of the depths of self-delusion in which modern day players swim.

“I was asked about my frame of mind and for all the reasons mentioned above I was open and honest in saying that I did not feel I was in a settled mind-set given the circumstances. Following this conversation the manager explained that he only wanted players who he felt were 100% committed to Southampton and told me I would therefore have to train away from the first team. As a proud professional I am insulted by the suggestion that it was me who refused to train.”

So a ‘proud professional’ was asked to do his job that he is extravagantly rewarded for but he insisted his head wasn’t settled enough due to circumstances that he and he alone caused. The management acquiesced yet somehow it’s the club who are the bad guys here. Virgil van Dijk believes this. He believes it so much that he included it in a press release designed to exonerate himself from criticism. More so, he is insulted. He’s been wronged.

As for the reasons ‘mentioned above’ second on the list is that the player is ‘incredibly ambitious’, a self-proclaimed virtue that comes attached with the heavy implication that the south coast club is not. In the past four seasons Southampton’s average Premier League placing is seventh. Liverpool’s is fifth. How incredibly ambitious of him.

It is far too easy to pour scorn Van Dijk for his disruptive, insulting and utterly unprofessional actions undertaken this summer – and he is deserving of every iota of it – but in truth footballers striking is hardly a new phenomenon. In the late nineteen-fifties George Eastham claimed the house that Newcastle United had provided for him was uninhabitable and took umbrage at the second job they had arranged in order to circumnavigate the maximum wage rules. Bound by his ‘slavery contract’ Eastham went off to sell cork in Guildford, his subsequent legal fight finally ending the ‘retain-and-transfer’ system that effectively meant clubs could keep a players’ registration for life if they so desired. Fifteen years later George Best fell out spectacularly with Tommy Docherty and protested in the only way he knew how – he went on the lash for a full three days. On his return he vowed to never again play for his beloved Manchester United and soon found himself loaned out to the Jewish Guild, a social club in suburban Johannesburg. After that came Dunstable Town and Stockport.

Post-Bosman ruling saw more and more players taking individual stances against their clubs. We were now in the era of ‘player power’, a term that is fast becoming comically redundant as the days of maximum wages and players being viewed as little more than human commodities are so far in the distant past as to be a dot. The shift has been complete. Indeed it’s been annihilation to the extent where we may as well say ‘royal family power’ or ‘illuminati power’. Where once revolts were grounded in genuine grievances modern times brought us Pierre Van Hooijdonk striking because his team didn’t strengthen to his liking; Kieran Dyer doing likewise because Sir Bobby Robson asked him to play right midfield; and Dimitri Payet downing tools when West Ham refused to sell their best player for well below his market value.

It is notable that two of these examples later rued their actions with Dyer describing his disrespect of Robson as ‘the biggest regret of my life’. It is also notable that all of them – and the many more who lock horns with their employers on prima donna whims – ultimately get what they want.

Britain has a long tradition of striking that we can be immensely proud of. Football in our lifetime besmirches that tradition. It corrupts and devalues it. For them it is only about avarice and staggering conceit.

What are you looking for?