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Thursday, 28 August 2014

Sam Baldock - should we have let him go?

At 5pm last night, Bristol City fans had their last chance to buy a season card.  Precisely one hour later, they announced the sale of their captain, premier striker and last season’s league one golden boot winner, Sam Baldock, to Brighton & Hove Albion.  That’s a fact.

Whether the timing was deliberate – as some suspect – or entirely coincidental, unfortunate and poorly thought-through, is up for some debate.  However there’s little doubt that had this happened a month ago, or even a couple of weeks ago, there may have been some impact on sales.  Equally, Brighton haven’t just accepted a delay to his signing of days or weeks just to suit us, so the chances are it may have all been tied up earlier today some time and the announcement was put back by a few hours.

This timing issue is a huge red herring however. Of more pertinence is whether the right decision has been made to accept a bid and allow Baldock to go.

First of all, the fee. Six bids came and went before something approaching £1.5m (probably including add-ons based on promotion) was offered and, ultimately, accepted. Was this enough? Didn’t Steve Cotterill say he’d only go for £4m? Why is that all we got when Britt Assombalonga was sold for more than £5m?  

All things being equal, as an amount of money, it is hugely significant for a League One club, especially one with aspirations of balancing the books and living sustainably. Yes, for owner Steve Lansdown it’s a mere drop in the ocean, but didn’t we all buy in to the principle of becoming a better-run club, one which can’t refuse this sort of offer for a player, whoever he is, in the last nine months of his contract?

Assombalonga has much more as an all-round player than Baldock and I can see how, in theory, he has far more potential, however harsh that seems on our now-former captain. But critically he had a lengthy period of time on his contract left and that, in this modern world of football finance and player power, is absolutely key.

So was it the right decision to sell?  There will be a groundswell of opinion – wholly understandable – that says we’re mad to accept a relatively small amount of money and risk our promotion chances.  Of course we’d have more of a chance of getting up with him firing in the goals, but there was no guarantee we were going up and the accusations of losing out on serious cash for Nicky Maynard will still resonate around the boardroom.  Equally, there are no guarantees we now won’t go up at the end of the season. How savvy might the decision look if we’re celebrating promotion in May having banked £1.5m in fees and saved around £300,000 in wages?

The question nags though as to whether we could have done more? Could we have dug our heels in and simply refused any offer? Yes, we probably could have eked out a further few thousand pounds but clearly a level had been set that Brighton reached, by people who understand the finances of football far better than me. Also, aside from the points already made as to why we might have accepted, I still don’t believe many fans understand the true level of player power that exists at all levels of the football pyramid.

One major accusation has been that this “proves we have no ambition”. I venture Mr. Lansdown Snr would disagree. What it proves is that whatever clubs try and do, players rule the roost and you can be fairly sure that it played its part this time.  Ask Tottenham or Arsenal about Bale and van Persie. Ask Liverpool or Manchester United about Suarez and Ronaldo. If it happens to them, it can sure as hell happen to us.

Baldock was one of the only senior players to remain following relegation, but you can be sure that if he’d been offered the chance to make the same money at a Championship club 12 months ago, he’d have jumped at it. He needed last season as much as anyone did and his goals have given him this fresh opportunity at the higher level.  If you don’t think he wanted to go, or think this is all the clubs doing, then I’m afraid there’s too much naivet√© involved.  He knew about the bids coming before the club did – this much we know for certain – and you can be sure he was asking what the ceiling was, how close Brighton were.

I don’t blame him at all. I’ve had this argument too many times with too many people but still find it bewildering why fans think the player should owe the club something and miss out personally. He’s been offered the chance of playing at a higher level, probably for more money and at a club which appears to be ambitious, well-run and has a great fan-base. Who wouldn’t want to go?

This doesn’t prove we have no ambition. It proves we are a football club trying to run itself as a business and that we understand the impact of keeping a player – a captain – who may have become disillusioned had he felt he was being held back from furthering his career.  The days of the likes of Cloughie clipping a young lad round the ear and telling him to get on with it are long gone.  Some fans won’t like this, some will only see life through blinkered red glasses, but it’s real life and that’s just how these things work.

One of the key questions raised when it was revealed so much money was being spent on Keiron Agard was whether he was going to be Sam’s replacement. The official and unofficial noises coming from the club indicated otherwise. We were told Cotterill wanted four strikers. However, it now seems likely that there must have been strong suspicions further bids were forthcoming and that the bids were getting closer to the level required. It now appears as if that expectation prompted the increased bid we knew was necessary to prise away a Championship striker back to League One, whilst Agard’s seemingly extravagant wage expectations – more than Leeds United could apparently afford – will be more than covered by the departure of Baldock’s still-significant figures from the salary roster.

Ultimately, we will never know how good or bad a decision this was, as no-one can now tell us what May would have brought had we not sold Baldock, perhaps had we not signed Agard. We can speculate and antagonise, but we’ll never really know.

All we can do is wish Sam well – I personally remain uncertain he can hold his own as a free-scoring Championship striker, but he undoubtedly developed last season and if he can continue his improvement then who knows where he can end up.  What he did do was play a major part in keeping us up in the end last year and his popularity with the young players in the squad are testament to the way he knuckled down and played his part as the captain of a squad, once realising he was to spend a season back in league one.

By the way, as a footnote the worst thing we could do right now, in my opinion, is make Aden Flint the new captain, as I’ve seen many fans call for. 

Yes, he perhaps seems ‘the type’ – a Tony Adams/John Terry/Steve Bruce-kinda almost old-school centre-half who’d spill blood, but that doesn’t make him a great leader on its own.

Yes, he’s had a fantastically strong start to the season, but to lumber him with the captaincy would be too much for a player who showed signs of mental fragility last year and is still learning his game.  He spent most of last season struggling and many wouldn’t have had him in the starting XI just three weeks ago. For me it’s got to be Wade Elliott or Korey Smith, I can’t see many other viable options.

The Exiled Robin

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  1. From a Brighton fan...an interesting read.

  2. I lost any notion of 'loyalty' in football players a long, long time ago so have never questioned the reality that players will come and they'll go. Some we'll be glad to see the back of, others we'll be sorry to see go. That's football life and the world still turns.

    I hope that Sam does do well at BHA, well enough to attract a bid from a bigger club, we do have a sell-on clause right ;) I have absolutely no problem with us selling him or him wanting to go, if anything the length of contract offered made it a no-brainer for him. Four years! My god, in the day to day uncertainty that is professional football that represents a huge chunk of his remaining career. He'd have been bat-shit crazy not to want to go there (or anywhere else offering those terms because, and let's not fool ourselves here, practically any club offering what BHA did could have signed him. He hasn't signed for Brighton because he loves the place, or the fans, or the club. He's a mercenary like 99% of footballers).

    There are however a couple of things about the transfer that, as you've pointed out, don't sit too well. The timing of the announcement absolutely stinks coming as it did one hour after the ST cut-off point and if it was a business lead decision, shows quite clearly the contempt for its supporters that the club has. Also if Sam went to the club and informed them of Brighton's interest before the club were aware of it then doesn't that constitute 'tapping up' a contracted player of another club and if so, is this no longer a frowned upon not to say an illegal act in today's game? Whilst everyone may know it goes on it's seldom put into the public domain by the manager of the player concerned.

    So what are we left with? Up front we now have a striker (released by Yeovil for whatever reason) who's had one good season albeit at L1 level, a 33 year old non-prolific career striker (who to be fair has done quite well for us so far), an enigma who has bags of ability but maybe not the will or determination to succeed and a youngster who, as youngsters tend to, drifts in and out of games without the consistency yet to become a permanent solution.

    Should SC be looking at getting another striker in? I believe he should as he appears to have a problem with JET, can't surely expect Wilbraham to go season long and has a relatively inexperienced youngster in Wes to call on. I'm not bothered whether it's a loan or permanent deal personally but we should be making a move asap.

    As to the captain I'd be surprised if SC doesn't go with Wade with Korey being VC and the likely choice in the future.

    So long Sam and thanks for all the goals but literally and figuratively speaking you are yesterday's man and of no concern to me any more. Life moves on and we move with it.

  3. From a Seagull... Considered writing. Good work.

    Money is king, we are the lifeblood of the game, the players are the skin cells!

  4. Thanks for all your comments - some interesting points WJF, I think we're a little short up-front now, to be honest

  5. Thanks for this. As a BHA fan, I'm interested to hear why you're uncertain that Baldock can hold his own as a free-scoring Championship striker.
    For what it's worth, last year we played with just one striker, Ulloa when fit, who took most of the goalscoring burden. This year, we've got four strikers, three of whom (CMS, Baldock and Colunga) who look as though they're good at this level, and will either be vying for that position, sharing it, or being rotated.


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