Footballers have always been an easy target. They are in the public eye and the amount of money they earn is regularly splashed over the newspapers, so it surprises me that swifter action hasn’t been taken to resolve the issue over whether Premier League players should accept pay cuts or wage deferrals because of the coronavirus pandemic.
There could have been more forward thinking from clubs, players and their representatives. While I am sure that players want to help, they haven’t acted quickly enough and a lot of damage has already been done to their reputations. There is a rush to typecast footballers, to assume they’re all greedy, and they should have seen it coming, although hopefully the decision by Premier League clubs to ask for 30% wage drops will win public approval.
It isn’t fair to say players are only interested in money. They do a lot for charity, which rarely makes the headlines, and they pay a lot of tax to the government, whose responsibility is to invest it wisely. But we are in uncharted territory and non-football staff at clubs are being furloughed. Players see these people every day, they are very friendly with them, and I’m surprised that something has not been done sooner. It has made it look like players don’t care about their colleagues and I am sure that isn’t true.
Clubs could do more as well. Players will look at owners who are worth billions. They will be talking to the clubs and wondering if their money will go to the staff or just be swallowed up. Those questions are fair. But as soon as I stepped out of football the real world kicked me up the backside. I developed a totally different perspective on normal life. When you’re in the football bubble, you can lose sight of that.
I was only 26 when I retired in 2009. One bad injury can end a career quickly and in a way I am fortunate to have that perspective. Players won’t have it. You think it will go on for ever; that the money will always be rolling in. The money at the elite level, which I was earning at one stage, is incomprehensible. It’s hard to explain and there will also be a lot of players living within their means. They might have astronomical mortgages or they might be supporting family and friends.
Yet when you step out of the game, you realise that money is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. When I was playing my head was up my arse. You earn crazy money and rarely have to do anything for yourself, which is why some players might not have a grip on the anxiety people outside the game are experiencing. So what if you have to give some of your wages away for the next three or four months? It won’t impact you. And who cares if it does? It’s a small price to pay.
That’s why I’m gutted for players. They do want to help but they have been tarnished because they have left it too long. The problem is that players generally follow the crowd. There’s a team mentality: if we do it, we all have to do it. Players tend not to speak out individually, which is why the club captain is so important. Once the captain says something is happening, the group falls into line.
However, the Professional Footballers’ Association is taking a hard line. It is putting emphasis on the owners and protecting its members’ contracts. But that is irrelevant when people are losing their lives and their livelihoods, which will not happen to Premier League footballers. Once football returns they will go back to earning ridiculous money. But while the PFA is looking to protect its members, it has actually hindered them. We all knew this was going to happen so why hasn’t it tried to protect them from a PR perspective?
I understand why they have asked for clubs to provide financial information but I cannot see that happening, so it just becomes a battle. It should not be a battle between clubs and players or the union. This should be a collective goal for all football clubs and players to help staff, the wider public and the NHS.
Ultimately it is the players who will be scapegoated. I would hate to think Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was trying to deflect the blame when he said that footballers should play their part. I think he was just answering a question. But it creates more negative headlines.
The PFA could have done more. There could have been an agreement that players drop percentages of their pay based on how much they earn. Then football would have been working as a community, helping people at clubs and enabling money to filter into society. Everyone would have looked like they cared. The speed of action has not helped.
Dean Ashton played for Crewe, Norwich, West Ham and England from 2000-09