Kevin Muscat and the Melbourne Victory have made a grave error in blocking Mitch Nichols’ proposed transfer to Japanese club Cerezo Osaka.
It is a decision based on short-term thinking which could come back to haunt them in the future.
Nichols is 24 years old and a veteran of well over 100 A-League games. At his first club, the Brisbane Roar, he went from exciting prospect to one of the stars of the championship-winning side, enjoying a particularly fruitful 2011/12 season.
After Mike Mulvey took over coaching duties at the Roar, Nichols was less certain of a starting spot every week, but a move to the Victory in the pre-season revitalised the player. The skilful, quick-thinking attacker became a key component in midfield for the league’s most popular team under former Brisbane manager Ange Postecoglou, and then his replacement Kevin Muscat.
According to Dave Lewis of The World Game, Muscat and the Victory on Monday knocked back a $200,000 (plus 50 per cent sell-on fee) offer from the Japanese club, in a deal which would have also tripled Nichols’ wages to about $600,000 per season.
Nichols was reportedly keen for the transfer to go though, viewing it as an opportunity to advance his career and increase his prospects of a Socceroos call-up. He was picked once for Australia in 2009, then played three games at the 2013 East Asia Football Championship, but at this stage could only be considered an outside chance of making the World Cup squad.
And the playmaker has a right to feel frustrated at his club’s refusal to let him leave. He is at the ideal stage of his development to make the jump to an overseas league. Aside from a very few elite footballers, the majority of professional players have to gradually build their status through a series of upward moves over a number of years.
After an unsuccessful trial with Danish club Randers before his move to Melbourne, Nichols will no doubt view Europe as his dream destination, and a stint in the increasingly prestigious J-League would be a step in the right direction.
The Victory may feel justified in clinging to a player who only eight months ago signed a two-year contract, but their status as one of the big dogs of Australian football seems to have given them the false impression that they are a ‘destination’ club for young footballers.
Ange Postecoglou, as Victory coach, was praised in many quarters back in August when he blocked a proposed Mark Milligan transfer to English Premier League club Crystal Palace, but cases such as that and the Nichols situation will surely be at the forefront of any potential future signing’s mind.
There are only three, maybe four, clubs in the world who can be considered at the very top of the ladder in terms of being considered an ultimate destination for footballers, and Melbourne Victory is a long way from being one of those.
Even Manchester United found themselves to be a rung or two below the upper echelon in 2009 when they couldn’t hang on to their best player, Cristiano Ronaldo. All it took was for Real Madrid to give him the old come-hither and he was out the door.
Most players, Nichols included, will harbour no serious ambitions of playing for the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich but, as driven athletes, they will have a burning desire to keep moving onwards and upwards.
Why would anyone with such ambitions sign with a club at which they could be stifled?
As Australian football fans, we would selfishly like to see the best talent remain in this country so that we can see them perform up close, but at the same time we must acknowledge that their are much bigger stages in the world game for them to aim for.
Any club with a track record of stubbornly hanging on to their want-away talents will harm their prospects of luring similarly gifted players in the future.
When he was Central Coast Mariners coach, Graham Arnold endorsed Tom Rogic’s move to Celtic, even though he sagely predicted Scottish football might not be an ideal playground for the youngster.
“Celtic is a massive club and it would be a good move for his development,” Arnold said at the time.
“Scottish football is not the style that would suit him down to the ground, but the fact that he’d be playing Champions League and winning things is a good step.”
Roar manager Mulvey expressed similar views when one of his brightest young prospects, Kwame Yeboah, was snapped up by Borussia Monchengladbach recently.
Muscat should have gritted his teeth and followed the lead of his contemporaries when Cerezo Osaka came calling, not just for the good of Nichols, but for the good of the club.