PFA takes action to prevent unwanted players being ‘bombed out’ and made to train alone or with kids

Eufemia Didonato

The Professional Footballers Association is to hold talks with the Premier League and English Football League in an attempt to end the practice of players being frozen out of first-team squads and ordered to train on their own or with under-age groups.

The PFA has become increasingly alarmed at practices that players find humiliating and are often used as a means of forcing them out of clubs when they have fallen out of favour with a manager. They have also been used as punishments for players who refuse to sign a new contract.

One source said the approach should even be regarded as constructive dismissal and would never be allowed in any other working environment. The PFA is hoping for positive talks with the leagues over the issue and will ask for changes to be made to the players’ ‘Code of Conduct’ agreement with the leagues which, at present, is regarded as unclear on the issue. It is thought the PFA is willing to take further action if changes are not agreed to the standard contracts.

Although the PFA is not citing specific examples, there have been high-profile cases of players, such as Tottenham’s Danny Rose and Chelsea’s Danny Drinkwater, being told to train on their own or with the club’s Under-23s. Being ordered to work with the U23s is regarded as a “grey area” given that level of football is still deemed competitive although it is understood that the PFA would prefer it to stop. The case of Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil, who is not in his club’s 25-man Premier League squad, is not an issue in this instance because the German is training regularly with the first-team.

Some players, though, have even been told to train with the U18s at their clubs.

At present the only mentions of player’s responsibilities to train or play in the standard Premier League and EFL contract are under “Duties and Obligations of the Player” in which they have to agree to “attend matches in which the club is engaged”, “participate in any matches in which he is selected to play for the club” and “attend at any reasonable place for the purposes of and to participate in training and match preparation”. It is that final statement that is the bone of contention and needs to be updated and clarified. Players also agree to “maintain a high standard of physical fitness” and “not to indulge in any activity, sport or practice which might endanger such fitness or inhibit his mental or physical ability to play, practise or train”.

“It has been an issue for years,” one source said. “Players fall out of favour, they are told to train on their own or with the kids, sent to do laps of the training ground, told to not speak to their team-mates, come in at different hours. The problem is football has just accepted it as a method that managers can use. A manager sends a text to say, ‘Don’t come in tomorrow’, or tells them to train with the kids and not to speak to their team-mates.”

There is concern that the approach is not only wrong but, at a time when clubs are more aware of mental health than ever before, is in danger of affecting a player’s well-being. There is also an argument that their value, including the chance to secure a move and future earning potential, is also damaged by taking them out of the first-team squad.

Ideally, the PFA would like clubs to stop the so-called “bomb squad” approach to unwanted players but that may not be possible. At the very least they want the standard contract for players to be altered to toughen up the clause regarding their development and how they can be treated when they are no longer wanted.

In his autobiography, Shay: Any Given Saturday, the former Aston Villa goalkeeper Shay Given wrote about what it was like to be “bombed out” by manager Paul Lambert. “The bomb squad didn’t make much sense at all when you think about it. If you want to sell a car or a coat, do you put it on eBay or bury it at the back of the wardrobe or leave it shut away in the garage?” Given wrote. “If you want to sell players, don’t isolate them, don’t make them train with the reserves – put them in the first-team every week, get the best out of them, let people know they’re available and then you will get more interest.”

Matters are complicated because, unlike most modern workplaces, most clubs do not have proper human resources departments and the head coach or manager is regarded as a player’s line manager but also has an inordinate amount of power.

At the same time many fans actually appear to approve of managers acting in this manner as it is seen as a public show of strength in dealing with unwanted or under-performing players, or those who want to leave, and imposing discipline. Some managers argue it is also a legitimate approach to remove divisive influences from the changing room, which can be sensitive environments, while others even face pressure from their clubs to reduce wage bills and force out under-performing higher earners.

The PFA is aware of a case that went before a Swiss Federal Tribunal and appeared to go beyond previous rulings by Fifa and the Court of Arbitration for Sport that have examined whether players can argue “just cause” and have their contracts terminated. In the case of Eddie Barea, he was thrown out of the first team at Neuchatel Xamax after failing to follow the tactical instructions of head coach Miroslav Blazevic during a game and was ordered to train with the U21s. After the match Blazevic called Barea an “idiot” and a “traitor” for failing to play the offside trap when the opposition took a free-kick. It was the first time in five years that Barea had not confirmed to a coach’s instructions, claiming it was too risky.

The player terminated his contract but demanded compensation for the remainder of his deal plus interest and won his case because the Swiss court decided that he had a “legitimate interest” as he was employed to play in the top division and had the right to expect this to continue to maintain his market value and to pursue his career there. By omitting him from of the first-team squad the coach had effectively terminated his employment contract and also responded in a disproportionate way.

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