A few hours before Carlos Tevez (allegedly) decided he couldn't be bothered to earn his quarter of a million pounds for that week, and he'd rather just be paid for sitting on his backside sticking two fingers up to his coach, teammates and fans, I was rummaging through my son's wardrobe. Unlike Carlos, my son doesn't have assistants to look after his kit for him so I was trying to help him find his clobber for training.
The bottom of my son's wardrobe is a sort of historical Villa kit jumble sale, so that's when it struck me. The last few seasons' away shirts, with the names proudly on the back. "B-A-R-R-Y", "M-I-L-N-E-R"..."D-O-W-N-I-N-G". A lad who saves the money he prefers to Easter eggs, and his birthday money in April - right the way through to late summer so that he can buy himself the new away shirt and get a name and number on the back.
He's not reproachful, my son, in any way. Probably because he's not remotely conscious of why he has to change his role model every year. I'm different. I'm starting to resent a game which has turned footballers into mercenaries.
Not one of the three players above was worth the admiration and idolatry of my son, the weeks saving up and the excited pre-season trip to the Villa Village. They go where they have to go to earn the most they can, to "win things". There's no point even mentioning loyalty in today's game - it isn't one of its currencies.
It feels naive and old-fashioned to even write it. Even in Downing's case, bought injured ny O'Neill, believed in, patiently nurtured back to fitness, reintroduced in a fluid midfield and brought exhilaratingly back to form and international contention. As soon as the scouse dollar was waved under his nose, you didn't see his backside for dust.
It's not the players' fault
Well, you can't blame them - can you. Wouldn't all of us do exactly the same? I bloody would. And that's the point: the way that players behave is a symptom of the way that football is being run in this country, of its overriding values.
As fans of an upper mid table club with modest financial clout (in Premier League terms), we must now start each season having accepted the following before a ball is kicked:
- We will not win the Premier League
- We will not win the FA Cup
- We will not qualify for the Champions League
- If any club with a chance of doing either 1 or 3 - or any combination of 1,2 and 3 - decides they want one of our players, they will take them
How boring is that? And is it any wonder that any of our better players would, at the first sniff of metropolitan, Mancunian or Liverpudlian cash, move to a club where they have a chance of winning something and playing in Europe?
You only win things and play in Europe if you have the best players. You can only afford the best players if you have limitless cash with which to pay them. Otherwise, you are either a feeder club hoping for a decent run in the Carling Cup against the better sides' reserves or you're on a day trip from the Championship enjoying the ride while you can. A sort of day out at the Premier League Pleasure Beach - you all go home broke, knackered and pissed at the end of it and have a bloody great headache and a massive overdraft afterwards.
God bless the English Premier League
The Premier League is a mind blowingly successful commercial enterprise. Richard Scudamore has negotiated gazillions in sponsorship revenue and even more gazillions in global TV licensing rights, and good luck to him. Everyone wants a piece of it.
The problem, and the root cause of all the misery and gut-wrenching in the above paragraphs, is how that success is being managed, or rather mismanaged. Mismanaged to the extent that we will all, I think, one day look back on the financial heyday of English football as its ultimate destruction.
Firstly, because there is no limit to what a footballer can earn, there is no limit to what the most avaricious clubs are prepared to pay the top players. This means that only the very richest clubs can afford the top players, and therefore only the very richest clubs can ultimately compete for the major domestic and international silverware. It also means that clubs who invest in the development and coaching of world class young players will ultimately reap their rewards only with a cheque from the rich clubs, not with years of on-field contribution. If that isn't being a feeder club, what is?
Secondly, there is the management of richness itself. Whether you are a Russian oligarch, a Texan tycoon or an oil rich sovereign fund in the Gulf - and whether you want a plaything, a way to launder money, or a way to make money by mortgaging a club and charging it massive interest and "management fees", the Premier League is fair game. Come on down. There are no limits to the way you can use your money to move the goalposts in our league and change the nature and basis of competition within it. The richest wins in the end - that's our guiding principle.
Thirdly, and almost most disgracefully, although football is our national game and although our FA has a notional vision of winning a major international trophy at some point (I think the aspirational date keeps being moved back), the percentage of EPL sponsorship and TV revenue being pumped into grass roots development is scandalous.
The same son I described earlier plays in the youth section of a club currently in the Blue Square Bet Premier (The Conference, as most of us know it). Week in week out, there are appeals to parents who already fork out a joining fee, monthly subs and match fees for extra money. Otherwise, they can't afford to buy kits, balls, cones, goals, flags and bibs etc, pay pitch hire and referees' fees and cover insurance and league registration costs. Now doesn't that put Carlos Tevez into context.
Oh lord, empty seat
I've always been a bit pissed off with UEFA's blatant anglophobia. But more and more, I see its point. Because I see and feel what this rampant money-grabbing is doing to the culture and balance of our game, combined as it is with a total lack of regulation of the wealth it generates.
So, I'm afraid my seat in the lower Doug Ellis is going to stay empty. Not because I don't love Villa. In fact, because I do. Because I resent being forced to support a team who know they can't win from the start. Because I resent my son idolising players who I know will be gone next season. Because I resent the Premier League taking all our heroes and all our dreams away from us.
I'm not going to sit with my son and shout and scream us on to a plucky 8th place finish, when that was all we were ever going to be able to achieve anyway.
This is Villa, for crying out loud.