This is the time of year when all the big issues are starting to get sorted out: the Premier League title race is narrowing down to a few teams, the relegation scrap is intensifying and the cup competitions are reaching crunch time.
Alongside all of this, clubs and players are starting to get serious about new contracts. The summer is just around the corner and by now, the game of cat and mouse between the two parties will be in full swing.
Believe me, it is an absolute minefield when you start talking money in football. Some of the most jaw-dropping moments I’ve had in football have come down to contracts and neither the clubs nor the players are above playing a few games to get what they want.
At Sunderland they have some big players out of contract and at Newcastle, Loic Remy holds all the cards. His agent will be out there now looking to see if Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal and Chelsea will consider him in the summer. He can bascially name a price to Newcastle and if they don’t pay, he’ll go.
For others, it’s not so simple. What a lot of fans probably don’t know is that it isn’t just players who have agents. Certainly in my day all of the top clubs would employ their own agents for one simple reason: to make it easier to ship out the players they didn’t want.
The idea would be a simple one: a manager like Gustavo Poyet will draw up his list of six or seven players that he doesn’t really fancy and then the agent’s job will be to drum up some interest in them so they can be moved on. The player might want to stay but his hand gets forced. It’s quite clever, really.
I always started to get twitchy if my contract was coming to an end and there was no sign of a resolution. I didn’t like it hanging over me when I went on holiday in the summer because if I was going to have to find a new club in the summer it would mean moving house, putting kids in a new school and massive upheavals. I wanted it sorted long before then.
Still, I saw all the tricks in the book during two contract disputes that ultimately saw me move on.
The one most people will be familiar with is when I was at Sunderland. Now the summer before, I had the option of speaking to four clubs as I was leaving Everton: Sunderland, Coventry, Alan Curbishley’s Charlton and Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough. I talked to all of them and Gordon Strachan really impressed me with Coventry. There was no hard sell. He said: “We won’t win the league. We’ll be in a relegation battle this year. But you’ll be my captain and if you do well for me I’ll make sure you get a good move in a year or two.” He’d done that for Robbie Keane so I trusted what he was saying.
Three of the four clubs were offering me £25,000 a week but Sunderland were offering me £20,000. Even though that was the case, I went to Sunderland because I was desperate to come back to the North East and I wanted to work with Peter Reid, who was a guy I always liked. When I signed I shook hands with someone at boardroom level who said if I did well, there would be a chance of looking at it again. I then had one of the best seasons of my life – I scored goals, I was in the Scotland team and we nearly made it into Europe. So I thought I was in a strong position to ask them to look again at the contract. No chance. My point was that I was losing a lot of money by signing for Sunderland and I’d held up my part of the bargain but the message that came back was that we needed to find out where we were next season. I was gutted. Funnily enough, I saw Bob Murray in the boardroom just before I started talking to Sunderland again and his grandchildren all had ‘Hutchison’ on their shirts!
He told me: “They’d be gutted if you left.” I thought that meant the club would try to re-sign me but it didn’t work out like that. I have no hard feelings towards Sir Bob but when West Ham came in and doubled the price Sunderland paid for me I was accused of being a money grabber. I actually wanted to stay.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been involved in a disagreement over my contract. I had joined Sunderland after Everton and saw Olivier Dacourt, Marco Materazzi and Kevin Campbell come into the squad on big money. I was being paid £6,000 a week and they were all on £25,000 or more. I knew I couldn’t get to that level but I asked Walter Smith (then manager) to sort me out.
I remember sitting in El Choco restaurant in Pisa and Walter telling me to get a bottle of red wine and come for a chat. He promised to match Nick Barmby’s wage, which was £16,000.
But when we got back to England, that had been forgotten.
The offer was £8,500 from Everton and my agent Rachel Anderson called a halt to things.
I sought out Walter and asked what that was all about. He said he didn’t have any recollection of our meeting but I told him he’d told me what other players were on, so I couldn’t be making it up!
For the second time he pinned me up against a wall and told me I’d never play for Everton again. It was the day before we were due to play West Ham and I watched from home as Nick Barmby scored a hat-trick in a big win.
My days were numbered. Walter told me to go and train with the kids or train on my own, which I did for a month until there was a load of injuries and suspensions and I was back in the team against Leicester. I scored the equaliser with a header – one of my best moments – but I still left for Sunderland at the end of the year.