On January 17th 2011 my life as a football fan changed forever when Darren Bent signed for Aston Villa. At the time I was a naïve 16-year-old, and quite honestly I felt betrayed.
I had stupidly believed his claims of loving the club - I had fallen for the photos of him sat on the beach at Roker eating ice creams while he talked of creating a legacy on Wearside. That was the last time I ever took the claim of a footballer at face value.
Five and a half years later we find ourselves in a similar situation with Lamine Kone. Since arriving at the club in January he has built an instant connection with the supporters. From clattering Yaya Toure on his debut to baiting Mags on his superbly managed twitter account; it was impossible not to love the Frenchman. Throw in his vital goals from set-pieces and rock solid defending and we were all fans of "Team Kone" as well as Sunderland AFC.
Kone, leaving the training ground today, was stopped in his car by Sunderland supporters hoping to hear promising news from him. Whether he fully understood their questions was unclear - what was, however, was his note that the club had promised him a new contract.
Kone: 'I want to stay' #SAFC pic.twitter.com/4cMxhOA9N6— Gav (@Gav1879) 10 August 2016
What happens next I suppose is in the club's court. The player and his agent clearly are piling pressure on Sunderland to give them more money. Whether that is justified or not is up for debate. Whether the player and his agent have proof that Sunderland agreed to renegotiate his current deal is still unclear.
But if and when he leaves I won’t be annoyed at losing a likeable player - I’ll be annoyed at yet another example of excess player power.
We’ve seen it infect the game more and more in recent years. If a core of players is unhappy with the management set up they will collectively not apply themselves as much as they should. We saw it at Chelsea when Andre Vilas Boas was given a long term remit of moving on senior players and changing their style of play. Although he made a mistake in trying to operate with such a high line with slower defenders, the attitude the players showed towards him was disrespectful. Further salt was rubbed into the wounds when the same players produced fantastic displays to win that season’s Champions League. Some would argue that Di Matteo demonstrated superior man management and tactical ability, but since he left Chelsea this hasn’t proven to be the case.
More depressingly, if a player has a purple patch of form or is a big fish in a small pond they seem to think it is their God given right to expect a move to a bigger club. If this isn’t granted they have a number of ways of manipulating a move. At Newcastle Moussa Sissoko mentions his desire to play for Arsenal in the media at every opportunity despite being invisible for large parts of the 15/16 campaign. There have also been examples of players going on strike in order to force through deals.
In this case though, it goes above and beyond mere player power it is a combination of that and the authority of the agent. Although he will naturally have his client’s best interests at heart, the way Kone’s agent has conducted himself has been grossly unprofessional.
After leaking information to the media about his client being on Merseyside and giving the impression that the deal was all but done, he threw a major spanner in the works late last night. He claimed that Kone would still be available for selection at Manchester City and was "awaiting the offer of a contract from Sunderland." This tactic was very shrewd but also underhand, suddenly the finger of blame was being pointed at the club for not offering him a new deal rather than at the agent. Twitter was full of people tweeting "contract for Kone" and "just get it done man, Sunlan."
This sentiment is understandable and I would very much like Kone to remain at the club, but perspective is also needed. Despite an impressive start to life in a Sunderland shirt it is important to remember that it is just a start. The Frenchman still has three and a half years to go on his Sunderland contract and will be earning a lot more than he has ever earned in his career but after just a few months of good form his agent is holding the club to ransom over a deal rumoured to be worth double his reported current salary.
Unfortunately, the club are now in a no win situation, if they give into his demands it sets a dangerous trend. Every time a player shows a good spell of form they can approach the club with the Kone situation to back them up in the hope of an increased contract. If they don’t offer him improved terms, they will face a fan backlash for selling one of their best players who "wants to stay".
But as usual it is us who suffer from this, the club gets a big transfer fee, the player gets his big move but we lose a player of his quality and receive a kick in the teeth just days before the season starts. But whatever happens, no player, owner or manager is bigger than the football club and we remain the only semblance of loyalty in the modern game.