January, you may agree, is not the most fun of months. With the come-down from the festive period, the introduction of diets/exercise regimes and (certainly in the UK at least) cold, dark and wet days, it can all feel a bit dreary.

However, since the 2002/03 season, January has also held a mixture of excitement, rage and despair for football fans as the ‘transfer window’ allows their clubs to buy and sell players at the mid-point of the season (see here for a report on the Summer’s spending spree).  The January Sales of sport, if you will.

The window itself arises from Regulation 6 of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players which provides for only two periods during which a player may be registered at the relevant national association to play for a club, effectively limiting the transfer of players to these two periods (subject to exceptions).  The periods are:

  • a maximum of 12 weeks between seasons (normally to end before the following season starts, although this is not the case in England); and
  • a maximum of 4 weeks in the middle of the season.

In England, this year’s transfer window opened on 1 January and will close at 23:00 GMT on 31 January.

It can be a period of uncertainty and difficulty for both players and clubs. Many clubs look to keep hold of their best players, while other clubs will want to sign those players to boost their own title ambitions or battles for survival.  Some players may want to move away against their club’s wishes because they are unhappy or they are looking to avoid those battles for survival.

One such story coming to a head is Dimitri Payet’s future at West Ham United. Payet, a French international, signed for West Ham in June 2015.  He quickly became an important player for the club, scoring 9 goals and making 12 assists in 29 Premiership games in the 2015/2016 season.  In February 2016, he signed a new contract with the club tying him down until the summer of 2021.

However, recent headlines are making clear that Payet now wants out and he appears to be refusing to play or train in order to try to force West Ham’s hand.  The manager, Slaven Bilic, has made clear that they do not wish to sell the player, although naturally rumours are surfacing that the club will look to recoup money on a player who refuses to play.

It is a difficult situation for all involved, but what can the club do? I wrote recently that you cannot compel a player to play for you, i.e. you cannot get an injunction to force your player onto the team bus.  That applies equally here, Payet cannot be forced to play against his will.

Reports suggest that Payet will be fined by West Ham through a disciplinary process. If a fair process is followed, there should be no legal issue with this.  However, thinking realistically, is a fine going to make much difference considering the modern football salary?  Probably more so than a written warning, but still not much.

There is a major difficulty for football clubs in this scenario when compared with other employers. Usually, an employer can simply dismiss an employee who is refusing to carry out their duties or the inherent threat of such a dismissal will prevent an employee refusing in the first place.  If dismissed, the employee is left seeking a new job and the employer can seek a new recruit for the position.  Recruitment costs may be annoying but a small price to pay to ensure the job is being done.

It is not so simple for a football club. Players are the most valuable assets for a club in terms of playing success (i.e. winning games, achieving promotion, winning trophies) and commercial value (i.e. image rights, shirt sales and even their own potential transfer fee).  Even a player who refuses to play will retain a certain commercial value, particularly the transfer fee.  West Ham would not dismiss Payet for refusing to play because then the club would lose the possibility of selling him.

Compounding the loss of value of the dismissed player, the club’s equivalent of recruitment costs will also be rather more painful than the ‘normal’ employer given they will likely need to buy a replacement for a potentially large transfer fee.

Therefore managing a situation like this is more difficult for football clubs than most employers. The easy route is to simply accept the player’s position and sell him, but then the club sets a precedent for the future which it is unlikely to want.  Any player who wishes to move will simply go on ‘strike’ as per Payet, knowing the club will likely avoid the fight and simply cash in.  This is particularly so if the player’s contract is close to an end, since the player can move to a new club for free at expiry of the contract.

The more difficult approach is to try to encourage the player back onto the pitch. This could be through identifying and addressing the reason that the player is unhappy in the first place or providing other assurances/incentives with a view to improving the relationship.  However, this may be attempting to mend a relationship that has already irretrievably broken down.

There are a number of weeks to go before the transfer window shuts and so plenty of time for this story to rumble on. Payet may change his tune or West Ham may wait to see what offers they receive for him.  One thing is for certain though, it will not be the last saga we see in a January transfer window.  Fans will remain on the edge of their seats for a while yet!