Dimitri Payet may never have heard of Pierre van Hooijdonk but during the spare time he may find he has on his hands in self-imposed exile from West Ham United, he could look up one of the first Premier League players to go on strike and see how that panned out.
Van Hooijdonk, the possessor of a mean free-kick and an outspoken turbulent streak, decided to down tools in the summer of 1998 after an exceptional season and an adventure with Holland’s World Cup squad. He sensed a lack of ambition around the club, accused them of going back on their word and sought a transfer. Nottingham Forest refused. Van Hooijdonk decided not to play, train, or even live in the city.
The impasse lasted several months. Eventually, perhaps bored of life on the game’s periphery, he returned to the City Ground. The memorable postscript came when he was recalled to the team and scored in a derby. Let’s just say Van Hooijdonk’s celebration was on the lonely side. There was not a queue of team-mates to congratulate him.
In the conversations that have taken place between Payet and his advisers to reach the point where the player told West Ham he wants to leave at the worst possible time, they may have skated over the possibility he might spend some time as an outcast and how that would feel. A player who wants to leave sometimes has to play a long game, usually gets vilified, and it does not always go to plan.
There can be no certainty West Ham will sell their prized asset at the moment. Their uncomfortable league position only a few points above the relegation zone, combined with the fact it is January and fiendishly difficult to recruit top talent, does not add up to taking the money. West Ham know they have the stronger legal position no matter what personal reasons Team Payet will throw into the mix to make their own case.
This may be a hangover season compared to the delight with which Payet twinkled his way through the Premier League last term but West Ham are hardly laden with creative players and match-winners. They have only one fit striker, Andy Carroll. They may just have to sit tight and hope for a thaw if they can see out the chilling draughts from the January window.
The summer is one thing but countenancing the sale of Payet now makes sense only if West Ham think they can land an instantly inspiring replacement or believe their team spirit and against-adversity togetherness will be better without him.
It is West Ham’s call. Not an easy one but it is their choice as to whether they feel they can ride the storm and bring Payet back to try to add a desperately needed lift in the second half of the season, or elect to dispense of him.
Football being football, moods can change quickly. Exhibit A: The Carlos Tevez U-turn, which saw the Argentinian lambasted for falling out with Roberto Mancini only for an exchange of olive branches. Tevez then scored instrumental goals as Manchester City homed in on their first title for more than four decades. A tough moral stance tends to get kicked into touch when needs must.
In the words of a wise old football negotiator who has overseen countless deals, the standoff between West Ham and Payet smacks of one thing: “There is always another club behind it.” Within minutes of Slaven Bilic outlining his dismay at his best player throwing in the towel, odds were being hastily calculated on Payet’s next club, ranging from a return to Marseille, who are trying to reinvent themselves under new ownership, French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain, a smattering of high profile Premier League title-chasers, or a mega-salary in China.
Payet’s sudden disinclination to play for West Ham has all the ingredients of a classic tactic to force a move inspired by a suitor and an agent. Prompting a player to agitate for a move usually gets the ball rolling and it is here that West Ham’s board and manager are forced into an extremely awkward corner.
The trick – and it is a mightily difficult one to pull off – is to find a happy ending when virtually every probable script for West Ham looks like a nightmare. These fracturing relationships, these disputes, tend to go one way – in the direction of the apparently disaffected player and his supporting cast, with their mobiles abuzz from any number of unnamed Chinese clubs.
Bilic was absolutely right to express his anger. During a difficult season, adjusting to the big move and trying to find a plan with a bunch of disappointing summer signings, this is the last thing West Ham need.
At the age of 29, Payet may well feel there is an opportunity round the corner that may never come again. Unfortunately that has encouraged him to ignore the fundamentals of being part of a team – relying on each other, being part of something bigger than your own performance.
Better than Zinedine Zidane? Dear, oh dear. West Ham are in a quandary with a sorry, dissonant song ringing in their ears.
The Guardian Sport