We learned a few things from the closure of the 2013 transfer window. Gareth Bale is the world’s most expensive footballer, Mesut Ozil is the saviour of Arsenal and no-one at Manchester United can tell the time. However, one development which went largely unnoticed, quite rightly, was the seemingly innocuous transfer of Jacob Butterfield from Norwich City to Middlesbrough. That it went so unnoticed was no surprise, as Butterfield’s story of his time at Carrow Road is only remarkable for how unremarkable it was.
We are well-versed in the cases of a Winston Bogarde or a Kieron Dyer. A player who either shamelessly collects his pay with no intention of ever actually playing any football or one so injury-plagued that his body seems to reject the very notion of him doing so. Butterfield is different however. A keen young man at his peak, injury free and apparently not short of a bit of ability. Nevertheless, he appears to be symptomatic of the growing wastage of the modern game, where players are either allowed or forced to exist in the shadows without ever dirtying their boots.
It all looked so promising a little more than a year ago. On the back of a good season in a struggling Barnsley side, Chris Hughton parted with the usual undisclosed fee for the then 22 year-old Butterfield in July 2012. He was in good company, with the Canaries’ shopping list also including the likes of Robert Snodgrass and Sebastien Bassong that summer. But, 176 minutes of competitive action later, Butterfield’s Norwich City career was over and the interim has seen him cast as a character akin to Big Ron or Winston in Albert Square, in that his occasional appearances are more noteworthy than his otherwise near-continual absence.
In any case, it’s not the lack of appearances that seem to make Butterfield’s career desolate, as he has enjoyed fitfully operational loan spells at both Bolton and Crystal Palace. It’s the lack of purpose behind such appearances, with his only meaningful occupation of the last two seasons being the one-night-stand of the football world, the loan stint where you pop in, do the business as best you can, then move on and all is soon forgotten. Few at either Selhurst Park or the Reebok will recall his endeavours on their behalf, all with the putative aim of “match fitness,” a fallacy of the game which could probably be done away with the evolution of a slightly more swanky treadmill.
So, if Butterfield has become an embodiment of the aimless meandering modern-day footballer, how has this sorry state of affairs come about?
One possibility is that players are serving ever-shorter apprenticeships before being given their crack at the big time, and therefore reaching lofty stations sooner than ever before, necessitating ever-longer periods of consolidation. The inflation in transfer fees for the most accomplished players mean that there are serious savings to be had for those who spot an embryonic talent and snap it up. Kevin Keegan was obliged to prove his worth through 124 league games for Scunthorpe United before Liverpool were sufficiently satisfied that they should shell out for him. Two years ago, the same club were sufficiently impressed with Jordon Ibe’s first seven games for Wycombe Wanderers to reward his sixteenth birthday with a professional contract. Furthermore, in a time when neither the stakes nor the wages were not as high, clubs were more willing to do some of the donkey work themselves. Ronnie Whelan and Steve Nicol amassed 22 major honours between them in their respective careers at Liverpool, yet neither of them played a single first-team game within their first two years at Anfield, but at least they were being nurtured at a club that they could call their own.
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Of course, the recent loan transfer epidemic has much to answer for, as months, if not seasons, being packed off to lower-league clubs become a staple diet of a young player’s tutelage. David Beckham might have scored the first goals of his career during a five game loan spell at Preston North End in 1994, but that must have seen like a weekend mini-break compared to the tortuous circumnavigations of his modern-day counterparts. Carlton Cole, for example, was loaned away from Chelsea for three consecutive seasons before they got round to discarding him. Butterfield’s former Norwich team mate John Ruddy was loaned from Everton on nine separate occasions. Of course, he might now be forgiven for wondering if there was nothing in any of that multitude of excursions that suggested to the Goodison Park hierarchy that he might one day be within one more Joe Hart calamity of being the England number one.
The apparent requirement for ever-larger squads also has a role to play in marginalising increasing numbers of players. Players as accomplished as Craig Bellamy have found themselves outside their club’s 25 man squad in recent times and Crystal Palace have even excluded some of their newest signings this year. This is in stark contrast to Aston Villa’s championship-winning side of 1981 when they called on the services of just 14 players during the whole season, which in itself was not entirely unusual in a time when most squads just consisted of the best eleven with the occasional jack-of-all-trades thrown in for cover. Furthermore, matchday practices have changed also, with only the most Jurassic of managers not obsessed with proving their tactical dexterity by continually switching personnel, positions and formations on a minute-by-minute basis. This has had its effect on poor old Butterfield also, as players like he are no longer defined by a particular position as once they were. Instead, being an attacking player but not a forward, and a playmaker but not a midfielder, he unfortunately perpetuates the loathsome rhetoric of the likes of Jamie Redknapp by “dropping into areas” and “filling holes.” So much so that not only does Butterfield not have a place in the team, we’re not entirely sure which one it is that he doesn’t have.
Also, with players being able to reach financial opulence more rapidly than ever before, they also seem less compelled to milk their careers for every last moment, as evidenced by the recent trend concerning how playing days are brought to an end. Injury or eventual geriatric inability were once the only reasons why players ever retired, as famously evidenced by the likes of Stanley Matthews still playing in the top flight in his late forties. Nowadays, a retirement is an altogether more whimsical statement, for which one can warm up by sacking off one’s country first, just to get a feel for it. Just look at Paul Scholes who has retired twice yet still looks perplexed by it all and is still actually rather a handy player. Increasing numbers of players are calling it a day whilst still appearing to have much to offer, rather than resigning themselves to the once obligatory descent though the lower leagues and a sabbatical in an obscure country, only mercifully ended by entering the licensing trade.
The fact that so many footballers can now exist quite satisfactorily without actually playing much appears to represent a lamentable dilution of the profession. Once a footballer was a revered leader of men holding trophies aloft and the teller of tales of sporting lore. For many it now represents a decent way in your early twenties to meet some good-looking women and obtain some quick capital for your property portfolio. One wonders what the generations of Butterfields to come will understand of the experiences of their talented forebear and his countless reserve games interspersed with loan periods amongst teams of strangers.
One can’t help wondering if Butterfield was ever tempted to cut loose from the apparent inertia of his career by any means necessary, trapped as he was, being not good enough to play and not bad enough to be discarded. If he’s guilty of one thing it’s probably this, seemingly allowing himself to be coated in magnolia to the point of virtual invisibility. As they say about all missing persons, it’s the not knowing that kills you.
Who knows, Butterfield might well emerge from the shadows and make a go of it at Middlesbrough. I genuinely hope that he does. After all, I’ve got nothing against him, I’ve never even seen him play.