Former Nottingham Forest star Garry Birtles insisted ‘player power’ was nothing new in football, following this week’s transfer of the outstanding Michail Antonio to West Ham.
But Birtles insisted Forest did a good job in getting the best possible deal for the club and that Antonio’s wish to move back to his native London and take the chance to test himself at Premier League level was simply human nature.
Birtles also insisted the transfer window should close before the first ball is kicked so managers can have settled players with Forest boss Dougie Freedman having worries over losing Antonio, Henri Lansbury and Michael Mancienne for most of August.
“Let’s not claim that player power is something new. It has been going on for years,” said Birtles.
“Remember Paul Ince insisting that he would never pull on a West Ham shirt again, after Manchester United had come in for him? He got his way, didn’t he?
“There was never any such ultimatum from Michail Antonio.
“He never went down the Saido Berahino route and threw his toys out of the pram on social media, when bids from Derby and West Brom were rejected.
“But Dougie Freedman did pull him out of a match day squad, because he felt his ‘mind wasn’t right’ when it came to playing football. And the suggestion was that Antonio very much wanted to leave; he wanted the opportunity to play Premier League football. Who can blame him?
“It is what every footballer dreams of, when they get their first professional deal – and a move to West Ham had the added benefits of taking him back to his native London. Of course he wanted to go. And, from the moment that became clear, Forest were facing a losing battle when it came to keeping him.
“The important thing was they won the fight to get a deal that was right for the club. And, in my eyes, that is one battle they did win.
“They did not buckle at £4m or even £5m, when the Hammers upped the ante in the final week of the window.
“No, Forest held out and got a very good deal for the player, in difficult circumstances.
“A fee of £7m is good business for a player who, while possessing all the attributes to be a good performer in the top flight, is still untested at that level.
“Antonio, in fact, has had only one stand-out season in the Championship. At Sheffield Wednesday he was known for being unstoppable on his day – but for being a little inconsistent.”
Birtles continued: “There is no question that he was an almost constant threat for Forest last season, starting every single Championship game and being one of the best performers in almost all.
“He scored 15 goals and produced almost as many assists, while generally tormenting opposition defences every week. And he had started off in a similar vein this season, scoring four goals.
“But would that have been maintained had Forest insisted he was not allowed to leave? Would Antonio have been the same player had he been left to contemplate what might have been?
“We will never find out the answer to that for certain, but my gut feeling would be no. And that is just human nature.
“Forest cannot spend the money, but the £7m will ensure that they are comfortably out of their FFP embargo next summer – and that is a hugely significant step.”
Birtles then slammed the current timing of the window closing, saying: “Forest’s main gripe should not be that they have lost a player, it should be the timing of his departure.
“It is frankly ridiculous that the transfer window remains open once the season starts; once the action has begun.
“In fairness to him, Henri Lansbury’s performances never looked to have dipped, throughout the time the Burnley transfer saga was going on.
“In fact, he played some of the best football we have seen from him in a long time. It is hard to escape the notion that this might even have been part of his reason for eventually deciding that he wanted to stay. Perhaps he realised that he enjoyed life at Forest.
“But Antonio was distracted by it and, along with Antonio, Michael Mancienne was also the subject of a bid from Fulham.
“Again, he was not the sort of character to kick up a fuss; to demand a move. But you got the feeling it is something he would have welcomed, given that it would have involved a move back to the part of London where he grew up.
“And players should not have that distraction once the season has started; managers should pick their sides based on performance levels, on the way their players are playing on the pitch – not based on whether they are properly focused or, alternatively, distracted by speculation.
“No, it is time for a change. The transfer window must close before the season starts.
“I don’t care if it is the night before the first game. Or even two hours before the first ball is kicked. “In the future, no player should be distracted by speculation over his future once the season has started – and no manager should have to survive the first three weeks of the season with a squad that has two or three players who may still be harbouring thoughts about moving elsewhere.
“Next summer, somebody will have an Ince moment; somebody, somewhere, will look to force a move away from their club. It may even be at Forest. This is just part of modern football. We will never change it.
“But we hope that, when it happens, it is not such a distraction, at a time when the season is well underway.”