Did Aston Villa pave the way? Sky Sports speaks with the Premier League’s first player liaison officer
Juan Pablo Angel became Aston Villa’s record signing at £9.5m from River Plate, but his impact lasted longer than a six-year stint.
His arrival, and subsequent struggles in the first six months, would help pave the way for international footballers to the Premier League for the next decade-and-a-half.
“He scored Lineker-type goals, they are priceless goals, and we need someone scoring 20 goals a season,” said manager John Gregory at the time, but it was not that simple.
Having forged a formidable partnership with Javier Saviola in the Argentine Primera Division, much was expected of the Colombian, then 25 years old.
Angel, a potent forward with aggression and grace in equal measure, arrived at Villa able to speak some English, but waited nine games for his first and only goal in the 2000/01 season.
Both Angel’s wife, Maria Paula, and son, Geronimo, fell ill soon after arriving in England, and despite his form picking up the following season under Gregory, his replacement Graham Taylor was quick to create a player welfare and liaison officer role in 2002 to help deal with these bedding-in problems.
That role, the first of its kind in the Premier League, was filled by Lorna McClelland. Now, McClelland says, larger clubs can have up to six welfare officers looking after a variety of issues, from housing to schooling to fear of ghosts.
“I once drove a young English player to his hotel after signing for Villa,” recalls McClelland, still Villa’s only first-team welfare officer. “I left him settled in this Tudor mansion, but at 9.30pm I had a frantic call from him.
“‘Please, Lorna, get me out of here, it’s haunted!’ he said. When I came and asked what had happened, he said the staff had told him the hotel was haunted.
“When he returned to his room he found the curtains had been drawn, the bed turned down, and he concluded a ghost had done it.
“He’s now a very prominent player in the UK, and we laugh together about this incident now – however, it was a very real fear for him at the time, and I needed to resolve it fast so that he could get some sleep before his first day of training.”
The initial idea from former England manager Taylor, and replicated by other top-flight clubs, has helped make the Premier League even more desirable for foreign players.
In 1994, English players accounted for 69 per cent of playing time in the Premier League; in 2001 that figure stood at 45 per cent and in 2015/16 was just 31 per cent.
Before leaving in June 2016, McClelland’s role included helping Villa players from home and abroad. Her and Taylor’s impact on the Premier League is as much connected to the increasingly acute focus on man management as it is the rise of foreign imports.
“Graham was very influential,” said McClelland. “He is a bright man who understands the ‘layers’ that make up a footballer. He recognised the need for someone to help.
“A manager needs to be able to concentrate on football, knowing his players are cared for. Graham knew from experience that good support can prevent homesickness and anxiety, thus a player can perform optimally.”
Allowing the manager to concentrate on football is one thing, but how much would McClelland intervene? Everything up to donning kit and a pair of boots to translate on the touchline in training, she reveals.
“Ecuador international Ulises de la Cruz joined the club in 2002, and Graham realised that some Spanish assistance would help during training.
“So he got me some boots and kit, and I translated for Ulises while he trained, running along the touchline. It caused some amusement, but he understood instructions, and it worked very well.”
Formerly a language teacher and volunteer counsellor, McClelland’s role at Villa took on both practical and emotional forms. From the moment a player arrives, and throughout their time at the club, she assists with relocation, banking, cars, phones, language tuition, support with media, and, perhaps most importantly, support for the family.
Former Manchester United goalkeeping coach Eric Steele told the United We Stand fanzine that David de Gea “ate too many tacos” and slept “two or three times a day” when he arrived from Atletico Madrid in 2011, while former Bolton player liaison officer Matt Hockin once told the Guardian how he was tasked with finding an airfield for Les Ferdinand’s helicopter.
But McClelland and others like her are not merely behind-the-scenes butlers. They are often the bridge between manager and player, a vital component in the machine of a top flight club, and can bring aid in the most serious of situations.
“I worked closely with the manager; if a player comes to see me he can speak in total privacy. If I feel that his problem is going to affect his football, I would ask permission to speak to the manager about it, and the players have always agreed.
“One incident I will never forget demonstrated the value of close, trusting relationships with players and their families, coupled with the ability to be able to speak in their language.
“In January 2010, I heard there had been a fatal shooting on the Togolese coach as it took them to Angola for the Africa Cup of Nations. I knew that midfielder Moustapha Salifou had been on that coach, so I immediately called his mobile.
“Fortunately I was able to speak with him while he was still on the bus; he was describing the whole horror of the scene. I was apparently the only person able to speak to him at that time, so was able to call his family in Togo and tell them he was still alive, and also tell the chairman and manager at Villa.
“But my main aim is to teach players to manage their lives independently – independence and responsibility translate on the pitch.”
The one-man club is a dying phenomenon in top flight football, and since the first window in 2003, the number of January transfers in the top four divisions of English football has almost doubled from 121 to January 2016’s figure of 233.
Player liaison officers are busier and more important than ever, and support for the player’s significant other is up there on the list of priorities.
“After 2001, other clubs soon recognised the value of the global care of a player, and also the care of the families.
“Wives in particular can be very isolated, and there is so much pressure on them to be glamorous all the time… there are always other women who are keen to meet a footballer!
“Sometimes former players can experience many problems – certainly gambling, alcoholism and depression are well-documented countrywide. They sometimes contact me for advice and support.
“I feel that the relationship created now with a current player may well help prevent these issues from arising later on in his life – he knows that he can call, even when he has been gone for years.”
But what happened to Angel? He went on to adhere himself with the Villa faithful, leaving for New York Red Bulls in 2007 having scored 62 goals in 205 appearances in England, many as a sub in the latter stages. His best form came post-Taylor, netting 23 times in the 2003/04 season under David O’Leary’s revitalised Villa.
“Juan had a very good sense of humour, and is very sociable, so he eventually integrated very quickly into the team,” recalls McClelland, but it was not always that simple.
“Before this role, there was little structured support in place in the Premier League for them and their families.
“Last week a foreign mum came over to visit her son. She always calls me ‘English Mum’, which is a real honour for me. She is happy to leave her son here.
“I feel my role can encourage players to come, and also to stay. Some have told me they signed contract extensions because of the help they have here. This cannot be quantified, but in financial terms, it is significant, and it is more significant in human terms.”
Nowadays, players barely out of their teens can jump from country to country for millions. McClelland and her colleagues seek to bring home comforts to what can be alien surroundings.
After stripping down the multi-million pound transfer fees and contracts, her story reminds us footballers are still humans.
*This is a version of an article originally published on SkySports.com in the summer of 2015*
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