These are familiar times at Aston Villa. They have, after all, started July by signing on a free transfer a medal-strewn Premier League legend in his late 30s, once considered perhaps the finest player in his position in the land but more recently used to openly pondering the possibility of retirement, and announced the arrival to the world in rather humiliating style.
So far, so 2001. It was 16 years ago next week that John Gregory invited reporters to Villa Park to meet his new goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel. The Dane, at 37 a year older than John Terry is now, was scheduled to pose for photographers while holding the club’s new goalkeeping shirt in then-traditional style but when it was brought out, bearing his name and the No1, he took one look and turned away.
“I think we’ll have to chat about that,” he told his new manager, choosing instead to brandish the standard outfield kit. “Peter just won’t wear grey,” Gregory later explained. “He’s like a boxer. Everything in his corner has got to be just right.”
The kit manufacturers, Diadora, were bemused. “I am amazed that one guy can dictate to the club what he wears,” said their managing director, Andrew Ronnie. “We worked with David James on the fabric, colour and design and everything was fine. We put a lot of effort into it. David was happy but then he left for West Ham. Peter joined and now we have a problem.”
July 3, 2017 Aston Villa FC
Perhaps this was the day that the foundations of the traditional transfer-unveiling ceremony started to crumble. A photo opportunity with the nearest item of club-branded merchandise will no longer do: modern footballers are complex characters with high wages and higher expectations, most of whom would not deign to look at a £9.99 acrylic weave scarf, let alone brandish it with pride for all posterity.
They also bring with them an expanding coterie of agents and advisers. Bryan Robson signed his first contract at Manchester United on the pitch shortly before the start of a match against Wolverhampton Wanderers in October 1981, perched upon a wobbly wooden folding chair with his new manager to his right, the chairman to his left and the club secretary stood behind, helpfully pointing to the bit that needed his signature. It is a scene that viewed today appears as outdated as Robson’s tight perm; any modern restaging would require, at the very least, more chairs, better haircuts, a great deal more paperwork and several bad-tempered arguments about image rights.
?⚽️… ???❗️#ASRoma pic.twitter.com/mjgBrwduHV
June 30, 2017 AS Roma
Clubs have always used the very latest communication technology to announce new signings, it is just that between the 1890s and the 1990s it changed little, with teams frustratingly restricted to the use of newspapers, photographers and the occasional town crier. Suddenly, however, their horizons have expanded. Villa announced Terry’s arrival by posting on Twitter a conversation on Snapchat, thereby simultaneously ticking two social-media boxes and keeping at arm’s length journalists who might overhear embarrassing conversations about the ugliness of their kit.
Liverpool FC (@LFC)
June 22, 2017
Last week Roma unveiled Lorenzo Pellegrini by posting a video of the player using his Roma-kitted virtual self to score a virtual goal on Fifa. Last month Liverpool published a video of a thumb scrolling through a Twitter stream of posts beseeching them to sign Mohamed Salah, which turned out to be Salah’s very own digit. A few days later the world learned that Crystal Palace had finally found a new manager when they posted footage of white smoke emerging, Vatican-style, from the chimney of a local Caribbean takeaway.
June 26, 2017 Crystal Palace F.C.
The popular reaction has been to mock these clubs for their novelty efforts, but after generations of cut-and-paste shirt-brandishings any innovation is surely to be celebrated, even if we still look forward to someone coming up with a good one. For years it took no thought whatsoever to organise a player unveiling, and now clubs dedicate at least a few minutes’ consideration and a bit of video editing to it, which is a shuffle in the right direction.
The great advance will be to professionalise – and, inevitably, commercialise – the experience, treating sold-out stadiums and audiences of millions via global cinema simulcasts to choreography, showtunes, fireworks both literal and figurative, and inevitable guest appearances from David Guetta. What is for certain is that unlike the monochrome efforts of yesteryear, the unveilings of the future will be anything but grey, which is something Schmeichel, at least, will be grateful for.