HOW narrow is the dividing line between being a professional footballer, seeking the best salary for your ability, and being a self-seeking prima donna?
That line has been firmly tested over the past couple of months.
First we had the one man strike at West Ham by their star play maker Dimitri Payet, demanding he be sold for a mega million fee.
Then we had striker Chris Martin do much the same at Fulham, although on this occasion he simply wanted to return to his parent club Derby County.
And then we saw striker Ross McCormack conduct a one man training strike at Aston Villa. His actions forced Villa manager Steve Bruce to publically reveal that the Scot had been dropped from the first team squad for “continually missing training”.
But these examples are not a new capitalist madness in the beautiful game we all love.
Back in 1998, Dutch striker Pierre van Hooijdonk staged a very public one player strike, claiming Nottingham Forest had made “broken promises” to sell him if he helped them earn promotion from Division One.
And more recently in September 2011, during a Champions League clash with Bayern Munich, Argentine star Carlos Tevez ignored Roberto Mancini’s orders and refused to come on as a substitute for Manchester City.
So how refreshing is it that one of our own stars has the dignity and professionalism to show others how to behave.
The transfer speculation surrounding Dale Stephens dominated the Albion’s close-season.
The Seagulls turned down several bids of up to £8million from Premier League side Burnley for the midfield star.
Then as the transfer window closed, Stephens took to Twitter to explain that although he had been “reluctant” to submit a transfer request, he wanted an opportunity to play in the top flight.
“I’m 27 and recognised this could by my final opportunity to do so, which is why I feel disappointed my chance was taken away,” he posted.
Many Albion fans feared that Stephens might sulk, rebel or simply refuse to train as a result of his rejected transfer.
But how wrong they were.
Since last August, Stephens has proved to be one of our key players. His work ethic is exemplary and his importance to the team is pivotal.
Small wonder that the Albion have not lost a game this season, when Stephens has been in the team.
On 22 October, after scoring the winner for the Albion against Wigan, he underlined his professionalism saying: “I enjoy playing for this club and enjoy playing for this manager and I remain fully committed until the end of the season.”
But Dale Stephens’ situation opens up a reality for many professional footballers, and maybe casts some light on the actions of Payet, Martin and McCormack.
It has always been the case that the career of a professional footballer is short.
For while many may sign for a club as a schoolboy, their proper career doesn’t usually take off until they turn 20. And for most it is all over by the time they reach 35 – Inigo Calderon, Bobby Zamora and Gordon Greer are good recent cases in point.
So what do they do for the next 30 years of a normal working life?
Some stay with the club in an executive or coaching capacity (Guy Butters and Paul Watson) and some take up TV or radio punditry (Adam Virgo), but for others the future is less clearly defined.
For all players the onus is to earn as much as they can, while playing at their top level, to pay for a lengthy retirement.
Last season, average Championship earnings were £6,235 a week (£324,250 a year) while in the Premier League first-team average salaries were around £1.7 million.
Meanwhile, the average basic pay in League One was £69,500 and £40,350 in League Two – not much more than the national average.
That means top-flight players earned over five times as much as Championship players, almost 25 times as much as League One players, and around 42 times as much as League Two players.
Small wonder that players like Dale Stephens want to play in the Premier League before age and declining fitness determines that their career is over.
Thirty years ago, a top-flight footballer earned on average £25,000 per year, or just two-and-a-half times as much as the average household income of £9,788.
By 1995-96, a top-flight player earned six-and-a-half times as much as an ordinary family, and by 10 years ago it was more than 20 times as much, or £686,000 versus £33,000 per year.
Now it’s more than 40 times as much.
So spare a thought for my boyhood Albion heroes of the late 1960s.
Charlie Livesey was already a star with Chelsea when he joined the Albion in 1965. He was the Dale Stephens type dynamo of that era.
At the time the average weekly wage for a footballer in the third tier was just £20.
In his four years with the Albion, Livesey made 146 appearances, scoring 37 goals, before being released aged just 31, in April 1969.
He finished his career at Crawley Town then returned to the East End of London where he became a humble painter and decorator. Charlie died in 2005, aged 67.
Nobby Lawton was a similar midfielder – ironically born in Newton Heath, Manchester, just a few miles from where Dale Stephens later grew up.
He began his football career as an amateur with Manchester United. Following the Munich air disaster in 1958, he gave up his job with a local coal merchant to sign professional forms.
By the time he signed for the Albion from Preston North End in 1967, aged 27, wages had climbed to £30 a week.
Lawton was Livesey’s natural replacement at the heart of midfield and scored 14 goals in 112 appearances before dropping down to the Fourth Division to play for Lincoln City in 1970, and retiring two years later, aged 32. He returned to Newton Heath in 1977 to work for an export packaging firm.
Nobby Lawton died in April 2006, aged just 66.
Today, while Dale Stephens will hope for a much longer and healthier life, his career expectation is the same as it was for Charlie Livesey and Nobby Lawton, all those years ago.
It’s a long retirement.