STUART McCALL, the Motherwell manager, talked a couple of weeks ago about the players in his pool who are in the final year of their contracts.
It was more efficient regarding them as a single entity, such is their number.
McCall could pick a team from this group and it would contain his most influential players: Darren Randolph, the goalkeeper; Tom Hateley, the versatile dead-ball specialist; Jamie Murphy, a 23-year-old forward who is already a veteran of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League; Nicky Law, perhaps their most consistent attacker of the past two years; Chris Humphrey, less reliable but more damaging in full flight; and Michael Higdon, the target man in the form of his life.
If Murphy leaves under freedom of contract, he will be the poster boy for the compensation system designed to protect clubs who develop their own young players. In the summer he will be approaching his 24th birthday, the very limit for "protected" players; he has been at Motherwell since he was 12 and was a first-pick for the Scotland Under-21 team. At 23, he has played 161 times in the top division.
Yet the club accepted a £300,000 bid for Murphy last January, from Blackpool, only for the player to decline the transfer. Motherwell recorded a profit of over £500,000 in February, without a significant transfer fee, but their financial stability does not alter their status as a selling club – it just means they can be better at doing it.
In August, they rejected bids for Shaun Hutchinson and Law. Hutchinson has another season after this one on his contract and the Motherwell board decided his curve suggested his value will surpass the £250,000 offered by a Championship club for the 21-year-old centre-back. On current form, it looks like sound judgment.
The offer for Law was £100,000. McCall and his employers know the 24-year-old midfielder is one of those who has probably played their way beyond the budget for a new contract at Fir Park. When suitors start to call him, from January, he will hear offers that will likely put those from his current club in the shadows. However, he is one of a key group of players for McCall whose absence can cost points. With each place in the table worth £80,000 before European qualification is factored in, Motherwell decided Law was worth more on the park for another season.
There have been no firm offers for the others, but they all hold interest for clubs with deeper pockets and several in Scotland must be looking with raised eyebrows at Higdon, whose career strike rate has, at the age of 29, more than doubled since McCall put him in the middle of his attacking trident.
Perhaps, however, the best kept secret is Randolph. The goalkeeper was picked up after being released by Charlton Athletic, aged 23. Motherwell's previous goalkeeper was John Ruddy, on loan from Everton. Since he returned south, in the summer of 2010, he has signed for Norwich City and become an England internationalist. Randolph's progress has been no less steep.
Pat Bonner, the former Celtic and Republic of Ireland goalkeeper, had worked with Randolph when he was coaching with the FAI. "We were very excited about him from a young age, 14 or 15," he remembered. "He was a big guy, his father was a basketball player. He was good on crosses, he had that ability. A lot of the US goalkeepers, with a basketball background, you see that they have something [in that area] that British keepers don't. Darren had that from his dad."
When Randolph left Charlton, Bonner intervened. "I had a good chat with him and his dad, not so much about the next club, but the direction his career was going to go," he said. "He had to get to a club where he was going to play first-team football. He's a big guy and he has that weight that comes with it. He has to work hard, he has to dedicate himself to his career. Psychologically, too, he had to get himself right. He already had everything else, but he had to work."
Work he did. Randolph, in his third season as an immoveable No.1, made his debut for the Republic of Ireland earlier this month, aged 25. He has only Fraser Forster, of Celtic, for competition as the best goalkeeper in the Premier League and that race is close enough to place Randolph's mid-contract value at half the £2m the champions paid to Newcastle United for their man.
"He has got himself into the Ireland squad and he will learn so much from that," added Bonner. "He has the potential to get into that team. That is what he should be thinking about – playing at international level.
"At club level, Motherwell have been good for him. The big disaster for Darren would be to go to a club and not get into the team. He needs to establish himself as a first- team goalkeeper, a guy who can make the difference between a good team and one that can compete for titles. He has to move for the right reasons, not just because of money.
"He has a manager who believes in him and someone behind him, in Gordon Marshall [goalkeeping coach], who can give him his experience, his knowledge and who is a good coach. He can help Darren continue to improve. If he's going to move he has to be guaranteed first-team football. But nobody gets that guarantee."
Motherwell have not given up on any of the players in their final years, but the market will almost certainly ensure they are on their last lap at Fir Park. They may be sitting on over £1m of assets they will never cash in on, but that is a credit to the acquisition policy that has them atop the table this morning.
Under four different managers, they have sought and found value in the lower leagues of England and they are financially secure enough to put that value on the pitch and not in the bank.