21 March ~ We've moved on to 1987 in our look back at 25 years of WSC. In issue 9 there were concerns that the rich were getting richer, the Football League was becoming a closed shop and the populist press was getting in a lather about England's footballing superstars – like Mark Hateley – departing en masse for Europe's rich clubs
"Derby County paid what may turn out to be the last really big fee ever in November 1975 for Leighton James from Burnley for £300,00" – Martin Tyler, The Story of Football
Unwary prophets are fond of proclaiming huge transfer fees as the highest that will ever be paid for a British player. They were doing it for Alf Common (£1,000) and David Jack (£10,000), a long time ago. No doubt they will do it for Peter Beardsley too, and no doubt they will be equally wrong. But the fee for Beardsley, and more importantly, his destination, are thoroughly depressing.
Newcastle aren't a small struggling club in desperate need of a cash injection (as their willingness to part with a large proportion of the cash straight away shows). What they do need is a team good enough to make a credible challenge for a trophy or two, and losing Beardsley has probably denied them that. If even he, who of all the top players was likely to retain the strongest sense of loyalty to his club, his area and his people, if even he has his price (and someone has the money), who else is safe?
The difference between the transfer market now and in the late Seventies/early Eighties is that the really big fees are becoming restricted to fewer and fewer clubs. Then, most of the million-pound players were bought by middle-ranking First Division clubs (Wolves, Man City, Forest) and even Notts County stumped up £600,000 for John Chiedozie (1981), Palace £722,000 for Mike Flanagan (1979) and Leeds £930,000 for Peter Barnes (1981). Now clubs of a similar status and higher (like Newcastle), can only buy big if they sell first, with the exception of those with a chairman prepared to put up his own money (e.g. Chelsea, and now Derby).
The transfer market is just the latest indication of how the rich are getting richer, and even the Newcastles can no longer count themselves among them. The sad result is that the League title will almost certainly not go to a surprise team (talking of unwary prophets!), this season or for the foreseeable future. What Forest did in 1978 and Villa in 1981 (and Derby before them), and what Ipswich and QPR genuinely could have done too, is becoming more and more unlikely. Man Utd know better than anyone that you cannot simply buy success – but what you can do by spending heavily is is ensure others' failure by taking away their best players, even if they're surplus to your requirements (hello, John Wark). The Football League is not yet at the stage of, say, the Netherlands or Portugal, where no one but the top three clubs even dares to suggest that they might win the league, but it's getting closer all the time.
Which brings us to the other side of the transfer story – the impending free flow of players within the EEC, as reported with customary balance in the Daily Mail:
"English football was abandoned last night to the mercy of rich European clubs waiting to plunder the rest of its star players. The Football League warned that the trickle of celebrities like Ian Rush, Glenn Hoddle, Mark Hateley, Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes to the Continent is in danger of becoming a flood following an EEC ruling yesterday."
"The English game is liable to be draining of almost all its best footballers by a ruling that any limitation on the movement of players around the Common Market is illegal. Come the next World Cup – in Italy in 1990 – Bobby Robson must expect to find himself among the poor relations of the global game, like Denmark's manager Sepp Piontek, for example, trying to gather his England squad together from all over Europe."
The prophets of doom are proclaiming yet again that Britain (or rather England) is about to lose all its decent and half-decent players to the fleshpots of Europe. Apart from the undeniably racist undertones of the story(i.e. nice clean English boys being deviously lured over to greasy dago-land), it begs the question of what English clubs are going to do about it. Surely the answer is to go and lure some nice French/Belgian/Dutch lads to the Toughest League in the World, which they all admire so much from seeing it week in, week out on the TV.
That doesn't mean paying £650,000 for a top international striker and keeping him in the reserves until Paul Allen gets injured; or doing your "scouting" by watching the UEFA Cup final on television and then putting in a bid for the captain of the winning team. A bit more imagination is called for. Most of all, it needs the recognition that if foreign players don't "fit in", it may not be entirely their fault.
So, what's to stop other managers showing the same boldness that, say, Keith Burkinshaw did in bringing Ardiles and Villa to England, or as Brian Clough has consistently done at Forest? Well, basically, the answer is that nauseating chauvinism which manifests itself so frequently in British football, and just wants no truck with foreigners, full stop (except Scots, Irish and Welsh, of course, well they're almost civilised, aren't they?). The suggestion that English managers should go and look for a few more young or relatively obscure players abroad, should not seem so radical. If it's English players' jobs we're worried about, then the logical step should be to encourage more of our players to go abroad. Obviously it isn't. It's not a cure-all, but as a first step to spicing the League up a bit, giving the slightly less well-off, but more imaginative clubs a better share of the talent, and making up for the tragic loss of Mark Hateley and the other lost sheep, how about a few ads like this in France Football:
Talented Pros For Toughest League In The World
English club requires foreign players for 60-game season. Must have the necessary "bottle" and be prepared to encounter Mark Dennis as a well as patronising interviews on Football Focus. Good salary for right man, with appropriate bonuses for honours (exclusive of Full Members Cup).
(Important: The Football League is not an Equal Opportunities Employer – no nancy-boys need apply.)