Thursday 15 January ~

The editorial in WSC 102 (August 1995) discussed the inflation of transfer fees. Little did we know that 14 years later we'd be considering a £100 million footballer

Remember Steve Daley? If you do, then it’s because his transfer from Wolves in 1979 cost Manchester City over £1 million and, arguably, Malcolm Allison his job. His wasn’t the first, or last, seven-figure move of the time, but Daley’s is the name most often recalled to sum up that frenzied period, principally because he was hugely overpriced: a good enough player for what was then the First Division, but never a serious contender for international caps. His name comes to mind because the transfer market is as mad now as it was in 1979. A bargain these days is any player moving between Premier League clubs for less than £2m.

The Collymore case illustrates one of the causes of the grotesque inflation in fees, a new outbreak of a particularly virulent disease that occasionally strikes at football and for which there is no known cure: macho shopping. Everton had barely finished parading the Cup around Wembley than chairman Peter Johnson was excitedly burbling to all and sundry about how much money would be made available to Joe Royle to buy players. The team had had their turn in the spotlight, and now the chairman wanted his. He let it be known that an £8m payout was well within his range and the press were told all about the faxed bid for that amount sent to Forest. A year ago, Everton or Liverpool could have got three or four Premier League players for the eight million they were prepared to spend on just one.

Other clubs not bankrolled by millionaires now feel under pressure to keep up. Alan Sugar, playing up to his self-appointed role as the sceptical outsider astonished by what he continues to discover about the football industry, recently suggested that the latest round of over-spending will widen the gap between the top few clubs and the rest, with championships and cups becoming the exclusive preserve of the elite within the elite. While some of the bigger clubs have made themselves vulnerable, as in 1979, those courting the largest disasters are the underachievers, eternally hoping for better things – more than half the Premier League, in other words.

Sir John Hall and others repeatedly talk the language of free market economics in relation to football, and what we’re seeing now should be a familiar sight to economists everywhere – though one about which many of them tend to keep quiet. A passing historian has just told us that in the 17th century the Netherlands was brought to its financial knees by a frenzy of speculation in the value of tulip bulbs; that might be hard to imagine, but after Warren Barton and Stan Collymore’s England debuts, arguably it’s even harder to get your head around the idea that many football clubs are going bananas and risking huge sums of money on a couple of English players. But it’s happening, and the fever has spread to produce an interest in more exotic varieties as well. Worse still, it’s a racing certainty that some of these big transfers will go wrong: there just aren’t enough trophies or places in Europe to enable all this summer’s headline-makers to finish the season with smiles on their faces.

Just as it’s hard to sympathize with the ex-millionaires who threw themselves out of office blocks as a result of the Wall Street Crash, so those managers who get their fingers badly burnt shouldn’t come to us looking for tea and sympathy. But just as those (apocryphal?) American stockbrokers apparently landed on the occasional innocent passerby, so the inhabitants of the lower levels in football have something to fear. The annual turnover from transfers last season was squillions more than, to pick a year at random, 1992, when Blackburn got promoted, but a smaller proportion of it went to the lower divisions than ever before. And this summer has been worse.

Several smaller clubs have reaped the benefits of sell-on clauses which entitle them to a share of the fee when a player they have sold moves on again. But if clubs are spending less time seeking out talent at lower levels then there is less and less likelihood of them unearthing players like Warren Barton (who was good value when he joined Wimbledon from Maidstone), Chris Armstrong (originally with Wrexham), or Stan Collymore (a Palace reserve whose career was revived at Southend).

In their panic to buy big, Premier League clubs just aren’t thinking straight. Did Arsenal, for example, really have to pay as much as £7.5m for Dennis Bergkamp? Consider his situation. He had an unhappy time in Italy and wasn’t going to stay. Where else might he go? Many European clubs are a short of cash at the moment or else have a full quota of overseas players, and he’s too young to wind down his career at home in Holland. His price would surely have come down quickly because, though Inter would be keen to recoup the money spent on Ince, they wouldn’t want to be stuck paying the wages of a reserve who didn’t want to be there anyway (a problem that could repeat itself with Ince – and may also be resolved by Arsenal again forking out in a year’s time).

It is impossible to predict when the transfer mania will end. As with boom-and-bust cycles in real life, there isn’t an obvious solution, because people always want to believe that this time it will be different, and there’s no persuading them otherwise. So we’re going to sit back, stick pins in dolls of those managers and chairmen we’d most like to see get their comeuppance, and always wear hard hats when we go to grounds with nice, high roofs from which people can jump.

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