Age of consent

Sara Gilmore explains why the latest attempt to deal with the aftermath of the Bosman Ruling may prove to be in the best interests of the bigger clubs but a disaster for the rest

Currently if an out-of-contract English player wants to be transferred to another club then a fee is still payable. This might not be the case for much longer.

What is being proposed by UEFA, backed by the football authorities in the UK, is that youngsters joining a club will sign a contract with two elements to it: the first covers the period between a player’s 18th and 21st birthdays – to be known as the ‘training period’. The second stage, called ‘the first period of activity as a professional player’ covers the player from the age of 21 to 24. Should a player decide to leave during the course of his contract – whatever his age – then ‘transfer compensation’ is payable, to be calculated on the basis of training costs and the value of the remaining part of the contract. Once a player has reached 24 then no compensation is payable at all and he is effectively available on a free transfer.

In line with current practices there will be a tribunal system to evaluate the worth of the player, but under the UEFA proposals the value of the remaining part of the contract is likely to include intangible features such as the player’s worth to his team or his marketability.

This is very similar to the French system, as outlined in WSC No 121, which has provided a means for French clubs to retain promising players for peanuts and prevented domestic league rivals from poaching them. Since Bosman, however, the weakness of this system has been exposed with Arsène Wenger among the many snapping up French players for a song.

It seems as though the European FAs are trying to adopt a version of the French system in an attempt to have a pan-European agreement in relation to transfers. They hope to come to a deal with the European Commission which would allow football to be seen as a special case, exempt from further action and thus legitimising their proposals with the veneer of legal sanction.

These proposals are primarily about money – how you shift it around and for whose benefit. UEFA have reasoned that unless there is a watertight transfer system in place across Europe then much of the money which currently flows between clubs will end up in players’ pockets. Unfortunately, the proposals may well have the opposite effect to that intended and make the rich clubs comparatively richer at the expense of the smaller ones.

Given the level of resources some Premier League sides are ploughing into developing young talent, it would be easy for them to argue at a tribunal that they provide higher quality training than that on offer elsewhere and should be awarded greater compensation. This need not necessarily be true – good training and development is always about more than money, but the tribunal panel would need to be thorough in its assessment of the quality of the training and not be swayed by the prevailing view in football that big necessarily means best.

Along with that temptation goes the possibility of awarding compensation by the status of the player under consideration. If I have a 20-year-old Alan Shearer at Southampton, I as club chairwoman would of course want to get the maximum possible fee. I would be very unhappy if Al’s fee was judged as being similar to that of another young squad player from my club even if they are on the same salary. I’d seek to justify an outrageous asking price by pointing to his overall value to the club which would include marketing, a place in Europe, a domestic cup, prevention of relegation and an England place. On the other hand if I were Alan or his agent, I would be staying put until I was 24 and then claiming lots of loot all for myself.

A reverse possibility exists too. I could be a 23-year-old in the Third Division who is not wanted by my club. Another team might be interested but the development fee is set at £100,000. The buying club won’t take me for that money, so what happens? Some kind of auction for a person no-one wants at the reserve price? Poor me.

So, how much does it cost to develop a player? It’s a fair guess that the figures could be on a scale of £50,000-100,000 depending on the years spent with the club. This kind of compensation will set benchmark prices for all players, with the perverse possibility of increasing the prices lower division clubs will have to pay. Wealthier clubs will have the pick of the talent at a fraction of the current market value because they will argue that a lower division player has a value that is part fixed (the training fee) and part limited by his worth to his original club. In other words, an Alan Shearer would cost you more if you were to buy him from Southampton than if you were to buy him from Scarborough, thus exacerbating the situation we currently have with the resources both human and financial going in one direction – from bottom to top.

The Bosman judgment hit at the financial underpinnings of the game. As a logical extension of this you would think that those in the industry would seek to deal with the fundamental economic issues affected by the decision. No chance. What they have done instead is to keep a discredited system, which, pre-Bosman, was financially precarious anyway.

It is difficult to see how the European Union could sanction these kind of proposals – even as a ‘special case’. They are transfers by the backdoor and even more unworkable than the current system, which at least takes place within a market which we all understand. Let us also be clear about a key point in relation to transfers – the continuing trend has shown that the bulk of English transfer money has gone abroad, not been redistributed within the game here. So one of the main reasons for having them has already been blown away by the actions of the industry itself.

Can we do the unmentionable and reconstruct the football industry without transfers? How many Bournemouths must there be before there is a proper debate about where football is going? The latest edition of the annual Deloitte and Touche review of football finance states that hard questions need to be asked and offers a few answers, notably in suggesting a redistribution of TV income to the lower leagues and alterations to the tax system (currently the Treasury takes 1/4 of football’s income via taxation).

Ultimately we need to be clear about what we want – be it a 92-club league or something else. To keep hanging onto transfers is really like clinging on to a marriage which has outlived its time when a divorce would be in the best interests of all.

From WSC 123 May 1997. What was happening this month