The mid-season money-go-round has been and gone but who are the real winners?

You know what to expect in the new year these days. Several clubs will field weakened sides in the FA Cup. A couple of high-profile players or their agents – this year it’s Dimitar Berbatov and Nicolas Anelka – will let it be known that they are looking for a move to a club “that will match my ambition”. And a couple of managers at least will complain about the transfer window. Step forward Steve Coppell – “I cannot see the logic in it, it brings on a fire-sale mentality” – and Gary Megson who, mirroring the outlook of the Europhobes who complain about the metric system having replaced imperial weights and measures, wants to see the window challenged in court. “Football clubs are told they have to do their business in a certain time, not when they would like to do it,” said Megson, who also echoed Coppell’s view that the window helps only the biggest clubs.

Football administrators at all levels here tried to resist FIFA’s imposition of the window, which was applied to the Premier League in 2002-03 and the rest of the League and the Conference three years later. Rather than falling in line with the rest of Europe, British football hoped in vain that it could stick to the time-honoured June-to-March transfer market, but there was never any likelihood of FIFA agreeing to that.

The world governing body wanted “contractual stability”, to give managers time to plan and develop a settled team, while also giving players some security. As a result, it was expected that there would be fewer players demanding a move because they were tapped up or fell out with their club. But many in English football wrongly persist in seeing the buying and selling of players as the lifeblood of the game.

In the past five years the total losses across the four divisions amounted to more than £1 billion. The way many clubs organise their finances, budgeting for a steady income from transfers, simply isn’t working. Coppell complains about getting “scurrilous inquiries” from agents in the build-up to the opening of the window but, given the way that agents’ influence has spread in recent times, things would now be worse under the old system, where a player could have moved at any time up until late March. At time of writing it is unclear for how much longer, if at all, Megson will have the services of Anelka, but he did at least have the player for 20 League matches during which he contributed some important goals – reports suggest that Anelka would have been pushing for a move and perhaps left for Chelsea much earlier had he been allowed to.

Does the window favour the biggest clubs? The current big four have large squads, partly because of the group stages, especially, of the Champions League and also because, simply, they can afford to – Steve Sidwell can earn far more as a Chelsea reserve than a Reading regular. But it’s now rare that one of these clubs reinforces during the window with players from the English league – Javier Mascherano’s peculiar change of loan, from West Ham to Liverpool, was the only such move last January.

Scott Parker was prised from Charlton’s first team to Chelsea’s bench in January 2004 and Louis Saha left Fulham for Old Trafford the same month. But those moves were hardly endorsements of January buys and perhaps that is why a year ago Sir Alex Ferguson, again in need of striking reinforcements, brought in Henrik Larsson on loan.

The perennial window-shoppers are those struggling against relegation, who look to bring in players on short-term deals, plus other clubs, such as Spurs, where the manager has changed since August – Juande Ramos wants to assemble his own squad. The same applies to Avram Grant at Chelsea, and Sven-Göran Eriksson had very little time in which to spend Thaksin Shinawatra’s money in the summer, well as he did it.

What creates the animus against the window here, while it seems an accepted fact on the continent? Perhaps it is not down to the fear of small clubs of what happens to them during the window, but the restrictions placed on them outside it, and is down to the difference between “manager” and “coach”.

On the continent, roles are split and the coach knows that his principal job is on the training pitch. Here, the man responsible for coaching the squad also assembles it. Rather than concentrating on getting the best out of the players they have, managers used to be able to hope for something to turn up in the transfer market all the way to deadline day. And we can’t help thinking that any move that encourages British managers to work on their coaching is no bad thing.

From WSC 252 February 2008

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