The transfer window system has found few friends in England – but Barney Ronay believes it can help save the critics from their own excesses
Chairmen are raiding their piggy banks, agents are warming up their fax machines and all over the country costly foreign imports are nervously checking their passports. The transfer window is open and no one knows quite what to expect. Although, those with most to lose have already had their say on the matter.
“It doesn’t help Premier League clubs, it doesn’t help the Football League. Who is it for?” demanded renowned shopaholic Kevin Keegan. “It makes no sense,” agreed Arsène Wenger. “What is the expression? Act in haste and repent at leisure.” “It’s just plain daft,” concluded Terry Venables, not the most obvious source for reliable advice on the financial implications of the new regime.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the transfer window has been roundly condemned in this country. English people never have liked being told what to do, and the PFA, the Premier League, the Football League and the FA have all publicly ruminated on the possibility of mounting a legal challenge.
Meanwhile, those who like to paint Sepp Blatter as a kind of cat-stroking bunker-bound despot (he does after all possess “a knighthood from the Sultanate of Pahang”) have been able to imagine the FIFA president cackling unpleasantly to himself on a yacht somewhere, fingers still greasy from his latest capricious toyings with our national game.
However, Venables is certainly wrong on one count; the window is far from daft. Intended to promote financial stability in the boardroom and the development of home-grown players on the pitch, FIFA’s proposals demand a more sustained analysis than Tel’s cockney shtick. After all, he works for an organisation that is reputedly £70 million in debt and spending over 75 per cent of its turnover on wages. Now that really is daft.
The window, on the other hand, might just turn out to be exactly what English football – bloated, cash-strapped and cripplingly hung-over after ten years of partying up to the hilt of its credit limit – is in need of. Under the current rules, clubs can only transfer players during January or between the end of the season and August 31. The Premier League grudgingly accepted FIFA’s proposals at its AGM last summer, while the Football League chose to reject them. FIFA subsequently proposed a dispensation whereby clubs would be able to make two transfers outside of the window, but the League is likely to reject this too.
The theory behind the window is that a volatile transfer market is bad for everyone. Unable merely to wave their chequebooks at the first sign of a crisis, clubs will be forced to plan long-term. Squads will have to be nurtured and home-grown talent developed. Players, meanwhile – at least those already attached to a club – will enjoy a degree of job security and freedom from the unsettling influence of agents on the make.
Kevin Keegan may not be able to see any benefit from the transfer window, but that says more about Keegan himself than the system. Don’t listen to spendthrift managers or chairmen willing to gamble their club’s future against relegation. The transfer window might just be a staging-post on the way towards saving football’s skin.
The most immediate problem facing clubs is an unsustainable budget for wages and transfers. Quite simply, somebody needed to put a cap on what they were allowed to spend. But more fundamentally – and of more relevance to the beleaguered relationship between supporters and clubs – the game has become hard to like. At least at the highest level, its charm has waned. How do you feel affection for a cretinised, Thatcherite bean-feast, in which everyone concerned appears to be concerned solely with making a quick buck?
This has hardly been helped by the symbiosis between football and other areas of consumer culture, such as fashion and celebrity merchandising, driven in part by the need to constantly ratchet up a player’s value. The two most marketable teenagers of the moment may well be Wayne Rooney and James Milner, both of whom play for their local big-city team. With less opportunity for agents and middlemen to press for a jackpot-hitting big-money move, they might actually be allowed to stay there, and the chances of fulfilling their footballing potential greatly increased. Not only that, we might be able to like them; admire them even.
“It’s a bit like a greengrocer only being able to open on Mondays,” Venables has opined of the window. Except, the analogy doesn’t work. A greengrocer’s job is selling apples; whereas a football club exists to play football, not to buy or sell players. A more accurate comparison would be greengrocers being encouraged to grow their own apples rather than buying someone else’s, in the hope that the quality of produce will improve and fewer of them will end up going out of business. Manchester United and Arsenal may not agree with the idea of a transfer window, but then neither would Tesco or Sainsbury’s.
In Spain, FIFA’s window system has been operating since 1993, and the evidence is encouraging. Rather than panic buys or mass off-loadings, January tends to see a gentle reshuffling of the pack. In fact, in the last six years January spending has fallen from £100 million to just £14 million, a symptom of clubs taking a longer term approach to team-building. This is borne out by the effervescence of the Spanish league at present, with clubs such as Sociedad and Betis successfully challenging the established oligarchy.
In Italy the adoption of the transfer window has seen an increase in players being loaned by bigger clubs to lower division teams, with benefits all round as players are kept active (there is no reserve team football in Italy), and smaller clubs are able to bring in fresh blood for half a season or longer.
And while restrictions on raising revenue may seem like the last thing cash-strapped Football League clubs need right now – the sale of Jermaine Jenas to Newcastle United last year is often cited as having kept Nottingham Forest in business – clubs such as Coventry City and Watford have already begun to benefit from judicious use of the loan system.
Nevertheless, the Football League remains unconvinced. Spokesman Ian Christon says that the League’s current dissatisfaction with FIFA’s proposals stems from the fact that the window would apply to the domestic transfer of English players.
“We always believed FIFA was proposing that its restrictions would only apply to international players. This fitted in with their stated aim that the window system would protect the development of home-grown players in domestic leagues.”
He insists that “we will look after our clubs”, reiterating the League’s view that FIFA’s proposals will impose too strict a strait- jacket on clubs still recovering from the TV rights shortfall.
There is a theory that FIFA could have faced a legal challenge to the window if it hadn’t made the ruling international. However, should any window-bound club go into administration before the end of the sea- son, or, more likely, if Sir Alex Ferguson gets bored with having to shuffle his fringe players and decides to launch a challenge, it will be interesting to see what kind of interpretation the courts take.
Jean-Marc Bosman publicised his case by juggling a football while wearing a set of rubber manacles. If FIFA’s proposals are accepted throughout the League, how long will it be before unemployed footballers stage sit-ins at service stations the length of the country demanding that Harry Redknapp be allowed to sign them?
On the other hand, we are talking about footballers here – and perhaps they’ve had it too good for too long to be concerned about things like where the next contract is coming from.
During the course of an “interview” on Sky Sports’ Soccer AM, Coventry City’s loan signing Craig Hignett expressed his hopes for a permanent move to the Sky Blues from Blackburn Rovers. “The window opens in January doesn’t it?” he was asked. “Do you know when it closes?” Hignett is exactly the kind of senior professional in search of a transfer who you might expect to be particularly concerned by the machinery of the FIFA regulations.
“No. No idea,” he replied, before abruptly changing the subject to a discussion of the current status of Jason McAteer’s hairline.
From WSC 192 February 2003. What was happening this month