Cris Freddi's examination of cheque book blunders continues our series looking at the worst of football in the 20th century
Might as well get Stan out of the way: he was always going to feature here. At the time, it was hard to know how an individualist like that was going to fit into a passing team like Liverpool, and he didn’t really – you can say that despite a crashing goal on his debut and 26 in 81 league games. At Villa, of course, he’s simply been an embarrassment. “It was a surprise to me when he [Brian Little] signed Collymore. It was a shock given the problems he’d faced at Anfield and the problems he was having off the field.” (John Gregory, February 1999). Hard to think of £15.5 million worse spent. Even Paul Stewart’s various moves can’t compare.
Having said that, Collymore also gets a mention because a club should have bought him but didn’t. When Forest were involved in one of their relegation struggles, Brian Clough had the chance to buy Collymore but saved money by going for Robert Rosario, even though the lofty one averaged a goal every seven games. He scored one in the next ten, Forest went down, Clough retired, and Collymore was signed in the close season. Cloughie took comfort from knowing even Peter Taylor didn’t always get it right: he never forgave himself for not rating Kevin Keegan.
Talking of buying players with the wrong style, Forest moved Asa Hartford on after only three games (Clough: “If he is no good, he will go”) and Arsenal tried to replace Alex James by spending a British record £14,000 for Bryn Jones in 1938. Jones was a class act with Wolves and Wales but not a playmaker pure and simple, and his personality shrank in the limelight. Before the end of the season, he was playing in the reserves at his own request.
The prize in the humour category goes to Luther Blissett’s year abroad. Any arguments? Didn’t think so. Actually I had a lot of time for Luther: no one tried harder on the pitch, and his two cup goals at Old Trafford, in the face of racist chants audible on the box, were uplifting stuff. But quite what Milan had in mind in 1981 isn’t clear. Good at getting into scoring positions from deep, he wasted a high percentage of them (“Luther Missit”) and his ball control was never going to look the part in Italy, where he scored five league goals in his only season. The dubious joke about Milan buying the wrong black Watford player still resurfaces from time to time.
Other cock-ups by continental clubs with British players include Juventus buying Ian Rush without finding a replacement for Michel Platini, Werder Bremen buying Dave Watson when he was too old to adapt, Barcelona buying Mark Hughes under any circumstances.
As for the lifetime achievement award, there can’t be too much discussion, can there? All right, maybe Graeme Souness at Rangers (Colin West, Mark Falco, Avi Cohen) and Liverpool (Paul Stewart, István Kozma, Torben Piechnik, Julian Dicks) – but since he also bought some good players and reversed the Scottish trend on transfers, we’ll give it to Big Mal, one of the genuinely great coaches but not safe to be left alone with purse strings.
In 1972, Man City were five points clear at the top of the League with games in hand, thanks to FrannieLee’s best season and the use of a target man (Wyn Davies), unusual in an Allison team. But when the chance came to win the title in style, he took it. It was a mistake. He bought Rodney Marsh.
What’s hard to understand is why City didn’t realise until his first game for them how unfit Rodney was. I mean, how did he disguise it when they had him watched at QPR? Anyway, it seems the years of being a big fish in west London, sometimes in the Third Division, had done nothing for the Marsh stamina. Allison remembered him being physically sick in training.
Two defeats stalled the title rush, Marsh was dropped, and although he came back to score a flashy goal against Derby, it was too late and City finished a point adrift. Their players have spent years denying this one buy cost them the title (which they haven’t won since 1968) but it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have found that extra point or two if Allison had left well alone.
After taking Crystal Palace down into the Third Division, he was back at Maine Road in time to pay a British record £1,437,500 for Wolves midfielder Steve Daley, who was blameless but not much good. After 48 league games in two years, he disappeared, like Rodney before him, to the States. Meanwhile only Allison could have spent £250,000 on 17-year-old Steve McKenzie or £1.25 million on Kevin Reeves. Big Mal’s been a loss to British football, allowed to drift to Fisher Athletic and Bristol Rovers (no offence) – but it’s sort of fitting that he lost money in the BCCI scandal.
The biggest crash of another sort was probably Charlton Athletic’s decision to spend £324,000 on Allan Simonsen. No giant sum even by the standards of the time, but it was twice as much as Barcelona had paid for him – and Charlton weren’t in that league. They had a stadium to compare – the Valley had a theoretical capacity of 70,000 – but Simonsen couldn’t help them fill it, great player though he was: in his time there, the biggest League crowd was only 13,306 – and the little man’s wages were astronomical by Second Division standards. He stayed for only five months and Charlton were left with nothing but bills and a transfer embargo.
Sunderland have known the feeling. They bought Jim Baxter when he was starting his downward spiral, and paid Lawrie McMenemy such a high salary for taking them down into the Third Division that Margaret Thatcher used it as evidence that football clubs didn’t need government assistance. They also lost a small fortune when Claudio Marangoni’s contract was cancelled after a year in which he played only 20 times, scoring three goals. Four years later he was helping Independiente beat Liverpool to win the World Club Championship.
Still on the Argentinian front, for every Ardiles there’s been a Marangoni or a Tarantini, or an Alex Sabella, who was signed by Sheffield United manager Harry Haslam when it’s said he had the chance to buy a young Diego Maradona. Talking of whom, his brother Hugo was once voted Bad Buy of the Year after playing so infrequently for his Swiss club that he was costing them four grand a game.
And it’s an Argentinian who features in the sale of the century, the worst mistake of its kind. Rangers ignoring Kenny Dalglish as a schoolboy was a disaster, but this something else. Our hero had moved from River Plate to Los Millonários in the rebel Colombian League. Real Madrid signed an agreement with Millonários, Barcelona with River Plate: stalemate. The Spanish FA’s judgement of Solomon: he’d have to spend alternate years with each club.
This oddball situation was never put to the test. Although they had a stronger case (River Plate held the player’s official registration), Barcelona ran out of patience, offering to give up their option if Real reimbursed the fee they’d paid to River. It was the most disastrous abdication in football history. While Barca had to wait until 1992 to lift the European Cup, Real won it the first five times, as well as eight Spanish league titles in 11 seasons, including their first since 1933. Alfredo Di Stéfano scored 49 goals in the European Cup, still easily the record. More than that, he was a Real’s midfield general, engine room, you name it. There’s never been a more influential player (“Don Alfredo”) or expensive transfer decision.
From WSC 146 April 1999. What was happening this month