Drop in the market

There has been little action in the transfer market, but young talent is a talking point

Anyone who has managed to stay awake while reading reports about Frank Lampard’s contractual wrangling may have noted a comment by his agent that negotiations with Chelsea been going on “for two years”. Nuclear non-proliferation treaties have been wrapped up quicker. So what have they been discussing for all this time?

Our guess is that they have often been close to an agreement before Frank drops by after training to add a new proviso – the contract must be printed on a rare type of paper that needs to be imported from a remote region of China, or any agreed deal will be automatically terminated if the club canteen is ever unable to fulfil his dietary requests (which may involve big buckets of whipped cream to judge by the latest pre-season photos).

As Lampard would be available for free in a year’s time, it was assumed that Chelsea would decide to cash in on the £140,000-a-week star while they can. Now it seems that Roman Abramovich is prepared to forgo a big fee for the sake of keeping Lampard for one last year. Of course Chelsea don’t really need money for any of their players – the fees they will receive for the various squad members gone or likely to be sold, including Steve Sidwell and Shaun Wright-Phillips, amount to pocket money for the club’s beaming benefactor.

The transfer market was very quiet through to the end of July with only four (relatively) big names moving to the Big Four – José Bosingwa and Deco for Chelsea, Samir Nasri at Arsenal, and Liverpool’s curious move for Robbie Keane proving more successful than their tedious attempts to sign Gareth Barry. Manchester United have been busier trying to hang on to Cristiano Ronaldo than spending themselves.

So is the credit crunch affecting the major clubs? To a degree, it seems. Arsenal are indebted by virtue of their investment in a new stadium – the Emirates is paying for itself, but slowly. Liverpool used to be in debt and could not afford a new stadium, hence the take­over, financed at interest rates that have risen. United are highly profitable, but were plunged into massive debt for no better reason than to allow the Glazers to buy them.

Chelsea are a special case. They run at losses unsustainable anywhere else in football but claim that they are bidding to break even by 2010, so need to slow down their spending – though their owner can afford to discard that target in an instant. It was all very well for Peter Kenyon to say in late July that it was up to clubs in the Premier League’s second tier to take the battle to the Big Four; but he chose not to mention that Chelsea’s losses in 2006-07 (the last year for which there are full figures) exceeded the income of any side outside the leading quartet. It is a mistake even to think of the Big Four as equal – Chelsea’s losses in 2006-07 matched Liverpool’s wage bill.

The Big Four are, for their various reasons, in less-than-confident financial times. But the same strictures apply to those underneath them: Tottenham, one of the clubs mentioned by Kenyon as needing to step up, are as busy selling as buying. And on occasion the purchases come on the cheap. When Crystal Palace failed to agree on a fee with Spurs for John Bostock, their youngest-ever player, the matter was taken to arbitration. Palace asked for an initial £2 million, rising by a further £2.5m dependant on appearances, but the tribunal decided on an initial £700,000 rising to £1.25m. “He’s been sold for a packet of crisps,” said Palace chairman Simon Jordan, adding that he felt “mugged and brutalised”.

It’s a dangerous precedent. Bostock is one of the best teenage players in England and Palace had rejected a £900,000 offer from Chelsea when the player was 14. Jordan railed on behalf of his own club – “I have an academy who have produced a world-class footballer for someone else and got paid two-and-sixpence for it” – and also questioned the ruling’s effects on the academy system as a whole: “I don’t feel it sends out a good message to people who pump millions into youth development. And what’s going to happen to our young players when they are stockpiled in the butter mountains of the Tottenhams and Chelseas of this world?”

At a time of financial uncertainty, it makes sense for clubs to help themselves, to develop talent rather than splashing out and getting into suddenly more expensive debt. Jordan is not the most sympathetic character in football, but it is impossible to argue against him on this issue. Bostock may be a Lampard of the future; Spurs will pay Palace at most less than ten weeks’ income for the Chelsea man. Even within the madhouse that is modern football, that is harder to justify than Lampard’s complaints that Chelsea aren’t offering him enough.

From WSC 259 September 2008