Paying the price

The implications of the transfer window and the Bosman ruling are forcing radical changes in the exchange of players, to the great cost of clubs lacking the resources for multi-million pound bids here and there

There were instant repercussions in Ju­ly when a Sunday newspaper quoted a lifelong Spurs fan who was up in arms about his team’s alleged lack of ambition. “We’re a million miles away from win­ning the championship,” he moaned, “because no money has been made available to buy the top stars that you need to become genuine challengers.”

The fan in question was grouchy midfielder Tim Sherwood, who has since been fined the maximum two weeks’ wages by his club for an interview he gave to the News of the World. Spurs declined to com­ment further but their displeasure was such that it seems Sherwood may even be shipped out if a new employer can be found. Sherwood’s frustration is ech­oed throughout football, though one might think that an experienced player would be better placed than the average fan to know quite how clubs go about their business.

With the exception of some members of the G14 “elite” (plus Middlesbrough, whose financial resources remain a mystery to all but their bank manager) the only clubs who would be in a position to buy “the top stars” in the present financial climate would be those who have rais­ed money through selling their biggest assets. With Patrick Vieira no longer angling for a move to Madrid and having fail­ed to find a buyer for Kanu, Arsenal, for example, appear to have left themselves short of the cash needed to buy a long-term replacement for Tony Adams.

Leeds, though, suddenly have cash to spend and may yet shop at White Hart Lane, their new manager being keen on a reunion with his former protégé, Darren Anderton. Spurs appear more likely to find a buyer for Anderton than for Uk­rainian striker Sergei Rebrov, who cost them £9 million two years ago but has so far attracted interest only from alleg­edly bankrupt Fiorentina, newly relegated to Serie B and said to be on the brink of disappearing altogether.

For most financially strapped clubs the best means of adding to a squad is to pick up players available on Bosman free transfers (a circumstance in which Tim Sherwood will find himself at the end of this season, if he hasn’t been snapped up to aid someone’s First Division promotion bid before the end of August). Ra­­ther than bringing about an end to the transfer system as many had predicted, the Bosman ruling led to fees rocketing at the top end of the market – peaking last summer when Zinedine Zidane join­ed Real Madrid for £45 million – but now an opposite reaction has occurred. Clubs have striven not to let players go out of con­tract by extending their deals when they still had years to run.

Now, however, many face the same di­l­emma that has struck teams relegated from the Premiership last season. All three have highly rated players for whom they want big fees – fees that potential buyers aren’t prepared to pay (Mart Poom, Malcolm Christie and others at Derby, Matt Holland and Muzzy Izzet at Ipswich and Leicester respectively). In each case, the managers involved have said that they would prefer to hold on to their star performers for the season ahead. But if their clubs then don’t go up at the end of this season they will surely be forced to accept smaller fees (provided of course that someone can afford them).

In time clubs will adjust to the new realities of smaller TV deals by offering less lucrative contracts to new players. But until then there will be worrying times for those left holding the baby – or rather holding the fantastically expensive but not necessarily brilliant players in which they invested in the past few years.

That may be irritating for Tottenham, although it helps when they can claw back a couple of weeks’ wages every now and again. It will surely be alarming for those getting used to the new constraints of the First Division, but unable to unload handfuls of players on Premiership (circa 2000) money. Anyone who followed Bristol City on their plummet down the League in the 1980s will know the feeling.X

From WSC 187 September 2002. What was happening this month