Football: Money-saving computer aid for big spenders

Olivia Blair on a hi-tech remedy for exorbitant transfer fees
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The Independent Online
It may be the season of goodwill, but pounds 8m for Gary Speed? April Fool's Day, more like. Speed may be the pick of Everton's mediocre bunch, but to pay pounds 8m - twice what Leeds United got for him - you'd have to be daft, or desperate. Or both.

Ron Atkinson, the man who (according to one tabloid) was prepared to break the bank for Speed, is neither, although he's by no means frugal, either. As Malcolm Allison once observed: "They call him Big Ron because he's a big spender in the transfer market, but I just call him Fat Ron."

Speed is apparently now in talks with Newcastle United and you can bet your bottom dollar Kenny Dalglish won't pay over the odds for him. But I've often wondered who - and indeed what - decides a player's value? Do the selling club settle on an arbitrary fee and chance their arm? Do they invite offers and just go with the highest bid? Or do they take into account a player's age, record and potential, and then make a rational decision?

The answer is probably a combination of all three, because transfer fees are hugely inconsistent. Quite how Lee Bradbury (pounds 3m on the basis of 15 goals for Portsmouth and five for Exeter) can be worth almost as much as Teddy Sheringham is beyond me, even if he is several years younger. I know which Manchester club I reckon got the best deal.

Of course, exorbitant transfer fees have been part and parcel of the game since money first starting pouring into its highest echelons. Johan Cruyff prophesied what was to come when, on signing for Barcelona from Ajax for pounds 922,300 in 1974, he said: "I am no longer a footballer, I am an industry." And from the moment Blackburn Rovers paid (a then outlandish) pounds 3.6m for Alan Shearer in 1992, transfer fees have continued to spiral upwards (a recent survey found that 90 per cent of players and 80 per cent of managers thought they had reached insane levels).

So there's certainly no such thing as a bargain these days, especially a British one. Except that, according to Bill Gerrard, Newcastle might just have got themselves a steal in Shearer.

Gerrard, an economist at Leeds University, might not (yet) be a household name, but he has devised a widely coveted computer programme that determines a player's worth. And this programme claims that Shearer, at pounds 15m, was a snip.

The programme takes into account a player's record (domestic and international), who the buying and selling clubs are, and the timing of the transfer (at key times - before the March deadline and as the promotion and relegation battles hot up, players cost more). It comes up with pounds 3.4m for Michael Owen (plus more for his potential), pounds 3m for Ian Wright and a cool pounds 9.7m for Andy Cole.

Shearer's price, he says, was well within the predicted range, but Villa's pounds 7m outlay for Stan Collymore was not. "Liverpool initially paid pounds 4.5m for what Collymore had achieved, plus pounds 4m for what they expected him to achieve," Gerrard explains. "So Villa actually paid pounds 3m for what he'd achieved at Liverpool, which wasn't much. pounds 5.5m would have been a more appropriate fee."

Nick Barmby was another deemed to have been vastly overpriced, both by Spurs (pounds 5.25m) and Middlesbrough (pounds 5.75m). "Barmby was valued as a goalscorer, but he simply doesn't have a goalscorer's record," says Gerrard, "so both selling clubs did good business."

But transfer fees are all about supply and demand: if there's a club out there willing to pay the asking price then the player concerned could be regarded as worth his fee, excessive or otherwise. But Gerrard (a Church of Scotland Aberdonian who, bizarrely, supports Celtic) claims that football clubs, particularly listed ones, will be held far more accountable in the future by shareholders questioning efficient use of funds. He believes his programme might help instil some parity - not to mention sanity - in these post-Bosman times. It's unlikely, however, that it will replace the tribunal system.

The Football League is quite happy with the current system which relies on the "expertise and intuition" of representatives from the Professional Footballers' Association, the Football League (and Premier League, if appropriate) and the IFMA (Institute of Football Management and Administration) in determining a player's value. Their decision is final and binding.

However, there are some transfer fees that neither the computer nor the tribunal system could be expected to set - namely Tony Cascarino's to Gillingham (for a set of tracksuits); Uruguayan Daniel Allende's to Renistas (for 550 beef steaks); and Hughie McLenahan's to Stockport (for three freezers of ice-creams).

Such deals are rare nowadays. Managers are more likely to pay over the odds - Howard Wilkinson (pounds 4.5m for Tomas Brolin) and Harry Redknapp (pounds 2m for Paulo Futre, pounds 2.5m for Florin Radiciou) spring to mind, although not all are man enough to admit it,

Unlike Bertie Auld. "Hey, son, the punters are all shouting that you're useless, daft and stupid," he once berated one of his Partick Thistle players. "But don't worry, you're not daft, useless or stupid. I am. I paid forty grand for you."

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