Asprilla spreads the doubts

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ONE of the surprises of the Premiership season so far has been the lack of unexpected forays into the transfer market by the Premiership's wealthiest clubs. Newcastle United have ended that by entering into a Faustino pact. It is one you hope they, and the English game, do not come to regret if it comes to paying up in full.

Should his knee pass muster and a work permit appear "Tino" Asprilla will cost some pounds 7m from Parma and more: a million-pound signing-on fee, and wages likely to be near an astonishing pounds 30,000 a week, making him the highest-paid player in the country, for a few weeks anyway. Such sums, and the lengths to which Kevin Keegan went in his pursuit, are a sure sign of the desperation in the English market.

Although Asprilla is a stallion of a player, leggy and swift, who may excite in bursts, he has been found wanting in Italy in touch and technique after an explosive start there. His appearance for Colombia against England at Wembley in September did nothing to dispel that view. One suspects Parma are smiling all the way to the banco.

The problem for Keegan has been that in scouring the Endsleigh League and the selling clubs of the Premiership for talent to strengthen his squad for what he hopes will be a successful run-in to the Premiership title race, little has stood out. The same is true for the two other current principal buying clubs, Manchester United and Arsenal.

Hence Keegan's Roman busman's holiday, during which he was also said to have offered pounds 8m for Lazio's Croatian striker, Alen Boksic. Alex Ferguson has also been in Italy, with Milan's striker Zvonimir Boban, another Croat, and Parma's Portuguese defender Fernando Couto said to be among his targets.

Bruce Rioch, meanwhile, recently gave the Arsenal directors, who now handle transfers in the wake of the George Graham affair, a shopping list that included overseas players. "I know from experience that buying players is the most difficult part of the job so they are in for a difficult job," he said last week, barely concealing frustration at the slowness of the development of his squad.

The concerns about the signing of Asprilla come not so much from his reputation as a difficult character; after all, Keegan is a man-manager second to none, and David Ginola arrived on Tyneside with conflicting reports from Paris about his attitude.

Rather, the move appears to illustrate that England is becoming Europe's dumping ground for those unwanted elsewhere, notably Italy's Serie A. As long as there is a paucity of home-grown talent, players know they can hold the newly-rich Premiership to ransom.

Now that the leading English clubs have responded to the need for more sophistication to compete in Europe, and with the functional football of a few years ago consequently in the process of being swept away, the game in this country is in financial and physical transition, prone to obscenely expensive mistakes.

There are undoubted benefits. Though 34, Ruud Gullit has been a welcome addition, not least for the erudite effect he has had on team-mates. Dennis Bergkamp, though similarly surplus in Italy, also contributes to the party. Juninho, once fully settled, should reveal himself as one of the true talents of the world game, and Georgi Kinkladze has been a silky revelation.

Others are here because they come cheaper than the domestic alternative, and have been schooled with more care, both personal and professional. We await the long-term impact of the influx of Serbs and Croats, gifted as they initially appear.

The full implication of the Bosman ruling is about to be felt, and in one inventive move, Manchester United confirmed talks last week with Milan about swapping out-of-contract players. The danger is that the Premiership could become a gravy train, if not yet one to rival Japan's J-League, where ageing stars can board for one last luxury ride.

It is unlikely to hit the buffers yet in the way bust followed boom after the million-pound transfers of the early 80s. The new TV deal for the Premiership due in 1997 is sure to be considerably more than Sky's current pounds 304m over four years. When the Arsenal chairman, David Dein, estimated pounds 500m recently, the only query was why his guess appeared to be so low. The need is for careful thought when deciding what to do with it.

One hopes that it will not all be spent with the short-term in mind (though Asprilla's purchasers, who are building a centre of excellence to nurtureNorth- east talent, are less guilty of that than most). Instead, plenty needs to be spent wisely on the development of young players through more enlightened coaching. If that benefit is forced on the English game by the current market of inflation and desperation, perhaps the money will not have been squandered in vain.