The interim ruling in favour of Jean-Marc Bosman at the European Court of Justice may have been a blow for player freedom, but at lower division clubs it was greeted with varying degrees of apprehension. The least effect most could forecast was the wholesale destruction of their player development programmes.
"It will mean clubs trying to survive through a youth policy are wasting their time," Terry Robinson, Bury's chairman, said. "We rely on transfer fees to stay in business and if our system does not survive I reckon 75 per cent of full-time players will be out of work. Clubs will go part- time or disappear."
It was a worry nagging away throughout the League's lesser-lights as the prospect loomed of young and expensively nurtured players disappearing to the likes of Anfield or St James' Park as soon as their contracts run out.
"The only solution would be to put your young players on five-year contracts as soon as they turn professional," Robin Fry, the managing director of Third Division Hereford United, said, "which would be the swiftest route I know to bankruptcy.
"It's all right offering someone like Eric Cantona a long contract because you know he is going to be a success, but the fall-out rate among young footballers is very high and you would end up paying a dozen lads who hadn't made the grade in the hope of holding on to the one who has. Alternatively you watch him walk away to Manchester United for nothing."
Those fears were echoed by Graham Taylor, the former England manager, whose First Division Wolves have spent liberally. "It would be wrong for people to think that millions are being saved." he said. "All it will mean is that instead of those millions going to clubs it will go to players."
How the system works was exemplified by Stan Collymore's British record pounds 8.5m move from Nottingham Forest to Liverpool. Not only did Forest benefit but so did Southend, who had a sell-on clause inserted in the contract when they sold the striker to Forest for pounds 2.1m in July 1993. That fee, in turn, was spent on players from Leyton Orient, Plymouth, Boston United and Lincoln.
"Our hope is that some sort of voluntary agreement can be reached with the players' union," John Adams, Southend's vice-chairman, said. "Otherwise the consequences could be disastrous. Stan's fee was kept within football and spread out through the League. Most clubs are what I describe as trading clubs, in that they operate at a loss and have to sell players to survive. We, for instance, spend around pounds 135,000 a year putting 90 youngsters through our school of excellence. How could we afford that without transfer income?"
No one appreciates that more than Sam Hammam, the chairman of Wimbledon, who has turned the buying and selling of players for huge profits into an art form. "We will become predators, not victims," he said. "We could not be better prepared." But he feared for the less wealthy: "The bigger clubs like Manchester United and the top players will continue to grow rich. The lower division clubs will perish and disintegrate."
Newcastle chairman Sir John Hall was more welcoming. "We should not be afraid of change," he said. "The game is changing and football will adjust. Freedom of movement won't change the transfer system fundamentally. It will, however, put a check on huge transfer fees."