In 1905 you could buy 5,000 Alf Commons, at pounds 1,000 the most expensive player of his day. Now that money will fetch just one footballer if your preference is for Chris Sutton. Young, talented, brave, ambitious, a scorer of outstanding goals, he is all of these. But a pounds 5m footballer? Or to be precise a pounds 6,125,000 footballer with VAT and the 5 per cent league levy added on?
The jury that will sit in judgement on Sutton's ability to provide value for colossal money meets for the first time today at Southampton, where he and the rest of Blackburn Rovers' fat-cat cast assemble for another campaign after a summer when Kenny Dalglish smashed the transfer record again.
Not only Blackburn but every leading club in the country lay at the golden boy's feet when Norwich City reluctantly agreed last month that the Sutton-for-sale speculation was not going away: that for the good of the club, its supporters and the player, he should be allowed to join the flock of Canaries who fly away from Carrow Road and who seldom go cheap.
The latest product of a phenomenally successful production line has the lot: untold wealth to go with the obligatory luxurious country pad and the Page Three girlfriend who will soon become Mrs Sutton. Life won't always be so sweet. When, after a 90-minute stint on the Wembley sidelines last Sunday, 40,000 Manchester United fans chorused 'What a waste of money' (not quite an objective view since United had been beaten to the transfer punch), it was an unhappy foretaste of what is to come.
It will be hard and there will be plenty of soul-searching ahead but it does seem that Sutton has given himself half a chance with his choice of employer. Although Trevor Francis was his childhood hero - 'I always wanted to be like him in the playground but I kept falling over' - there exists no finer tutor in the striker's art than his new manager Kenny Dalglish, while alongside him Alan Shearer will help ease the burden that comes with the mantle of 'most expensive player'.
Off the field? Well, let's face it, compared with London and Manchester, Blackburn is hardly nightlife city is it?
That is important because Sutton's reign as domestic football's first pounds 5m man got off to the worst of starts when a lager overdose and an argument with a windscreen wiper landed him on the wrong side of the law only a few hours before he was due to sign on Blackburn's dotted line. A wage packet bigger even than the pounds 12,000 a week he is inaccurately reported to be receiving, could not spare him the privatations of the Norwich nick.
For the City chairman, Robert Chase, the early-hours telephone call from worried father Mike Sutton was the final twist in a saga that throughout the spring and summer weeks had hung over the Norfolk club like a storm cloud. 'We arranged for our solicitor to go and see Chris and sort things out, although to be fair he was still in such a bad state he did not really know what was going on,' Chase said.
'I took him to my home, fed him breakfast and made sure he was fit for the press conference announcing the move later that day. We cannot condone what happened but he is not the first young man to land in trouble for celebrating a little too wildly. It was a harsh lesson.'
Ewood Park and the Roy of the Rovers gang was a natural home for the 21-year-old, who had always been given to performing feats of derring-do. Early days found him scoring the clinching goal in the Norfolk Under-14 Junior Cup final; later came a hat-trick in the Under-16 final, winners' medals that remain conspicuously alone on his new sideboard.
He was no slouch in the classroom either, winning a school trophy in 1984 for creative writing with a story about a player who goes to Wembley, forgets his boots only to score the winner in a borrowed pair. Confidence was never a problem; his headmaster recalls that Sutton had the courage to take on the role of village idiot in the school play.
Rejected by Norwich at 14 (they considered he still had some developing to do), the teenage prodigy was nearly lost to football. A career in cricket beckoned instead and he was good enough for trials with England Under-15s.
Still, his goalscoring prowess with the school side coached by his teacher-father, a former Norwich and Nottingham Forest professional, brought the blossoming talent back to the Canaries' nest and the offer of a YTS contract. It coincided with the chance of an office job with Norfolk County Council. Dad thought he should stay at school but those talented feet were itching to make their mark in the real world and at a family conflab Dad was outvoted.
The apprentice millionaire made rapid strides. He was in the first team at 17 but as a centre- half, having been converted by the then reserve team manager Mike Walker. Highly capable he was, too, in that position. Later, he returned up front where his physical attributes, his surprisingly sound touch for one so big and gangly, his willingness to run and his nose for the goalscoring opportunity, made him an instant success.
It was Walker who guided him through the next stage of his education at Carrow Road. Now, having begun the break-up of the side who shocked Europe last season with victory over Bayern Munich and an unlucky defeat to the eventual Uefa Cup winners Internazionale, Walker was keen to renew at Everton his liasion with Sutton. It remains a puzzle why their bid came in a mere pounds 250,000 short at pounds 4.75m
'Chris is not worth pounds 5m at the moment but players abroad go for pounds 13m to pounds 14m and could you say they are worth it?' Walker said. 'It is supply and demand. Time will tell whether he can handle all the pressures that come with the fee but I would say he can. If he is sensible he can go right to the very top and by that I mean the England team. He needs to do a bit of work on his touch and his awareness, but to be fair it's because he has worked so hard so far that he is where he is today.'
Jeremy Goss, the non-stop engine in the Norwich and Welsh midfield, confirms that while Sutton plays hard in his spare time he works even harder at his business. 'The work he put in with weights and hill running gave him speed and while he may look an awkward runner few can stop him when he gets into his stride.'
Despite increasing conjecture about his future Sutton was happy to sign a new three and a half year contract with Norwich at Christmas. So sure was Chase that he would have at least one more season out of his striker that he promised that if he was not at Carrow Road at the start of the new season then neither would the chairman.
No mean player in the transfer market, having sold a considerable supply of talent to the wealthy and the persuasive, Chase had underestimated Sutton's desire to move on. And the persistence of those who would put him in a different shirt. Every morning brought new speculation about his next club.
A pounds 4m offer from Tottenham had been rejected three months before. Now Sutton agreed that if the interest fell short of pounds 5m he would commit himself to Carrow Road.
'Since our success in Europe there was not a single Premiership club in the top half of the table who had not asked us to be kept informed when we were likely to sell Chris,' Chase said.
On 1 July, the start of the club's tax year and a more attractive time to sell, Chase embarked on a whistle-stop tour visiting all 10 potential buyers and laying out Norwich's demands: pounds 5m to be paid in full by the end of the following week. No negotiations, no player- exchange; cash up front if you please.
'I went first to see the Blackburn chairman and we had a meal together in a hotel on Blackpool sea front. My first course was chilled melon. I remember it cost pounds 1.85 and by the time I had finished they had agreed to pay up the pounds 5m.'
Not bad for starters although as it turned out only one other club could, or would, meet the asking price. That was Arsenal but it mattered little. Knowing Blackburn's determination Sutton chose not to speak to George Graham. 'It was only Blackburn as far as Chris was concerned,' his close friend, Kevin Lawrence, said. 'Dalglish and Shearer made it a one-horse race and of course the financial terms helped. Chris has said that Shearer is as near the complete striker as he has seen.'
With roots now firmly planted in Lancashire soil and with his girlfriend Samantha having joined him in a plush out-of-the-way abode, Lawrence says Sutton is a changed man. 'The night behind bars was a huge kick up the backside and his attitude is now so different.'
Ian Butterworth, the Norwich captain, believes Sutton has to turn the taunts to his advantage and make them his inspiration. 'It's the big test for Chris now and he has to show he has a heart the size of his wage packet,' he said. 'I believe he has the committment to do that.'
A final note for Walker and Dalglish: 10-year-old John Sutton, Chris's younger brother, has just been accepted into Norwich's centre of excellence. In 10 years' time, the first pounds 20m transfer?
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