Football / World Cup '94: Moratorium ends and the merry-go-round starts: Phil Shaw on the opening of football's shopping season as the big payers begin pursuing top players

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EVEN before the QPR team bus had made it back across town from Tottenham, the early editions of Sunday's papers had Blackburn swooping for Les Ferdinand in a pounds 4.75m deal. Like shots breaking a ceasefire, the story signalled an end to the transfer moratorium between deadline day in March and the season's final weekend.

Ferdinand, now the subject of a tabloid tug-of-war between Blackburn and Arsenal, professed ignorance. 'All I know,' the former painter and decorator said, 'is what I've read in the papers.' While the rumour factory is currently on overtime, few doubt that we are in for a summer of the big spenders.

Whoever finally gets Ferdinand - and he is said to favour a London club - the outlay may not even be the biggest of the close season. Norwich have a history of cashing in their assets, and are unlikely to

reject the pounds 5m which Liverpool, for one, are reputedly dangling for Chris Sutton.

The effect of such deals, which would bring the record received by a British club (Aston Villa's pounds 5.5m from Bari for David Platt) closer still, is invariably to spark a chain reaction of smaller but substantial transfers. Ron Atkinson, for example, financed the rebuilding of Villa with the Platt cash, his liking for Liverpool players in turn helping to fund Graeme Souness's sprees.

Strange to reflect that little more than a decade ago, an Arsenal chairman declared that no one would ever again pay pounds 1m for a footballer. Yet in spite of the vast amounts being diverted into ground improvements since the Taylor Report, the 'new money' pumped in from outside the game - from Blackburn and Newcastle to Derby and Wolverhampton - has kept fees spiralling upwards.

The transformation of the first two named, from provincial makeweights into players on the European stage, is confirmation that money can buy success. Revealingly, the seven Premiership clubs who have never paid pounds 1m for a player include the quartet who occupied the bottom four places, with only Wimbledon, Coventry and Norwich finishing respectably.

So who's going where? Manchester United appear not to need strengthening, though as a restless, ruthless perfectionist, Alex Ferguson may go shopping for a central defender (perhaps Bolton's Alan Stubbs) and a keeper (Tony Coton if City could be persuaded to part).

Villa would like to take Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis off the champions' hands. Bari could yet grant Tony Daley's wish for a move abroad, while Hughes's arrival would almost certainly prompt the departure of Guy Whittingham plus a fresh enquiry for Dean Saunders from Maine Road.

City may also revive their interest in Ian Rush, who is set to make way at Liverpool for a younger partner for Robbie Fowler, with Sutton or Derby's Paul Kitson the man most likely. Stubbs has also impressed Roy Evans's scouts, but Anfield is no longer a bottomless pit and the likes of Nigel Clough, Mark Wright and John Barnes are likely to be moving, the latter possibly linking with his former mentor Graham Taylor, at Wolves.

Everton promise to buy big, a relatively novel experience for Mike Walker. With Peter Johnson's millions, could he be a contender for Sutton, whom he worked with at Norwich? Arsenal, too, are seeking reinforcements, though they are as likely to buy a creative midfielder as a striker, with everyone from Benfica's Stefan Schwarz to Bolton's Jason McAteer apparently being considered.

Newcastle, where Kevin Keegan has declared his intention to push for the title, will again be active. Coventry's Peter Ndlovu is a possible addition to their attacking strength, but they might face competition from Blackburn.

Similarly, Spurs may push for Matthew Le Tissier, despite Alan Ball's insistence that he is staying at Southampton. Even Wimbledon, who could raise pounds 10m by selling Holdsworth, Scales, Earle and Barton, claim they are more likely to buy.

David Batty's pounds 2.75m transfer to Blackburn in October - to placate Leeds's bankers - was a warning to all that books eventually have to be balanced. Interestingly, Leeds have since completed one swap, David Rocastle for David White, and are believed to have contemplated another involving Brian Deane and Carlton Palmer.

Lest all this makes the players sound like serfs being sold to the highest bidder, it should be said that the serfs are not revolting. This time last year an international claimed he would 'walk over broken glass' to join his boyhood favourites. Within days he had snubbed them for a lower-division club offering a reported pounds 6,000 a week. Now, after a weekend of high emotion, finance is again about to take the place of romance.