Football: Year of goodbyes and bad buys

Phil Shaw looks at English football's bargain signings and costly mistakes - 12 months and pounds 200m on from last year's transfer-deadline day
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The Independent Online
Transfer-deadline day, an institution which often appears to have been preserved to allow John Burridge and Clive Allen to see more of the country, is upon us. The passing of the 5pm cut-off point may only briefly stop the speculation, but for many managers it means the rest of the season becomes a matter of make do or die.

In the 12 months since the faxes confirming changes in registration spluttered to a halt, well over pounds 200m has been lavished on players by Premiership and Football League clubs. A staggering pounds 118m was spent in the summer, a record close-season total that was swollen by Newcastle's pounds 15m swoop for Alan Shearer.

While the size of the cheque to Blackburn artificially distorts the figures, the continuing trend towards a concentration of wealth in the Premiership is evident. During the summer of 1989, for example, clubs from the old First Division accounted for only 55 per cent of the pounds 29m that changed hands. In the build-up to the current season they splashed pounds 98m, nearly 85 per cent of the total outlay.

As the campaign has progressed, spending levels have remained surprisingly unaffected by the Bosman ruling. Only a handful of clubs have exploited the freedom it conferred on out-of-contract Continentals.

Of them, Norway's Bjorn Tore Kvarme could claim to be the most striking success. For nothing more than a signing-on fee, Liverpool acquired an excellent young defender who had Champions' League experience with Rosenborg Trondheim and would have commanded pounds 2.5m on the open market.

The FA Cup offers another post-Bosman signing, Gianluca Vialli, the chance to redeem a patchy sojourn at Chelsea, but Gianfranco Zola's pounds 4.5m move from Parma already looks better business than Vialli's "free" from Juventus.

In my view Zola has three rivals for the distinction of being the season's outstanding buy. One is Nigel Martyn, who has forced his way back into contention for the England keeper's jersey since Leeds prised him from Crystal Palace for pounds 2.25m. Another must be Patrik Vieira, a fringe player at Milan who has become a key figure at Arsenal after a pounds 3.5m switch.

Pound for pound, though, the title must go to Kvarme's equally unheralded compatriot, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who has emerged as if from nowhere to become Manchester United's top scorer. The boyish striker earned FC Molde all of pounds 1.5m - or a 10th of what Newcastle shelled out for Shearer - and has 13 goals to show for his 21 League starts.

Which is just as well, since another of Alex Ferguson's foreign captures, Jordi Cruyff (pounds 1.4m from Barcelona), ranks among the less judicious transactions. And the politest that can be said of Karel Poborsky (pounds 3.5m from Slavia Prague) is that the jury is still out.

Lee Sharpe, on whom Howard Wilkinson gambled a Tomas Brolin-sized pounds 4.5m of Leeds' money, has yet to prove his worth. To be fair, he joined a team in transition - from dire to dour - and one suspects many Old Trafford patrons would take him back in exchange for Cruyff and Poborsky.

The Czech, in turn, has been a storming success compared with Sasa Curcic, hugely talented but a moaning misfit since defecting from Bolton to Aston Villa for pounds 4m; or Ramon Vega, the Swiss stopper who set Spurs back pounds 3.75m only to spend much of the time suspended or injured; and Romania's Florin Raducioiu, on whom West Ham swallowed an pounds 800,000 loss when he retreated to Espanyol four months after arriving for pounds 2.4m.

Yet the worst buy of 1996-97 - I refuse to say arguably - has been an Englishman. Acclaimed as the new Peter Beardsley or the next Teddy Sheringham, Nick Barmby's form was already fading at Middlesbrough and has dipped disastrously since Joe Royle paid pounds 5.75m to make him Everton's most expensive player.

Royle did offload Andrei Kanchelskis to Italy for a profit of pounds 3.5m, but Barmby's lack of impact has led some Evertonians to view the Ukrainian's uneven contribution more favourably.

As for Shearer, he hardly let Newcastle down before succumbing to injury. The coup was, however, supposed to turn last year's near miss into a championship. Judged on that criterion, the expenditure has yet to be justified.

By the same logic, the mind-boggling pounds 7m Middlesbrough paid for Fabrizio Ravanelli will not seem like a snip should the "White Feather" score the winner in one or more final.

It has not been all multi-million pound deals. Martin O'Neill has bought half a team for less than the Barmby fee and led Leicester to a Wembley final and Premiership respectability. Coventry acquired Darren Huckerby from Newcastle for a giveaway pounds 1m and could probably quadruple their money today.

At the opposite end of the age scale, John Sheridan and John Hendrie cost Bolton and Barnsley a mere pounds 180,000 and pounds 250,000 respectively. Each has played a massive part in his club's push for Premiership status.

Meanwhile, one Third Division club have shown Newcastle how to speculate in order to accumulate. Wigan also set a club record for a striker last summer, venturing pounds 150,000 on Doncaster's Graeme Jones. The Yorkshireman now leads Fowler, Ravanelli and the rest with a Sheareresque 31 goals, and promotion beckons.