Greedy clubs have left players holding all the aces

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The Independent Football

The men who control the top European clubs and like to see themselves as the heads of international businesses know the answers to the problems caused by the massive fees and hyper-inflationary salaries now being agreed in this most volatile of market places.

The men who control the top European clubs and like to see themselves as the heads of international businesses know the answers to the problems caused by the massive fees and hyper-inflationary salaries now being agreed in this most volatile of market places.

Similarly, 20 years ago realisation dawned on English football chiefs. Clubs used to many years of rising admission money during the inflationary 1970s, who spent very little of the additional income on ground improvements, were fuelling transfer inflation in the early years of the new "freedom of contract" rules agreed in 1978 by paying over £1m, the previous watermark for a top player, on markedly average journeymen. The Football League brought in an accountant turned filmmaker named Clifford Barclay, who had served on the original Norman Chester committee in the 1960s, to spell out the facts of life to the clubs. The clubs did not like what they heard.

Many were trading insolvently and relying on the benevolence of the banks, who were never likely to compound their unpopularity by pulling the plug on the local club.

Not for the first time, the example of the German Bundesliga was quoted. Clubs there risked demotion to a lower league if their balance sheet did not come up to scratch.

As you might imagine, this concept was hardly embraced with open arms in England as the club chairmen approached Barclay's meetings with enthusiasm akin to going to the dentist. The clubs resisted any attempt to submit their accounts to independent scrutiny, saying that they each had different accounting practices and comparisons were useless as well as odious.

Little happened, save that a working party was set up and a few clubs went bankrupt (The Inland Revenue did not need to worry about becoming unpopular).

Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bristol City, Charlton Athletic and Middlesbrough were all restructured so as to trade again. Doug Ellis tried to buy the Wolves franchise but lost out. Probably the community spirit that so marks The Valley today was born in those dark days of fighting insolvency, proving that good can come out of adversity.

The clubs eventually passed a rule which stipulated that transfer fees could not be deferred for longer than 12 months, with a minimum of 50 per cent to be paid immediately. This at least injected a modicum of restraint into the market place and the risk of a domino-like collapse of clubs was averted.

The reaction of the Premier League clubs to any suggestion of financial criteria was similarly lukewarm the following decade.

Now even the wealthiest of these English clubs find themselves struggling to compete in a situation where one director said last week "the lunatics have taken over the asylum".

There is no prospect of Uefa adopting a financial criteria rule. Can you imagine the uproar if Real Madrid, millions in the red, were suddenly thrown out of the Champions' League for financial instability? There is little chance of legislation in a country like Spain where, when clubs are threatened with demotion, the league is simply and arbitrarily enlarged to comprise an extra two clubs.

We have seen a new phenomenon recently. Players have been used as grand political gestures in presidential elections at clubs where the sound of clashing egos is positively deafening. If you somehow gained the view that English club chairmen were a bumptious bunch, you should see the Italian or Spanish club presidents milk the adulation of the fans. If you have business with them, it's easier to obtain an audience with the Pope.

Don't get the idea that the players are little more than pawns in this surreal game. They and their advisers are increasingly calling the shots.

The man whom many regard as the greatest English footballer of his time, Sir Tom Finney, was once courted by an Italian club. "Nay lad, tha's not goin' anywhere," was the reaction of the Preston North End chairman when the gentle Tom diffidently raised the question of a transfer that would have set him up for life. Nor did he.

Today, the clubs by their hysteria have played into the hands of the players who hold all the cards at any negotiating table. It will get worse before it gets better, for on the horizon is the threat that transfer fees will be abolished by the European Union for players under contract. When that happens the circus will truly have come to town. The loyalty of the fans will really be tested when players up and leave half-way through the season.

The one-club player will become as much a relic as the lace-up ball. Just coming onto the scene when Finney retired was Bobby Charlton, who made a record 606 appearances for Manchester United between 1956 and 1973. That is a club landmark which will not be surpassed.

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