Jon Smith has little doubt what the advent of the transfer window has done to football. "We were riding the crest of a wave," says the chief executive of First Artist Corporation. "And someone took away the ocean."
Not that Smith expects too much sympathy. He is, after all, a football agent, and knows that his trade's reputation does not usually figure high on the list of the average fan's concerns.
But with the opening of the window at midnight last night also comes the seasonal battle with what Smith terms the "one-man dodgy dealer", those agents who "don't work all year round but who can do a couple of deals at the right time. They are just taking advantage of the way the market works". And that is not necessarily to the benefit of player or club, with both sometimes bounced into transfers.
As such Smith, and it is a view shared with other reputable agencies, believes that the window has not "helped legitimacy", because agents are not "encouraged" to try and develop their businesses and take a more organic approach. Instead they are set a deadline to chase the money deals. "Everyone's trying to grab as much as they can in the shortest possible space," Smith says.
"The irony is," he adds, "that the transfer window has not structured the industry as an industry at all. It's been totally counter-productive. I thought we were coming on apace, but now it has gone backwards." Indeed, he claims that the rights handed to players by the freedom of movement ruling won a decade ago by Jean-Marc Bosman have been eroded by how the European Commission has interpreted Fifa and Uefa's attempts to harmonise buying and selling.
The summer and winter windows - running from the end of the season until 31 August and from 1 January to 31 January - were introduced after the 2002 World Cup, and with another tournament this year the spending of clubs is again likely to be curtailed beforehand. Clubs may wait to see who emerges in Germany - it is certainly a tactic favoured by Arsenal - while players and agents may also defer moves to see if they can land a bigger club with an impressive performance.
The situation is summed up by Rafael Benitez. "After the World Cup, prices go up if the player has had a good tournament," the Liverpool manager says. "But it is difficult to sign in January because the best players are playing in good teams." Liverpool, with a budget of around £10 million, are an example of the way the transfer business is developing. Their requirements - a right-winger and a central defender - are very clear, while deals such as the swap involving Josemi and Villarreal's Jan Kromkamp are the only other way of creating movement. Similarly, they will hang on to Djibril Cissé because Fernando Morientes is injured and there are no feasible, risk-free alternatives.
Smith, who also believes that the uncertainty over how much money will come from the next television rights deal has had an effect, agrees. "January is not normally a major sales hit like the summer," he says. "And I don't think there will be anything terribly dramatic. There will be adjust-ments here and there. People will be looking at simply what they need to get them through to May. It's a short-term business in that way. Not many clubs buy at this time with a long-term view."
Chelsea, for example, are making a move for the midfielder Maniche simply because Michael Essien is suspended for the Champions' League tie against Barcelona and, initially at least, to provide cover until May. The real currency of the month could be the short-term loan.
Many managers abhor the winter window. "I don't like it," says Arsène Wenger. "Clubs don't want to let their really good players go in mid-season, do they? It's hard to find exactly what you want in January."
Only once in his decade in charge has he ventured significantly into the market at this time of year, with the £14m purchase of Jose Antonio Reyes. But even that was a deal months in the making.
Smith, whose clients include Mikael Forssell, Alexsander Hleb and Kevin Phillips, reveals that "half a dozen" of the transfers he will be involved in this month are "actually done now". "The first couple of weeks will be quiet," he predicts. "Then there will be a couple [of deals] to set the pace and then the last week will be fairly busy." There will be a "domino effect". Deals have also become more complicated, with various add-ons. "Cleverly constructed," says Smith.
The urgency, of course, comes from the clubs in trouble. Chairmen such as Portsmouth's Milan Mandaric and David Gold at Birmingham City need to weigh up the risk of spending money against the financial disaster of relegation. Both look set to take the spending plunge. "During our tenure at Birmingham, when the going has got tough, the tough have got going," says Gold.
Even so, his manager, Steve Bruce, will also have to generate cash, and the most immediate reaction will be the sale of the striker Walter Pandiani. The movement at Portsmouth will be even more dram- atic, with "four to five" new players predicted by the club's chief executive, Peter Storrie.
Charlton Athletic, also, could be equally busy. "It's been a poor run recently," says their chief executive, Peter Varney. "We can't hide from that and we are looking to bring in players in the transfer window." Other clubs to look out for are Aston Villa, Middles-brough, Newcastle United and Wigan Athletic, while the player most in demand is Norwich City's striker Dean Ashton.
Indeed, his could be the biggest transaction this month - with a possible £7m move to Manchester City - while the Preston striker David Nugent is a target for Birmingham, Everton and Blackburn. But it is quite likely nothing will top the £7.2m Manchester United have spent on Spartak Moscow's Serbian defender Nemanja Vidic - that is, unless Southampton cave in to the fierce interest that has developed in their 16-year-old Theo Walcott.
That remains an uncertainty. But what is without question, Smith feels, is that the transfer window structure is here to stay. "However much we think it may not have been the greatest of inventions, there will be no going back," he says. "I think we're all stuck with it now."