According to Mick McGuire, Gordon Taylor's deputy at the Professional Footballers' Association, players and clubs alike have taken a reality check, and the sport's finances are no longer those of the madhouse. It is a reasonable assessment, though there is still a point at which reality blurs into fantasy football; and that point is the main gate at Stamford Bridge.
For all Chelsea's pledges to break even within the next five years, their unprecedented spending power continues to distort the domestic game, as has been illustrated twice in the past couple of weeks. First there was a perfect example brought out almost incidentally at the deadlocked High Court trial in which Harry Kewell was suing Gary Lineker for libel. Kewell's "personal manager", Bernie Mandic, said that soon after the Roman Abramovich coup, he had taken a call from Chelsea's chief executive, Trevor Birch. Knowing that his client was set on joining Liverpool, he "plucked a number out of the air and said Harry wouldn't go for less than £100,000 [a week]". Birch's reply startled Mandic as much as it should anyone else in football: "He said that wouldn't be a problem."
A similarly huge salary increase prompted Scott Parker to leave Charlton for Chelsea six months later, which had unwanted repercussions last week for Newcastle United and all other Premiership clubs - among them Birmingham, Everton, Tottenham and even Wigan - interested in signing him. It was estimated at the time that the player's wages had trebled from £15,000 a week, a tempting enough carrot for any 22-year-old. Charlton were annoyed he had recently signed a new contract, but the inflated £10m fee - paid almost in full the following day - has enabled them to buy eight new players, with money being handed on to Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal, Ipswich and Oxford among others.
The problem occurred once it became clear that Parker was surplus to a new manager's requirements. Most Premiership clubs - including Charlton - would have been in the market for him at a sensible fee. But even Chelsea were reluctant to lose too much on their original invest-ment and crucially, the number of clubs prepared to match wages believed to have risen to £55,000 was tiny. It is as much of a gamble for Newcastle to have done so, having shelled out £6.5m for the transfer, as it is for Parker, desperate to resurrect his international career, to have joined such an unstable club.
Meanwhile, the rod Chelsea have made for their own backs by paying excessive fees is still being used to beat them with. Milan and Athletic Bilbao can demand unrealistic sums for the left-backs they know the Premiership champions want (Kakha Kaladze and Asier Del Horno respectively), assuming there is a good chance Chelsea will eventually lose patience and sign the cheque. Jose Mourinho's return from holiday is expected to prompt increased urgency, for he will want the new full-back, midfield player and striker identified as prime targets to be in situ well before the club's US tour.
Market moves elsewhere have tended to centre on the promoted and relegated clubs, mostly bearing out McGuire's contention about more responsible trading. Wigan's interest in Parker hinted at ambitions they have so far been unable to achieve, but Sunderland and West Ham have shopped sensibly.
Mick McCarthy is pursuing the path he followed to good effect in turning the club round after relegation two seasons ago, by looking for potential at prices to match; Kelvin Davis and Tommy Miller, the goalkeeper and midfielder from poor, ransacked Ipswich, full-back Nyron Nosworthy from Gillingham and strikers Jon Stead from Blackburn and Daryl Murphy from Waterford have cost no more than £3m in total. West Ham have taken a £1.25m plunge on Watford's Heidar Helguson to follow Roy Carroll into the club, and are presumably writing clauses into the contracts about wages decreasing if relegation materialises again.
Those clubs moving in the opposite direction must strike the difficult balance between maximising chances of an immediate return while cutting costs. The best solution is generally to sacrifice one well-paid player for a big fee, which Crystal Palace hoped they had done by selling Wayne Routledge to Tottenham. But now Andrew Johnson has requested a move, with Liverpool, Newcastle and Everton interested, supporters will be fearing the worst despite the chairman's insistence he will be staying.
Followers of Norwich and Southampton still fear other new internationals such as Robert Green and Peter Crouch will be leaving, while Harry Redknapp faces the worry that a majority of his squad (and their agents) regard themselves as established Premiership players.
Ah, agents; it would hardly be surprising if the Kewell v Lineker jury found the arcane ways of the football transfer as difficult to comprehend as the most financially complex fraud trial. How did you make £2m from the deal when Leeds wanted to sell and Liverpool wanted to buy, Mandic was asked. "I didn't have to find a buyer. I just sat back and let them call," he responded with commendable candour.
Now the Football Association's compliance unit has charged Paul Stretford eight months after he was a star turn at a high-profile trial in Warrington Crown Court last September, when the prosecuting barrister said: "We do not feel able to rely upon Paul Stretford as a witness."