When the transfer window slams shut at midnight tonight it will bring to a halt the biggest spending spree since the Wags came home from the 2006 World Cup. One deal after another has brought to mind an old tale from 1979. Then Manchester City manager Malcolm Allison wanted Michael Robinson, now the face of televised football in Spain, then a promising striker with Preston. Allison called up the chairman and offered £300,000. The chairman, who had been hoping for £150,000, said: "You must be joking!" Allison responded: "How about £600,000 then?"
"Think of a number, then double it", seems to have replaced budgeting as transfer policy at some clubs with nearly a third of Premier League teams breaking their transfer records this summer. Between they have spent almost £449m, a new record. Not bad for a transfer market which was supposed to have been finished by Bosman. In reality that has been no more of a brake than freedom of contract.
This agents' bonanza is in part a consequence of the new television deal which guarantees every club £30m this season. Even the relegated clubs get £15m, a parachute payment which has so distorted the Championship market that all top ten buys have been made by parachute-receiving clubs.
The other factor is the arrival of a series of ambitious new owners, usually foreign, seeking to cash in on the Premier League's global reach and riches. Some of the men eagerly spending on their behalf have dealt cleverly in the market, others have been forced to pay over the odds. A few have simply kept out of it.
Prime among those are Mark Hughes, at Blackburn, and Reading's Steve Coppell. Both have operated on the principle that it ain't broke, so why fix it. Roque Santa Cruz, Rovers' main signing, is already shaping up to be the buy of the season. Coppell, meanwhile, will be hoping injuries, and an uncharacteristic cluster of red cards, do not reveal his caution to be ill-judged.
At the other extreme is Sven Goran Eriksson, who has bought eight players into Manchester City, all foreign, and unexpectedly got them playing like a team who have been together for years. Eriksson insists he would buy English players, except they cost too much. Consider, as Eriksson's Exhibit A, that Fulham paid nearly as much for Paul Konchesky, a player tried at international level by Eriksson and swiftly rejected, as Chelsea did for another full-back, Juliano Belletti, a player who scored the winning goal in the 2006 Champions League final and who has won 20 caps for Brazil.
The premium on English players is evident from other comparisons. Darren Bent, with two caps and no international goals, cost nearly five times as much as Santa Cruz, who has 14 goals in 49 internationals and Champions League experience. The uncapped Nigel Reo-Coker cost more than Elano, a current Brazilian international fresh from Copa America triumph. It is not as if they are guaranteed to settle better than a foreigner. Contrast David Nugent's start at Portsmouth to that of the similarly priced Nigerian John Utaka.
Several clubs look to have overpaid for players, West Ham at least balancing that by getting large fees for players they wanted to offload. None, though, have had to pay over the odds more than Sunderland. The new strike force, Kenwyne Jones and Michael Chopra, cost £11m. Prior to this season they had made 23 appearances in the Premier League between them, scoring one goal. Chopra's start suggests he might be worth £5m, while Jones' development in the last two seasons indicates he is a good learner, yet they are a gamble. Roy Keane had little choice. The lack of shopping is not the only reason he has had problems attracting players – Nugent preferred Portsmouth because they would not be fighting a relegation battle. Keane also spent £5.5m on Kieran Richardson. If ever there was a footballer with something to prove...
Sunderland apart, most of the big spenders already had strong squads: Manchester United (-£50m net), Tottenham (-£27.4m) and Liverpool (-£26m). Sir Alex Ferguson's signings are yet to settle, mainly because of injury. With Spurs it is impossible to ascertain which signings are Martin Jol's, and which were made by director of football Damien Comolli (though informed guesswork suggests the latter bought foreign, Jol British). Nor is it clear whether they will prosper in time to save Jol his job. At Liverpool, for a change, Rafael Benitez looks to have spent well. The quality of Fernando Torres matches his price-tag, Ryan Babel looks a handful, Yossi Benayoun finally has the stage he craves and his skill deserves, and to get Andrei Voronin on a Bosman is a steal.
That Torres chose to come to England, even given the influence of Benitez, is testament to the spending power and allure of the English game. Thierry Henry may have left for Spain but Carlos Tevez stayed while Anderson and Nani, Elano and Rolando Bianchi, arrived.
One player did get away. For a year it seemed Franck Ribery was destined for Arsenal. Instead, for a shade more than Bent cost, he pitched up at Bayern Munich and he is taking the Bundesliga by storm. Not only are Bayern looking unbeatable, they are playing wonderful football and Ribery is at the heart of the revolution.
German clubs have traditionally been careful buyers, in part constrained by domestic financial regulations, but after failing to reach the Champions League Bayern have changed policy. They splashed out £40m, half of it recouped through Owen Hargreaves and Santa Cruz, buying Luca Toni and Miroslav Klose as well as Ribery.
Europe's biggest spenders have, again, been Real Madrid. Their net spend is £63m. Their purchase of Arjen Robben, like Barcelona's of Henry, enabled Chelsea and Arsenal to turn a profit. Extraordinary behaviour in this summer of excess, but it might work. Big spending does not always lead to success. Allison's Manchester City team crashed to earth finishing 17th. Robinson, later a European Cup winner with Liverpool, scored eight goals, three of them penalties.
Bargains of the summer
Roque Santa Cruz (Bayern Munich – Blackburn) £3.5m
David Healy (Leeds – Fulham) £1.5m
Juliano Belletti (Barcelona – Chelsea) £4m
Olivier Kapo (Juventus – Birmingham) £3m
Paul McShane (West Bromwich – Sunderland) £2.5m
Best free transfers
Andrei Voronin (Bayer Leverkusen – Liverpool)
Antoine Sibierski (Newcastle – Wigan)
Geovanni (Cruzeiro – Manchester City)
Sylvain Distin (Manchester City – Portsmouth)
Adel Taarabt (Lens – Tottenham)
Most overpriced players
Paul Konchesky (West Ham – Fulham) £3.25m
Kenwyne Jones (Southampton – Sunderland) £6m
Pepe (Porto – Real Madrid) £20m
Nigel Reo-Coker (West Ham – Aston Villa) £8.5m
Darren Bent (Charlton – Tottenham) £16.4m
New record buys this summer
Derby: Robbie Earnshaw £3.5m
Everton: Ayegbeni Yakubu £11.25m
Liverpool: Fernando Torres £26.5m
Portsmouth: Sulley Muntari £7m
Reading: Emerse Fae £2.5m
Sunderland: Craig Gordon £9m
Tottenham: Darren Bent £16.4m
West Ham: Craig Bellamy £7m