Taylor leads Euro-sceptics

Steve Tongue discusses the effects of spiralling transfer fees on the game
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The Independent Online
FOR all the little barbs they aimed at each other in the past week, those utterly contrasting figures, Peter Hill-Wood (Eton, Hambros and Arsenal) and Alan Sugar (Hackney, Amstrad and Spurs), were of one mind: the transfer market had gone mad. "Crazy," spluttered Hill-Wood after coughing up pounds 7.5m for Dennis Bergkamp. "Lunacy," agreed Sugar on the day Tottenham signed Chris Armstrong for pounds 4.5m.

Leave aside the fact that by their own admission they had contributed to the sickness; and that, after paying the monstrous sum of pounds 1,000 for Alf Common in February 1905, the chairman of Middlesborough probably said exactly the same thing. The current hyperactivity means that last summer's spending total of pounds 60m will soon be left far behind, and the call is growing for Something To Be Done. But what?

The Belgian Jean-Marc Bosman, it is generally agreed, is attempting to do a little too much in arguing at the European Court of Justice that transfer fees should be abolished altogether once a player's contract expires. If that was to happen, the bigger clubs would still fight among themselves to offer the highest wages and signing-on fees while the smaller ones received nothing for players they had nurtured since junior school.

In reality, there is no such thing as a free transfer, as Chelsea discovered when working out exactly how many millions Ruud Gullit would cost. Instead of circulating within football, such money just goes into the pocket of players and agents.

In any case, English football is for once ahead of the game. In 1978 the Professional Footballers' Association, instead of pushing for the total freedom of contract that Bosman now wants, accepted a compromise whereby once a contract expires, only a player offered lower wages becomes available on a free transfer. Otherwise a fee has to be paid and if the two clubs cannot agree on one, an independent tribunal fixes it.

The PFA's chief executive Gordon Taylor says of the Bosman case: "A few leading players would benefit a great deal from the abolition of fees, but the overall effect would be counter-productive. Without a shadow of doubt there would be a contraction in the number of professional clubs and the number of players employed."

Taylor believes the overheated market should be dampened down either by standardising fees as Uefa do or by paying the whole sum immediately rather than allowing extended credit over a year or more.

Well intentioned but not practical, according to Liverpool's chief executive Peter Robinson, one of the sharpest operators at the sharp end of dozens of transfers down the years - including last weekend's new British record pounds 8.5m purchase of Stan Collymore. "It's all down to market forces," he says. "In an open market place, it's very difficult to put on controls that would work. And in the main I find we are asked to pay up front as it is.

"It may sound strange coming from me, when we've just broken the record, but everyone's got to be concerned about the way fees are growing to astronomical proportions. My own opinion is that it will continue for some time yet, but that like the stock market and the property market it will eventually regulate itself." Without quite so many casualties, it must be hoped.

The buoyancy of Premier League clubs finances - due to increases in television fees, sponsorship money and attendances - has allowed them to offer a serious alternative for gifted foreign players who could previously only afford to indulge their enthusiasm for British football by watching television. It can safely be assumed that Gordon Taylor, a concerned Euro-sceptic, was not at the airport to welcome Gullit or Bergkamp, whose arrival, he believes, diminishes opportunities for home players, takes money out of the British game and therefore prevents fees filtering down to the smaller clubs.

Yet within two days of Arsenal buying Bergkamp from Inter, the Italians had effectively handed the fee straight back to Manchester United for Paul Ince. United, it could be argued, had already spent the money in buying Andy Cole from Newcastle, who passed it on, with interest, to QPR and Wimbledon for Les Ferdinand and Warren Barton. If Pete Frame were to compose a football version of his Rock Family Trees based on transfer fees, it would illustrate perfectly how the money eventually seeps down to the game's roots, from where Wimbledon and Rangers traditionally recruit players like Barton (Maidstone) and Ferdinand (Hayes) before selling them again.

Having sensibly insisted on a sell-on clause, Hayes made an astonishing pounds 600,000 when Ferdinand moved to Newcastle, and Southend United have benefited likewise from Collymore's huge fee.

Just as Liverpool once paid Chester pounds 300,000 for a young shaver called Rush, so they have recently given Crewe pounds 700,000 for the little-known Fran Tierney. Crewe want to use the money to improve further their already impressive development of young talent. Taylor, nevertheless, insists that while transfer turnover has now reached an annual pounds 130m, the proportion of it going to clubs in the lower division is falling.

Where will it all end? Well, it took 17 years (1962-1979) for the British transfer record to leap from pounds 110,000 (Denis Law) to 10 times that amount (Trevor Francis). The first pounds 10m man is therefore due to sign on the dotted line sometime in 1996. Alan Shearer? David Platt? They will look cheap at the price.