The player vs the transfer trap

Jon Holmes and Struan Marshall give an agents'-eye view of the transfer system and its effect on footballers
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The Independent Online
If this autumn the European Court of Justice rules that footballers' transfer fees should be done away with, there will be a sigh of relief from journeyman footballers all over the UK. There are very few other occupations where an employer can say, "Your contract has expired and I don't want you playing for me, but you're not going anywhere else unless the price is right."

In league football, most players sign with a club for contracts of two years or more. During that period, if both clubs agree, the player may transfer, on payment of a fee by the buying club. All clubs are in the habit of keeping each other advised of players who they are happy to consider for transfer (although if the price is right, almost any player can be bought, as the recent cases of Stan Collymore, Paul Ince and Andy Cole show). The players themselves never receive any money from the transfer fee between the clubs.

From the club's point of view, the player's value is much lower at the end of their contract, when, theoretically they become a free agent. The reality - a practice unique to football - is that the club holds the player's FA "registration" and does not have to release him until another club makes a satisfactory offer of a "compensation fee" to buy him. As long as the club continues to pay a basic wage, the player cannot leave.

Out of favour and out of luck, is it surprising that a player might resort to legal action, to challenge such extraordinary employment terms?

A player's contract is generally not renewed for one of two basic reasons: either the club is unwilling - or indeed unable - to renew, or the player does not want to extend his stay on the terms offered. Whether the problem is lack of goodwill or lack of funding, it is entirely logical that a fresh start should be made elsewhere.

All Football League contracts run until 30 June, and so it is about now that some players will have had the preliminary chat with the manager that will leave them in a no-man's land until another monied club steps in and whisks them away. Around 90 per cent of British professional footballers are valued at less than pounds 250,000. They have only the cushion of a modest signing-on fee, paid in instalments over the course of the contract, to supplement their basic wage (often around pounds 500 per week). The amount of the signing-on fee is entirely down to what the player, or his agent, can negotiate. So this time of year can be an incredibly nerve-wracking one for the average player about to see his contract expire.

The argument against abolishing transfer fees when contracts expire is that every June the top couple of dozen out of the UK's 132 clubs would be hovering over the prized players at smaller clubs, looking for rich free pickings, and drying up the life-blood cash injections that these smaller clubs depend on. But if the minnows have not been able to offer satisfactory contract terms to the ambitious player, should not another bigger club be allowed to handle him instead?

The argument against transfer fees during a contract, however, are less obvious. A player has made a commitment to his club: if he leaves part- way through, then that club deserves market-value compensation for the loss of his services.

From an agent's point of view, one positive aspect of transfer fees is that they can give an indication of a player's market value, which undoubtedly helps in negotiating comparable personal terms for him. On the other hand, it doesn't always necessarily work in the player's best interests. Nottingham Forest's manager, Frank Clark, will be delighted to have just agreed a transfer fee of pounds 8.5m for their striker Stan Collymore, probably bound for Liverpool. But how will Collymore feel? Possibly concerned that such an expensive purchase price will have left much less in the kitty for his new club to fund his personal remuneration package than if he'd been sold for, say, pounds 2.5m.

This year promises to be a landmark year in the regulation of soccer transfers. Earlier this year, a Scottish court outlawed a contract provision in which the club had an option, without reference to the player, to extend his five-year contract by four years. It is widely expected that the Jean-Marc Bosman case will result in reform eventually. It will still, however, be some while before anachronistic soccer managers cease to be referred to as "gaffer" or "boss" by their multimillion-pound players.

The authors work for Park Associates, a sports agency.