Back before the days of Twitter and smart phones, there was a time when I had a pager. A little rectangular thing with a monochrome display and no reply facility, it swiftly passed into anachronism; in the meantime, as the bus and I sat in traffic on our way home from school, it would periodically flash up a message from my mother. ‘WHERE ARE YOU’, said the message. ‘PHONE HOME’.
The digital age was coming. It was the mid-1990s and, having spent 10 years of pre-pubescence being shuffled between frivolous open-air pursuits like cricket in the summer and kicking a football around the park in winter, I was finally rewarded with a primitive form of the internet. A programme called Delphi, it was a list of topics (news, weather, sport) which could be summoned up in stark black and white on your desktop computer. You typed in something from the list, the programme provided you with some headlines, and that was about the sum of it.
From time to time my parents would take me and my sisters on holiday, which was great, of course, but put us almost completely out of touch. Hustling into the car before dawn, we would drive for hours, down through the country, a brief respite on the ferry, and then onwards to the Charente, a smattering of pretty villages about halfway down France – and there, with nothing much to do for miles around, we would play cricket against the wall in the midday sun, go on afternoon bike rides through boundless rippling corn fields, and whittle away the evenings with card games and telly.
I was quite the wild child.
If my father or I wanted to find out the sports news from back home (I never showed much interest in the front pages. Still don’t, really), there were places where we could, if we were lucky, find an English-language newspaper – yesterday’s at best, though, reporting two-day-old stories. We could just about pick up Radio 4 by sitting in the car and straining an ear through the crackles; otherwise, we were at the mercy of the journalism of our hosts filtered through my mother’s improving but still uncertain grasp of the French language.
And so it was that I found out about Jürgen Klinsmann signing for Tottenham Hotspur; specifically, once the news had comprehensively become old – about a week after it happened, in a little box tucked away a few pages back in one of the local papers.
We went to the same house for years, but I couldn’t tell you much about it now. I remember that feeling, though. That moment, in that house, reading that my club, my glorious old shambles of a club, had signed World Cup winner Jürgen Klinsmann. I remember that.
• • • •
Football isn’t about glory, whatever Danny Blanchflower may have said. Glory fades fast, although if you’re lucky enough and you do win in style, it leaves behind an echo. But to keep on coming back, over and over again, year after year – that’s not for the glory. That’s for the hope.
There is hope – crisp and clean – on the first day of the season. There is hope on the morning of a cup final. But most of all, there is hope when a new signing stands there on the pitch, holding up his shirt and smiling for the cameras. I was 11 back in 1994, naive beyond football, but not much has changed 22 years on. There’s still that thrill; there’s still the thought that after all these years, this, this could be the one who makes the difference.
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Harry Redknapp is famous for his work in the transfer market – good and bad
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And of course I’m not the only one who feels it. If you watch football, you will fall for that sweet seduction, and frankly there are those who should know a hell of a lot better but have it a hell of a lot worse.
It would be remiss, in fact, to write about transfers without mentioning one man in particular – a man who’s absolutely right to say that he’s not a “fucking wheeler-dealer”. He’s right because that’s too trivial a word, when the word you are looking for is ‘addict’. This is a man for whom so great is the rush that dies that he will seek it even at January’s eleventh hour, all for a man whose name he doesn’t know.
“I remember nearly taking Charlie Adams from Blackpool,” he says, Fletch and Sav and Wrighty and Hoddle grinning inanely alongside him. Laughing; encouraging; enabling. “Daniel [Levy], he says to me, ‘Would you want Charlie Adams? I can get him cheap, cut-price.’ So I went, ‘Yeah, I like Charlie, he’d be a good player’.”
Such is the thrall that nobody asks the only questions that matter. Where would he play in our formation, Harry? Is he a good tactical fit, Harry? Does he have the right mental profile to fit in with the other players we’ve got, Harry? Oh, and Harry, you know his name is Charlie Adam, right?
Because he’s a deal, isn’t he Harry, and we do deals. We do deals until the day the money runs out and the music that sounded so jaunty begins to assault our ears with harshness and discordance, and the faces that once creased with joy when we walked through the door turn stern and cold and we are thrust without ceremony back into a broken morning, blinking into the light that used to warm but now burns and aches in the desolation of the new world. And all the while, somewhere in the depths of our mind, the fragment that remains unconsumed and untainted by the reeking, grasping horror to which years of giving in to untamed desires has brought us, we knew this day would come, but it was always too late, too late to turn back, too late to repent, too late to save a scintilla of our soul, too late, too late, go on then, just one more hit, oh God it’s beautiful, and it’s terrible.
Or something like that.
No, actually, back up. It’s even worse, because it’s not really even about doing the deals at all. In the year that man first walked on the moon and rioting in Northern Ireland marked the start of the Troubles, it was transfer gossip that saved The Sun, and nearly half a century on, here we are, a flicker of a yellow tie away from the world’s final descent into a haze of white noise, ‘ANNOUNCE POGBA’ retweeted into eternity.
And why? Why do we keep on kidding ourselves? Why do Premier League champions Chelsea spend nearly a quarter of their turnover on new players in the summer of 2015 only to finish 10th? Why do Manchester City spend nearly £100 million more and then scrape into the top four on goal difference? Why do Newcastle continue to fritter away every bit of cash that they can squeeze out of zero hours contracts, punitive wages and a workforce too scared to take time off work, as they frolic on down to the Championship?
How is such a fundamental part of the game so out of kilter?
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Paul Pogba’s transfer to Manchester United was played out extensively on Twitter
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Well, first of all, maybe it’s not quite that bad.
The basic premise of the transfer section of the excellent book Soccernomics is simple enough. “While the market for players’ wages is pretty efficient,” say authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, “the better a player is, the more he earns – the transfer market is inefficient.” And you look at Christian Benteke and Roberto Soldado and Ángel Di María and Fernando Torres, and think yep, that sounds about right.
It’s a proposition with both theoretical and empirical logic. For one thing, in basic economic theory, one of the assumptions on which market efficiency relies is knowledge – the more information you have on a commodity (in this case, a player), the more accurately that commodity can be priced. So far, so reasonable. Then, there are the statistics: between 1978 and 1997, Kuper and Szymanski found that the transfer spending of 40 English clubs accounted for only 16 percent of their total variation in league position, while spending on wages explained 92 percent of it (and 89 percent of Premier League and Championship variation between 1998 and 2007). That’s a pretty strong correlation. There are, though, a couple of reasons to look a little deeper.
For one, if a player on, say, Liverpool’s books wants to earn more money, he either needs to convince the board to upgrade his existing contract (which may have quite some time left to run), or he will need either to force a move or at least create a credible threat of one, when for three quarters of the year he will not be allowed to move clubs at all. There will often, therefore, be a significant lag before wages respond to changes in player value. That’s not efficient.
There’s a simple sounding answer to that: increase the proportion of pay that is performance-related – but try selling that to a player who knows that any week, they could get dropped or injured. What’s more, performance-related pay may not even be in the club’s interests either, at least given traditional performance metrics; is a goal bonus, for instance, the best way of ensuring that a striker does what is best for his team, when it might encourage him instead simply to shoot on sight? There are rewards for team success, but can they accurately reflect the contribution of each individual player?
The second wrinkle is that if Liverpool want to buy someone to replace the agitatory reprobate in question, they have, at least in theory, a huge pool of players to choose from. There is, in other words, direct competition when it comes to transfers in a way that doesn’t apply to wage bills; and perhaps the fundamental principle of a market economy is that it is competition that drives prices towards their true value. Of course, this is a simplification – clubs can always overpay for the flavour of the month, or strike lucky with an under-appreciated Riyad Mahrez or N’golo Kanté, but as a general rule, competition should help to make a transfer fee a reasonably accurate measure of a player’s worth.
The final point to bear in mind is that, unless a club either signs a player as a free agent or promotes directly from their own academy, they will need to pay a transfer fee to acquire them – unlike most of the rest of the workplace, footballers cannot (or at least, invariably do not) simply serve notice on one team in order to earn higher wages at another.
Where a player moves from one club to another, therefore, wages are not the driving factor. Granted, the knowledge that a player is disaffected may warp their transfer fee, forcing the selling club to drop its demands, but then again a shrewd negotiator from the buying club should be able to use that unhappiness in their own favour when agreeing his salary.
So it would seem that transfer spending really should be reflected in success – at least as much as wages are. Well, again, maybe sometimes it is, just not at the top level.
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In the Premier League, clubs make money. That wasn’t always the case but broadcasting deals have changed the landscape, and in 2014-15 there were only six Premier League clubs that posted a loss. What’s more, of those six, three were the chronically under-performing Sunderland, Aston Villa and Queens Park Rangers – two of which have since been relegated.
A further two were Everton and Manchester United, whose £4 million losses were offset by profits of £28 million and £41 million respectively from the previous year, and the sixth was Chelsea, for whom – at least until Roman Abramovich finally moves on – it doesn’t really matter. So perhaps where we are in the English upper echelon is that most clubs can afford to gamble with transfers – to pay over the odds for the glamour of a Paul Pogba or the promise of a John Stones, to throw money around and hope that some sticks. Bottom line: there’s no real need to economise, and without an incentive to watch their money, then maybe clubs won’t bother.
In the lower leagues, though, life is a lot harder. With much gratitude to the fine Swiss Ramble website for the number-crunching, it appears that in 2014-15, only three out of 24 clubs in the Championship were making any sustainable money (in terms of a positive EBITDA, a consolidated figure summarising earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation, and generally seen as the best method of assessing the underlying financial strength of a company). By way of comparison, in that same year, the sole Premier League team to post a negative EBITDA was QPR.
There is an attractive explanation for this near-universal financial struggle. At Championship level, the rewards for promotion can sustain a club for years (it would, estimates the Swiss Ramble, take a Championship club more than 15 years to make the same revenue from broadcasting rights as the bottom-placed Premier League team, and that is even before the new TV deal kicks in). When that is coupled with the expectations of supporters of the likes of Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa, who remember their club’s glory days, it is no great surprise that there is spending far beyond true means, with nearly half the clubs in the league paying out a total wage bill in excess of their turnover.
If so many Championship clubs are pushing their finances to the limit and beyond in search of success, then, and the accepted route to success is via higher wages, those clubs that perform the best should be those that pay their players the most, right? Actually, not so much.
Granted, Norwich, who won promotion via the play-offs in 2014-15, paid the highest wages that year – a legacy, in large part, of spending the three previous seasons in the top division – but champions Bournemouth spent only the fifth-highest amount and runners-up Watford the 10th. Beaten play-off finalists Middlesbrough’s wage bill, meanwhile, was only just in the top half for the league, in 12th.
Even as a proportion of turnover, things weren’t hugely different: Bournemouth blew the league away, spending nearly two and a half times their turnover on wages, but Watford were seventh in that table, Middlesbrough 10th and Norwich 11th; and for all but Boro, those figures will have been boosted by the triggering of promotion bonuses.
In terms of transfers, though, the figures are pretty striking – and not in the way that Soccernomics might predict. All of last season’s top six Championship teams – Burnley, Middlesbrough, Brighton, Hull, Derby and Sheffield Wednesday – feature in the top seven highest net transfer spenders across 2014-15 and 2015-16. And it is, of course, good old inefficient QPR who take up the other spot.
So maybe, with less margin for error, less money to spend and greater financial incentives for success, the transfer market turns out more efficient at the lower levels. Or maybe this sample size is too small, and next year’s Championship top six will be packed with those that pay their players the most. Or maybe it’s not really about how much you spend at all, or even how much you pay them. It’s about who you sign, and how you treat them.
• • • •
Thanks in part to the visibility of Soccernomics and its American cousin Moneyball, elite-level sport is wallowing in an age of analytics – so much so that according to an article in The Guardian in 2014, all 20 clubs in that year’s Premier League employed data analysts (Manchester City alone employed 11 of them). Which is all very well, with two minor qualifications.
First, it’s important to recognise – and let’s hope that this is recognised within the clubs, because it sure as hell isn’t by the majority of Twitterati – that analytics aren’t statistics. As West Ham technical scout and analyst Rory Campbell put it in an interview with The Telegraph earlier this year: “Statistics tell you about events that have happened. They don’t mean anything without context. Analytics is interpreting those stats to predict future performance.”
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Read | Football’s next frontier: the rise of detailed analytics
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That’s the hard bit, not least because football is irreducibly a team sport. The one player your team has just signed has earned his move by performing alongside 10 players you haven’t, and if he’s done it in another league, he’s done it against a series of players that he won’t be facing. He will almost certainly be playing a different style of football and he will definitely be doing so under a different manager.
As Blake Wooster, CEO of football consultancy 21st Club, told Wired magazine in 2014: “Sometimes we look only at the individuals and forget the context. For instance, Barcelona’s [Lionel] Messi is one of the best players ever, but what would happen if you took him out of that context and put him in another team? You can’t assess talent in a vacuum.”
Or to put it another way, any fan with a laptop can identify Papy Djilobodji as a player to watch – “he’s made the highest number of clearances of any player in Europe’s other top four divisions outside the Premier League this season”, you could say – but it takes, or at least it should take, a lot more to convince a prospective manager that he is Chelsea’s future rather than that of Sunderland, Rotherham United or GFC Ajaccio.
The second point is hinted at in something else that Campbell said in his interview with The Telegraph. “Where I think the analytics world has struggled is building a bridge to the traditional football world to infiltrate the information better,” he said. “You have to understand the dynamics and the personalities of the people you are working with to be able to communicate the information.”
Campbell’s point related to entrenched attitudes within clubs that valued intuition and their own experience above data, but boiled down it’s perhaps the most important skill of all – and it passes by almost entirely unseen.
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The trouble with transfers – and to some extent wages – is that they are so entirely quantifiable from the terraces. A £30 million signing has no option but to succeed; a player being paid £100,000 per week is expected to earn it. There is an alluring simplicity to all of this. “What a waste of money!” has a lovely lilt.
Erik Lamela was a waste of money once. Bought from Roma in the summer of 2013 for more money than Spurs had ever spent before, he started three Premier League games, came on as substitute in another six, and didn’t do an awful lot in any of them. “My first season was not good,” he told the International Business Times earlier this year. “I had a very long-term injury. I had never had [an injury] issue before and I could not settle properly.”
The summer after that, Spurs signed a few players, but none in Lamela’s position. Daniel Levy also hired a new manager, Mauricio Pochettino, who was tasked with making sure that selling Gareth Bale and splurging almost all of the money straight back out again hadn’t been a tremendous mistake – not least by bringing the best out of his fellow Argentine.
And Lamela remained on the periphery. His injuries were largely behind him, the minutes were ticking up, but he struggled to make an impact. The young forward is a seriously steely individual, with a resilience and adaptability that belies his age, hairstyle and will-o’-the-wisp frame, but many in the stands had lost patience with him, and by the summer of 2015 so, reportedly, had his club. And yet no deal could be reached with another team, Lamela stayed, and flourished; and now he is an indispensable part of the only side to seriously challenge Leicester City for last year’s Premier League title.
Had Lamela been sold a year ago, it would almost certainly have been at a significant financial loss, and the perception would have been of market inefficiency and transfer failure. The truth would have been a lot closer to impatience.
• • • •
Lamela gradually became an indispensable member of the Spurs squad
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Ultimately, whether you think that footballers should or shouldn’t just be able to cope with abuse, or personal problems, or that they should be expected to immediately fit into a new style of play in an entirely new culture, is beside the point. As Boudewijn Zenden told Kuper and Szymanski: “It’s the weirdest thing ever that you can actually buy a player for £20 million, and you don’t do anything to make him feel at home.”
Call Jermain Defoe’s advert for a personal assistant whatever you like – and plenty did – but it would have taken some things off his mind and allowed him to devote more energy to his football, and it’s a safe bet that most Sunderland fans are grateful for that.
It’s not like this is a new idea, either. As Soccernomics points out, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor were buying drinkers and gamblers 40 years ago, and helping them manage their problems. Not only is that cheaper than selling them off and bringing in new faces, it means that you gain their trust – for which they might just repay you. And there will be ripple effects, too.
Zenden told Kuper and Szymanski that AC Milan were renowned for their “we’ll take care of everything else, you make sure you play well” approach. Say, then, that Milan have this reputation, while another club is known for letting its new signings just sink or swim. Who are you, as football’s next big thing, going to sign for?
Things do appear to be a bit better than they were on this front, and maybe we are heading towards a time when a higher proportion of transfers succeed. If a decade ago teams barely even had HR departments, we are now at a point where Manchester City are doing background research into the interests of prospective signings’ partners, and helping to set up Sergio Agüero’s car with a Spanish sat-nav.
It’s still not great across the board, though. Speaking to the Evening Standard in April, Lamela said that his early days in England had been difficult: “I’d only just arrived, I was staying in a hotel and I hadn’t seen the place where I was supposed to live. I’d been in London only a couple of days; I didn’t know the way the team played, or any of my team mates. I arrived and barely spoke a word of English, so I didn’t understand anything.”
He has worked his way through most of his problems now, but in some ways it’ll never be quite right: “Luckily I have my girlfriend with me the majority of the time,” he said, “but my family are back in Argentina, although they visit now and then.”
• • • •
Until – or unless – football clubs either work out how to make all of their new signings (and, for that matter, those new signings’ families) feel at home both on and off the pitch, or they embrace the virtues of continuity (Barcelona’s light-touch transfer approach may be legitimised by success, but it’s indubitably also a cause of it), for every Erik Lamela there will be a Roberto Soldado, and for every Luis Suárez an Andy Carroll.
In the meantime, for the fans, maybe it is all about the feeling after all. “Buying a big name is a way of saying ‘Yes, we are a big club’”, suggests Soccernomics. “It gives the supporters the thrill of expectation, a sense that their club is going somewhere.” Or to put it as an agent did recently to Four Four Two magazine: “In football, you have so few chances to actually win anything. So seeing your club pursue and eventually complete a massive transfer is as near as some supporters will come to actually winning something.”
It’s certainly something like that. Because there are a few moments that I remember as a Spurs fan. The League Cup wins in 1999 and 2008. The Champions League game against Internazionale in 2010, where Gareth Bale terrorised Maicon and White Hart Lane shook. But they all came, they have all faded a little, and one day, in my hopefully long-distant dotage, they may be gone for ever.
But through Klinsmanns, Rebrovs, Soldados and Lamelas, the hope will never die.
By Harry Reardon. Follow @hsreardon