The mad last-minute scramble is over and the dust is settling but the repercussions rumble on. Clubs being tapped up, chairmen squabbling over staged payments, frustrated coaches, disaffected players, disappointed fans. The summer transfer window may provide excitement and despair in equal measure but is it actually fair in producing a level playing field?
Although not strictly on the agenda, it would no surprise if the wisdom – or otherwise – of maintaining the status quo is discussed by the great and the good of the football business world when they convene at the annual Soccerex forum in Manchester on Monday.
With the integrity of the game at stake, it’s certainly a subject that has got tongues wagging.
Everton manager Roberto Martinez, so often a voice of logic and reason, spoke for many when he suggested recently that the window should close before the season kicks off.
Every summer managers like Martinez take stock of what has gone on at their clubs during the previous eight or nine months, engage in close-season tours and start planning for the next campaign. Or rather try to plan.
The fact that in England the window doesn’t close until well into the season makes a mockery of any kind of concrete preparation, rendering squad building virtually impossible as uncertainty kicks in amid all manner of rumours about players’ futures.
Martinez has spent the last few weeks facing the prospect of losing his best defender, John Stones, to Chelsea. Everton ultimately fended off Chelsea’s interest after rejecting the player’s transfer request but the whole saga put a strain on everyone at the club.
Everton, like many others, played four league games and once in the League Cup by the time the window shut firm. La Liga and Serie A, by contrast, only recently kicked off and Martinez insists the British game must do their business before their season starts.
“It is a responsibility that we need to look into,” says the Spaniard. “It would be too easy to say that the whole football world has those dates for the transfer window and that there is nothing we can do. It is not healthy for anyone, it is not fair to the players because the human side of the player gets exposed completely. It is not right for the fans who pay huge, hard-earned money to watch the games.”
A counter-argument is that current system offers a chance to bolster squads if injury strikes early. Fair dos but in theory, there is no reason why deals cannot be completed a couple of weeks earlier, thereby reducing the unsavoury brinkmanship that has become a hallmark of the UK market.
The totally unsatisfactory David De Gea “non-transfer” to Real Madrid from Manchester United is a case in point. Much has been made too of the stalemate surrounding Saido Berahino. Tottenham Hotspur reportedly made four bids for one of the brightest prospects in the domestic game. West Bromwich Albion, Berahino’s club, wouldn’t sell. That, of course, is their absolute right. Berahino is undoubtedly extremely well paid and should carry out his duties accordingly.
But football is not like any other business. Berahino may have been at fault by taking to social media to say he would refuse to play for West Brom under its current chairman after being denied his dream move. But it’s the nature of the game that footballers have their heads turned. They play for one main reason other than being well-paid: to improve themselves. Berahino must now be wondering if and when he will ever move on.
There is another sided to the coin, of course. How much more ludicrous a situation could there be than a player being paid a fortune and not even being registered on his team’s squad list. We are talking Tottenham again and in this case Emanuel Adebayor who is deemed surplus to requirements but whose wage demands are so high that no other club was prepared to take a punt on a player who is now 31. Tottenham had apparently been trying to terminate his contract, but the Togo international reportedly held out for a £5m payoff, believed to be the value of his final year. Result? He stays where he is, at least until January, and plays the odd domestic cup game. Utter lunacy.
So far I haven’t mentioned the role of agents. Premier League rules state that a player under contract “shall not directly or indirectly make any approach to another club without having obtained the prior written consent of the existing club to who he is contracted.”
The reality, of course, is vastly different. Rarely will a club go after a player without having first contacted his representative to see whether a move would be of interest and if so, how much would the salary be. Hence expressions like “preliminary talks,” “advanced discussions”, etc, as selling and buying club lay down their respective demands via intermediaries. Did that have anything to do, one wonders, with De Gea’s protracted move breaking down at the 11th hour? Or was that just down to a mixture of petty bureaucracy and inefficiency in either Manchester or Madrid, or both?
And let’s not forget loan deals, designed in theory to allow young players to gain invaluable experience elsewhere but which exploits the transfer window to an alarming extent.
Take Chelsea. The Premier League champions now reportedly have no fewer than 33 players out on loan after dispatching four more on transfer deadline day. All but two of them will have virtually no chance of returning for at least another year. Youth prospects sent away to improve their skills? Hardly. Twelve of them are full internationals including, apparently, one or two who have never even worn the shirt for the Blues.
The loan system needs to be better managed if it really does serve the purpose of helping cash-strapped clubs who need a temporary bail-out. As it stands now, it undermines the entire integrity of the game. It shouldn’t be there simply to benefit a few elite clubs who have the resources to accumulate any number of players for insurance purposes and be able to farm them out to get them off the wage bill.
When the recent window closed Chelsea had loaned players to Italy, France, Portugal, Germany, Holland and Turkey, as well as to four other Premier League clubs. Four clubs who can use them to play against those rivalling Jose Mourinho’s team for the title but not against Chelsea.
Level playing field? Do me a favour.
At the end of the day, to use another tired footballing cliché, it is invariably the fans who suffer from deadline day madness as clubs dangle tasty carrots in front of them, and then pull them away. Arsenal, as ever, were right in the thick of it, heavily linked with Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and Paris St-Germain striker Edinson Cavani. In the end, they ended up as the only club in Europe’s top five leagues not to sign an outfield player even though they were no longer burdened by the financial constraints of paying for their state-of-the-art stadium. Their fans expected and demanded – some might say deserved – better.
Whether Arsenal would have benefitted with the window shutting before the season begins is open to question but invariably it’s the big clubs who don’t complain. In other words the ones with the most cash.
Ironically the summer window was introduced to stop players moving to other clubs at the drop of a hat and being unsettled throughout the season. At least now clubs know what they have at the their disposal for six months or so. If England’s window shut before their season started and, say, Spain’s remained open for several more weeks, it’s not rocket science to work out which country would be most disadvantaged.
In the interests of balance here, that’s a fair argument. One solution, perhaps, might be for all the major European leagues to agree to end buying and spending on the same date. Then at least there would be more integrity and less disingenuity. Then again, given football’s vested interests, it seems highly unlikely any consensus could be achieved on a lasting basis.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org