DAN BILLINGHAM says the obsession too far… for big-money signings has gone
It’s gone too far...
FOOTBALL may have the power to bring people together and lead to endless decent conversations, but occasionally I expect we all hear views that make us just grin and nod out of politeness and then look the other way.
One such exchange took place around Christmas 2006 at the Madejski Stadium. Reading had just been beaten 2-0 by one of David Moyes’s strongest Everton sides. No shame there. Especially not as Reading were seventh in the table halfway through the Premier League season.
They were a side playing well above the sum of their parts who had stormed to promotion against the odds in record-breaking style the previous season. A side that I desperately wanted to see stay together for as long as possible.
I didn’t want anyone to leave, and nor did I want anyone to join when they hadn’t been there for the hard part.
The guy behind me as we waited to descend the stairs in the North Stand that day wasn’t as positive.
“What a load of rubbish,” he said to me.“We need three signings minimum in the transfer window, except the chairman doesn’t want to spend.”
That’s the problem with football’s transfer window. It offers every fan the hope their club could reach out and grab the solution to any problem – even problems many of us don’t know exist.
I understand the excitement that a stellar new signing can bring. The hope that they can transform a side or take them to a new level is sometimes realised – I’m thinking of Eric Cantona or Wayne Rooney at Manchester United.
What actually happens, though, at many of the 99% of clubs in no position to win a title is that they grasp out in the hope of buying a quick fix to more fundamental problems.
It’s the same philosophy that leads consumers to think they just need to buy that flashy car or another nice perfume and all will be well.
Just look at West Ham. A fine club that was long known for having one of the country’s strongest records of youth development have had the most scatterbrained transfer activity in the country in recent years.
This is a club that has signed 32 strikers in the past seven years yet has somehow always been left sweating on the fitness of Andy Carroll.
Nothing summed up their transfer dealings better than failed signing Simone Zaza being sent on loan to Valencia in January after being derided by Hammers’ fans and preceding to smash an absolute worldie in against Real Madrid weeks later.
Did West Ham really accidentally buy rubbish strikers 32 times in a row, or were they just too quick to rush into the transfer frenzy? By which I mean signing up whichever possible asset became available, merrily following agents’ suggestions instead of standing back and thinking about what kind of team they actually wanted to build.
This summer we were told West Ham have had a ‘good window’ by signing experienced Premier League players in Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez, Marko Arnautovic, Pablo Zabaleta and Joe Hart.
What is the point of judging a transfer window before you see how it works on the pitch though?
Newcastle had a ‘good window’ in the summer of 2015, snapping up Georginio Wijnaldum, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Florian Thauvin. They were promising players who had starred on the continent - who then played a part in taking the club down the following season.
Can anyone say with any certainty that West Ham will be higher in the table at Christmas than Huddersfield?
The Terriers had what I would truly define to be a good window – using a director of football to make ten signings early in the summer that were identified to fill the gaps in their squad and fit in with their clear style of price, and all for the same price of Chicharito and Arnautovic.
As each season passes with English clubs being outshone in the Champions League, I become increasingly convinced that far from helping, the Premier League’s TV megabucks might actually hinder its clubs.
Disruption to a squad is a challenge to any club – but while this happens out of necessity at a lot of European clubs who need to sell to survive, English clubs choose to chop and change players in the constant hope of spending their way to success.
Whereas some clubs on the continent can perform the remarkable balance of selling bigname players and getting better (I’m thinking of Juventus, Monaco or Ajax), the combined € 7bn that Premier League clubs have frittered away in transfer fees over the past five seasons has not brought them any closer to winning the Champions League.
At the lower end of the table, we are all aware of Bradford, Leeds and Portsmouth as the most severe examples of many clubs over the years who have felt compelled to spend beyond their means and suffered the consequences.
While there have always been signings who have lit up successful campaigns, one thing that all winning teams have in football is a proper spirit.
That might sound logical, but it’s not something that gets mentioned enough, while the transfer business floods our attention with price tags.
Not only is team spirit a bit of a naff term these days - as everyone puts it as a throwaway quality on their CV along with that day they ended up collecting for charity - it’s also a very difficult thing to quantify.
Spurs have plenty of team spirit, and so do Chelsea, but who has more? I couldn’t possibly say, but I know without checking who spent more.You could argue that team spirit is actually much more quantifiable than it used to be though – and just that nobody wants to write about it.
Clubs are crazy about using performance analysis. There will be a few Premier League managers such as Jurgen Klopp who were spending the summer thinking their team had to run x% more or become that much quicker in transitions.
This is all quite interesting stuff – but journalists still only want to write about one thing at this time of the year: you guessed it, transfers.
The Premier League previews put out by the papers were packed with suggestions on how Mourinho needs to add to his £150m of spending to make a statement or how Antonio Conte is desperate for more squad depth despite Chelsea having around 7,000 players out on loan.
Despite Manchester United’s great start against West Ham, I am doubtful that their summer spending will help them mount a title challenge this season as I reckon Mourinho has lost some of his previous ability to instil team spirit.
While I singled out the ‘chequebook fan’ at the Madejski earlier – the club wasted £5m on Greg Halford and Michael Duberry the follow- ing month, in case you’re wondering – it’s the media who play the biggest part in driving the over-excited transfer agenda.
They are the ones asking managers at press conferences how many new players they need. Transfer news is a handy way for in-the-know journalists to land exclusives, and it keeps them very busy over the summer.
It also now seems to have turned footballers into walking crossword clues, as everything they say or do over the summer gets interpreted as a transfer hint.
Romelu Lukaku managed to make headline news in June by following three Chelsea players on Twitter, which was stupidly seen as a clear sign he wanted to join the club.
I’m waiting for the day a player is reported to want to leave because he only used a smileyfaced emoji to celebrate his team’s win instead of one with a big grin.
Transfer overexuberance is an attitude that is widespread in the game though.
Danny Rose reflected this recently in calling on Tottenham to sign some big names “you don’t have to Google” – which I don’t feel is necessary at a club who have done better than all others at building a proper team in recent years.
The one good thing about the transfer window is that it does slam shut.
You can really sense everyone’s attention turning to the pitch in the days after that, which is where it should be all along. Transfers have always been a part of football, and there’s no better alternative system I can think of, but they remain just a part of a game which is a lot more thrilling than gossip and large sums of money are.
New boys: Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic, left, and West Ham’s Chicharito
Hammer time: Joe Hart has joined West Ham