Back in 1979, striker Trevor Francis completed the first £1 million move in British football. He moved from Birmingham to Nottingham Forest and went on to score the winner against Malmo in the 1979 European Cup final.
This was immediate repayment for manager Brian Clough, who subsequently struggled to know what type of striker the England international was.
However, people scoffed at the price tag as it doubled the previous record set by David Mills just a month before and the journalists present at the unveiling were witnessing British history in the making.
Whereas people were blown away by the fee paid for Francis, people will have scoffed at the first British transfer record set by Willie Evans in 1893, as he completed a £100 from West Bromwich Albion to rivals Aston Villa. Plucky move Willie.
So how has the British transfer market developed into this clubs; hence business we have today in the Premier League and some of the lower divisions, where the likes of Paul Pogba can move back to his previous club for £89.7 million, and many argue that this will become an acceptable fee?
The start of the Premier League
In 1992, many clubs decided to break away from the Football League and thus the Premier League was created in its absence.
Clubs like Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United gained global recognition and to a large extent dictated proceedings in the league.
This attracted big businesses and brought global commercialisation to the English game. In Layman’s terms, more money was made available for the football clubs in the Premier League.
Sky led the way with the television rights as more and more games were available to watch on a regular basis for fans of the Premier League.
It was not long after this that the Premier League began to grow into arguably one of the best leagues in the world as fans wanted to see Dennis Bergkamp turn out for Arsenal, Giggs for United and a host of other big name players in the league.
Through effective marketing, Sky promoted games all week such as Super Sunday, Monday Night Football and Midweek Football.
This influx of money affected the transfer market as well because clubs were now showcasing their talented players to a much bigger audience.
Between January 1995 and July 1996, the British record transfer fee was broken four times. First it was smashed by Andy Cole (Newcastle to Manchester United – £7 million), secondly Dennis Bergkamp (Inter Milan to Arsenal – £7.5 million), thirdly Stan Collymore (Nottingham Forest to Liverpool – £8.5 million) and finally Alan Shearer (Blackburn to Newcastle – £15 million). This disposable income set the tone for transfers to come.
These four players were the prized assets of their respective clubs; hence they were costly, but as a result, regular squad players also saw their values rise due to the widespread availability of funds in the League, particularly at the top end of the table.
Rival teams would see that the club of the departing player had more cash to spend so they could drive a hard bargain and make the team pay over the odds to replace a player. Manchester United have been victims of this practice for a long time.
The Teenage Riot
One of the transfers that changed the course of the British transfer market was not even a record transfer, but it was a major deal nonetheless.
The transfer of 18-year-old wonder kid Wayne Rooney from Everton to Manchester United was a grand deal. After just two seasons with his boyhood club, he moved on for £28.5million having not scored double figures in one season for his former club.
Mind you, Rooney was a wise investment for Manchester United as he went on to become the club’s all-time goalscorer.
However, this opened the floodgates for young talented players to move for astronomical fees despite only proving themselves for one or two seasons.
The demand for highly-rated wonderkids subsequently grew, thus prompting clubs to slap heavy price tags on their young players in a bid to ward off potential suitors, but it did nothing more than inflate the transfer market even further with the bigger sides boasting of the financial ability to pay astronomical fees for young players.
For example, Anthony Martial moved to Manchester United for £36 million with add-ons that could cause the fee to rise to £58 million, and this was based on 14 goals in two full seasons. There is no denying that the 21-year-old has talent but where is the proven track record to justify the transfer fee?
The Martial deal has now set a precedent for young French footballers trying to ply their trade in England because teams are not willing to let them go for cheap.
It is evident with Arsenal’s recent transfer dealings as they were deterred by the €100 million price tag on Monaco striker Kylian Mbappé and sought out Lyon striker Alexandre Lacazette. The Frenchman has cost them nearly half the price but has played six full seasons in Ligue 1 and has made double figures in four of them.
Arsenal don’t usually spend big on one player, but they had to splash the cash on Lacazette in a bid to keep up with their rivals who have no problem throwing cash around in order to constantly improve their squads. It’s fair to say inflation has forced Arsenal out of their comfort zone.
The young player premium is even more evident with English players. Since the home grown rule came into play, the market value of English wonderkids has doubled.
Manchester City are not the only club with a tendency to pay over the odds for players with their local rivals Manchester United having Luke Shaw who they signed for £30million within their ranks.
Jordan Pickford transferred to Everton for the same amount whereas Andy Carroll switched to Liverpool for £35 million which was a then-record fee for any British player.
Not for one minute am I insinuating that great talent will not come at a great cost but can a player who has had one good season really cost more than £30 million?
However, you have to take into consideration that inflation has affected the market and that teams do not want to miss out ‘the next best thing’ hence their reason for splashing so much cash on these players is understandable.
But there is then an argument for why clubs are not investing more heavily into their youth academy to produce this talent on their own rather than forking out millions to take a risk on a player who may not develop the way they want him to.
The inflation aspect means that average players cost a lot more than they should. In today’s market, a player costing around £20 million is seen as a bargain.
Take for example Everton midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin. There is no doubting Schneiderlin is a useful player, but he has just accumulated a transfer fee around £49 million in just two years. That could have got you about 222 Alan Balls in 1971, and he was a World Cup winner!
Even in the elite class of goal scoring talents in the Premier League you will always pay higher prices. Prior to his move to Manchester United in 1995, Andy Cole managed 55 goals in two and a half seasons at Newcastle United, and he cost the Red Devils £7 million (a then record fee).
However, their latest move for Romelu Lukaku shows how much inflation has actually affected the game because he has scored 53 goals in three full seasons (since his permanent move to Everton in 2014) and he is costing a reported £75 million.
Comparing the two strikers at the age they were when they moved, they’re both players of the highest quality, nearing the peak of their respective careers and commanding huge fees in the transfer market.
As things stand, you can expect transfer valuations to get bigger.
The more money being pumped into the game through TV deals, transfer fees, sponsorship deals, cup wins and positional rewards will only manifest into larger sums of money spent on players in the transfer market.
Although there is a strong correlation between transfer fees today and those in the 1970s, due to inflation, will there come a time where we believe that £100 million for a footballer is considered a bargain?