An Unexpected Transfer-mation?

If you read the newspapers lately when changes to the transfer system are being discussed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that right now we have a wonderfully competitive Football League in which each club can easily beat any other and in which small clubs are in financial clover thanks to all the cash that filters down through the Leagues from the top clubs.

Listen to the wails of Arsene Wenger and “Sir” Alex Ferguson and you’d think that all this milk and honey will be soured if those pesky Europeans carry on interfering with our precious system. Bollocks. The English league is dying. As a competitive event, it’s even more predictable than the WWF. Between 1967 and 1973, seven different clubs took the English title. In the last nine years, including 2001, Manchester United alone have won seven times. And as for the small clubs, well, most of them are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, saved only by indulgent bank managers or clever administrators.

The possibility of transfer income deludes too many into spending more than they earn, and in any event the big-money transfer of the lower League player up to the higher echelons has more or less come to an end, as the giants develop ever-bigger youth academies.

I’m all for the scrapping of the transfer system, but let’s dwell a moment longer on the hypocrisy of the big clubs. The same people – Ken Bates, David Dein – who tell us that the elimination of a transfer system will kill off smaller clubs are the self-same people who set up the English Premiership as a breakaway from the Football League in the early 1990s with the express purpose of sharing a smaller percentage of the income with the other 72 clubs.

Don’t believe these money-grabbing shysters for a second when they tell you they want a transfer system to survive so as to nurture the grass roots. They are concerned only with their own share price. Arsenal. I hate Arsenal. How they pleaded for sympathy when Nicolas Anelka refused to play for them. Then they sold him. For £22.5 million. That for a player they’d bought from PSG for half-a-million quid, a player with pace but a very spotty record in front of goal and an appalling attitude.

Cry no tears for the Arse. I know why they want to retain the transfer system and it’s got nothing to do with charity towards clubs in Division 3. (And while I’m on, why do people take Arsene Wenger seriously? A nice soft voice and a French accent – but the guy talks total mince every time he opens his mouth. He says he’ll give up club management for the international game if the transfer system is scrapped, because he won’t be able to build a team – like you can build a team at international level? Twerp.)

I’ll tell you why the big clubs want a transfer system. Because it allows them to inflate their profits by imposing archaic restrictions on the freedom of the players. And because it allows them to deflect attention from the real issue in football today, which is the vital need to share gate and TV money around more fairly than happens at present.

The starting point is that in football a player is treated quite differently from an employee in any other job. This is because of arrangements that are enforced collectively by clubs, Leagues and international associations. Imagine your contract’s up. Another employer offers you better terms. You’ll take the new job. Of course.

A footballer cannot do that. If the player wants to move from a club in England to a club in France, then he can move freely (that is the result of the 1995 Bosman ruling), but it’s far from that simple if you want to move between two English clubs. And imagine you want to change employer even while your contract is in force. Provided you can satisfy the rules governing breach of contract, you can switch jobs even if the old employer doesn’t want you to leave. Not so a footballer. A footballer who tries to do what you or I can do will find himself penalised by the authorities and unable to play for the new team.

There’s no reason why footballers should be treated in this way. And please don’t tell me that without the protection of a transfer system, clubs will stop training youngsters. Sainsbury trains its managers even though some will later leave and go work for Tesco. Every business in the country trains young employees because it needs them to survive, and they do so without for a moment expecting compensation when the worker moves on. Why should football be any different?

You might say that this will put the players in an even more powerful position. If transfer fees vanish, won’t wages rise? Sure. What’s wrong with that? Footballers are entertainers and deserve the market rate. No one says that Tom Hanks earned too much for his last film, and that he better accept half as much for his next one or else no director in Hollywood will hire him.

And David Beckham is worth every penny that a club is willing to pay him. That is how markets work. You might say, won’t players just walk out of clubs on a whim? Well, no – or at least no more than any ordinary employee walks out. Workers stay put if they’re happy and it is the employer’s job to keep them happy.

It’s an everyday matter of negotiating contracts. If a club is worried it won’t keep its players for the full duration of their contract, it could, for example, include a large loyalty bonus, payable after, say, the third and the fourth year of a five-year contract. That’s the way ordinary businesses operate and it is the way football should operate. The transfer system is simply indefensible.

I am not saying football is in all respects a business like any other. It isn’t. If you make sausages, you have no interest in the existence of other makers of sausage – in fact, you’d rather there weren’t any others, so you could control the market. But football clubs need each other. Scotland’s three-second qualifying match with the non-existent Estonians was a lot of fun, but most of the time you need two teams on the pitch to make it worthwhile, and you need some doubt about who’s going to win a competition to make it appealing to customers. So clubs have a sense of mutual solidarity. What I’m saying is that the horizontal relationship between football clubs is unique, for they are inter-dependent, while the vertical relationship between clubs and their players is and should be treated in exactly the same way as any employer/employee relationship.

The future of the English League depends on taking this notion of mutual solidarity seriously. The likes of Southampton and Coventry should demand a much higher percentage of the income of Manchester United and Arsenal be put into a common pool for distribution among all the clubs. Otherwise competition will wither. The transfer system is a red herring in all this, because it is haphazard and, for smaller clubs, involves relative pennies anyway nowadays, and it’s time to stop getting taken in by the big clubs bleating about the transfer system. Forget that, and focus on the real issue – which is the need for the Football League in effect to tax bloated big business like Manchester United for the rare privilege of participating in our League.

It seems that the compromise struck between UEFA and the European Commission contradicts my views, because it does allow some space for a renovated transfer system – it does allow footballers as employees to be treated differently from you and me. It is, however, a fact that whatever deal the European Commission strikes with UEFA in Brussels, it is not binding, in the sense that the ultimate authority on the interpretation of EC law is the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. In the late 1980s the Commission and UEFA came to a cosy agreement that no more than three foreign players would be allowed to play for clubs in European competition. (This was the rule that Vfb Stuttgart famously broke against Leeds).

In 1995 the European Court decided in the Bosman case that this was contrary to EC rules forbidding nationality discrimination between nationals of EU Member States. The Commission was left looking very stupid: its cosy agreement had no legal effect for these purposes. The same could happen again. Any triumphant announcements by Commission and by UEFA that a solution on transfers has been found could easily be exploded later by a ruling of the Court. And with the players union expressing an intention to bring a test case, this is a live possibility. A personal view is that the terms of the latest “compromise” are plainly in violation of the rules of the EC Treaty, because they envisage disproportionate and unjustified restrictions on the structure of the market for the supply of labour, and in particular they indefensibly treat footballers as subject to restrictions which would not be permitted in other industries…

Steve Weatherill