Heart of Football

Transfer Deadline Day: Bottlenecked excitement, or a sickening indictment of football’s greed?

Transfer Deadline Day represents the very essence of Sky Sports News. Endless pairs of eyes glued to the television watching their flashy presentation of the football market going into overdrive, more breaking news banners than you can shake a fist at, and frantic efforts to avoid renegade dildos approaching reporters’ ears. Flashy graphics demanding reaction – regardless of whether it involved the GDP of a small nation or the loan of a Rochdale tea lady’s biscuits – as big name ex-players are rolled out to pontificate on players they hadn’t heard of until a few seconds before.

By any objective measure it is a ridiculous circus, and yet it draws punters in by the boatload. Anyone can sit calmly and claim to be disinterested, until it is their club snared in the dazzling headlights of the relentless yellow banner. Shove a healthy dollop of pure, unadulterated, shameless glitz and glamour in the staunchest traditionalist’s face and their objections magically melt away – and the TV executives know this.

Sam Allardyce’s now infamous picture gawping shamelessly at Hayley McQueen on Transfer Deadline Day in many ways epitomises the shamelessness of the whole event itself

As the cleaners sweep up the gaudy decorations from last night’s bash, the odd stragglers will stagger through the newswires as last-minute confirmations emerge, but to all intents and purposes yet another record-breaking night has left a few with a sizable hangover. 

Chelsea are the clear headline act of this cabaret, speaking of records. Enzo Fernandez becomes not only the most expensive signing in British football history at €121 million, but also the most expensive Argentine player, and midfielder of any nationality, of all time. In fact, his deal is so ridiculous, that the 25% sell-on clause inserted by River Plate when he moved to Benfica last summer makes the transfer the most valuable deal involving an Argentine club without him actually arriving or leaving one.

Benfica have earned themselves a considerable pat on the back. The Portuguese league leaders only signed Fernandez last summer for €15 million, thus managing to turn a profit of over €100 million in the space of six months.

All records that glitter are not gold though. As a club, the Londoners spent around €330 million this winter transfer window according to Transfermarkt, which unsurprisingly made them the biggest spenders in world football over the winter break. Their expenditure was more than five times greater than the second biggest spenders, surpassed the whole Premier League’s spending in 2020, and outweighed the entire collective spend of all clubs in Germany, Italy, Spain and France’s top flights.

This is only over the last month, of course; last summer they splurged the second-highest ever summer outlay by any club ever – just €25 million behind Real Madrid’s 2019 spree that brought Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic and Rodrygo to the Spanish capital – to bring their total season bill to over €600 million.

What about Financial Fair Play? How is this distasteful decadence even legally possible? Well, quite simply, because the FFP rules themselves do actually allow it. Most people take one look at the Premier League restricting clubs to losses of no more than €118 million over a three-year period and stagger backwards in disbelief, then horror, then inevitably outrage, but the fine print is revealing. The value of an incoming player transfer can be accounted for in the books by spreading the value over the length of their contract, hence some ludicrously long contracts dished out. Fernandez and Mikhailo Mudryk have been signed to eight years each, Wesley Fofana, Malo Gusto and Benoit Badiashile to seven years, and Marc Cucurella to six years.

“With regards to Financial Fair Play, the accounting is more Harry Potter than Graham Potter in the sense that it’s quite weird and wonderful,” football finance expert Kevin Maguire said on BBC Radio 5 Live. “When you sell a player, all of the profits are taken into the accounts immediately [even if actual payments are made in installments]. We have got the sales of Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori. That was £77m worth of profit. They also won the Champions League, the Uefa Super Cup and the Fifa World Club Cup, and all of that was extra money coming in.”

Before this becomes a solely Chelsea-bashing exercise, the real evil needs outing: the Premier League behemoth. The 10 next biggest spending leagues made a collective profit of €370 million, with only three ending the winter transfer window with negative balances (none losing more than €2.5 million), while English top flight clubs made collective losses of €729 million. 

The numbers are a staggering display of football’s skewed wealth distribution

The main reason for the El Dorado-esque wealth is of course the scarcely-believable TV deals that pour billions into the Premier League coffers. That in itself is not the fault of English football overlords; they saw an opportunity to market the most marketable sport on the planet, and squeezed every last drop out of it, as is their right in a free economy, and they did so at a time when English football was at about its lowest ebb way below the pulling power of Serie A and La Liga. Even the money distribution is more democratic than Spain, for example, where the biggest clubs negotiate deals individually at wildly inflated values compared to their supposedly less worthy rivals.

Where the Premier League most certainly falls short is in its care for others directly and indirectly within its ecosystem. Take the Football League, which is warped by a dangerously insatiable hunger to reach the top table that drives greedy, shortsighted owners to run clubs way beyond their means to the point of ruin. A fair portion of top-flight talent is developed either out on loan at lower-league clubs, or worse poached from them for a relative pittance, and precious little of the vast riches flow directly to clubs lower down the system. Of the €829 million spent this transfer window by Premier League clubs, just four deals totalling €25 million went to Football League sides – €15 million in one deal taking Harry Souttar from Stoke City to Leicester City.

New rules introduced last summer limit clubs spending more than 70% of revenue on transfer fees, agent fees and wages, although clubs have been given three years to comply. When you have amortised fees as Chelsea have done, it won’t be hard to jump through that hoop; at least before even further deals are done, anyway. One critical factor in balancing those hefty books at Stamford Bridge will be European qualification, which one assumes is a major factor behind such lavish recruitment. It’s all very well and good hoarding so many top players, but five out of Fernandez, Mudryk, Badiashile, Noni Madueke, Malo Gusto, Andrey Santos, David Fofana and Joao Felix won’t even be able to play in the Champions League knockout stages due to UEFA limits on registering new players after the group stages.

The truncated pressure of the window as a structure places immense power and influence in the hands of agents, and not always to positive effect. Moises Caicedo has enjoyed the season of his life so far in a sensationally entertaining Brighton side, but just days before the window closed he switched agent in the hope of driving through a move to a Big Six side. He was advised (appallingly, it seems) to release a statement announcing his departure, despite not having a deal in place, and trusted Arsenal to stump up whatever Brighton demanded. In the end the league leaders went for a cut-price deal for the experience of Jorginho at a slither of the fee they offered for the 21-year-old Ecuadorian, and now the reputation and future of such a sparkling talent remains in the balance.

The window was ostensibly brought in to protect cubs from having their stars poached at crucial stages of the season, but has it really helped the health of the game? Decisions have arguably descended into desperation as the deadline looms large. Peter Odemwingie might regret his urge to drive himself to QPR 10 years ago – managed at the time by Mr Transfer Window himself, Harry Redknapp – in the hopes of encouraging a move, only to be told he wasn’t wanted.

The Premier League’s wealth is not consequential to or of the window, but has moulded it into an Anglo-centric whirlpool of false economy and disjointed dreams. Spending power is hopelessly skewed, but is consistent performance on the pitch? By the figures we regularly see, English clubs ought to sweep up virtually all major honours, and while two of the last four years have seen all-English Champions League finals, only three of the last 14 European champions have been English.

While the gaudy excesses of Todd Boehly’s very American attitude to splashing the cash won’t sit well with most outside his new West London home, an argument could be made that it isn’t his fault for finding a way to make an impression. The overall spending would be the same if there was a finite timeframe in which to make it or not, so we can hardly blame the existence of the window itself. You may find the Hollywood delivery of Sky Sports’ coverage gaudy and tasteless, but denying them the right to dramatise an event that is already an intense distillation of their very purpose – to broadcast sports news – is churlish and missing the point. 

Whatever your leanings on the madness that encircles the transfer window, and deadline day itself, it’s impossible to deny the thrill and drama it brings. “As each deadline day approaches, the inner geek surfaces,” says our editor and design guru Bryan Moore. “Hoping your team will be involved with a game changing signing. More often than not it passes without a whimper. But the odd time, the very odd time, dreams come true.”

Football’s finances are in a parlous state, no question, but don’t blame the transfer window. Don’t shoot the messenger – just the message itself.

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