Who said football was a ‘simple game’?
Come on, own up. Because that’s either a candy floss reassurance that we all perpetuate between ourselves or, more usually, a blatant lie that is drip fed to the football following masses on a regular basis.
Take the transfer window which has just, oh the humanity, opened.
When clubs used to want to buy a player, the process that they needed to go through was relatively – here’s that word – a simple one.
No, it really was.
The manager of club ‘A’ would identify a player he wanted and make his wish to sign that player known to his chairman.
His chairman would phone up the chairman of that player’s club and, after a little small talk about village cricket, grouse shooting and “the bloody unions”, he’d add, almost as an afterthought, “…oh yes Charles, young ‘x’ in your reserves, how much would you want for him?”
“Oh, £50,000 should swing it old chap”.
“Wizard. Send him over, I’ll get a cheque signed and get someone to pop it in the post to you on their way home”.
And that was it.
It’s pretty much the conversation that Sir Arthur South would have had with Tommy Trinder, his compatriot at Fulham in 1976.
They’d have made some small talk as well. Mostly about the scorching hot summer we’d all just enjoyed. Maybe Tommy would have cracked a gag or two. But they’d get down to discussing business eventually.
South was in a bit of a pickle. Not least with John Bond who would have been furious that, with little to no warning, Ted MacDougall, the striker who he’d pretty much built his team around, had upped and left for Southampton.
MacDougall, scorer of 62 goals in 134 League and Cup appearances for Norwich, a player who two clubs had broken their transfer records to sign, one who had, at just 25, already seen a total of over £500,000 spent on him in fees alone and who had, gloriously, ended the 1975/76 season as the top flight’s leading goalscorer – whilst he was at Norwich.
Think Cameron Jerome topping the Premier League goal scoring charts last season and how much that might have made him worth.
Eyebrow raising stuff.
We flogged him for £50,000 when, in truth, he was worth four times that amount. Easily.
Hence South and Bond being in a bit of a hole. A deep one. The club’s leading goalscorer flogged for peanuts early in the season. They needed to do a bit of fire fighting. And quickly.
To be fair, they didn’t do a bad job. When South had, as he would have done, asked Bond about possible replacements for Supermac, Bond would have said “… you could try for Viv Busby I suppose”.
This would have been on the morning of September 16, 1976. The day MacDougall signed for Southampton.
Later on that same day, Busby arrived at Carrow Road with little more than a ham and cheese sandwich and, in a muddy duffel bag, his boots.
South calls Trinder, fee agreed, Busby off to Norwich.
In just a few hours.
The same sort of simple that took place when another striker, Kevin Reeves, signed for us in 1977. Reeves tells the story himself in MFW’s guvnor Rick Waghorn’s excellent book 12 Canary Greats.
Reeves was training with Bournemouth on February 10, 1977, mind and body preparing for their game against Hartlepool two days later. That is until Bournemouth manager and former Canary, John Benson, approached him and told him Norwich wanted him on loan.
The deal was finalised that same afternoon and, that Saturday, rather than turning out against Hartlepool, Reeves was making his Norwich debut against Arsenal at Highbury.
No advisors, no agents, no chain, no breaking news on Sky Sports and, of course, no bloody transfer window.
One player, two men, two clubs, bish bash bosh and done.
The first we, as fans, would know about it would be a picture of our new signing on the back of the EDP.
The tradition then, of course, was not to have them stood on the pitch holding up a scarf or shirt but, rather, sat at a battered old table, pen in hand and smile on face with the manager and chairman stood behind, gurning away in practiced fashion for the camera.
That’s if we were lucky. There would be occasions when you could be stood in the Barclay, scarf wrapped around wrist and Waggon Wheel in oversized pocket when someone, somewhere, would say, “…hold yew hard, whose that in the number nine shirt?”
A new signing, that’s who. Not that anyone would have known about it or who it was until the line ups were announced.
“…didn’t he used to play for Aberdeen?”
Back then you could go out and buy a footballer as quickly and easily as you could a Sherbet Fountain.
It really was that simple.
Look at it this way, if we were looking to sign Viv Busby today it would all be markedly, painfully different.
Busby would have an agent. Possibly two. He’d also have a financial advisor as well as, if he was a ‘name’, an image consultant – or similar.
They’d all be involved. Busby wouldn’t even be there. He’d be on a golf course somewhere. Probably his golf course. In Spain. As far as he is concerned, his move and future career has got nothing to do with him. His ‘people’ are dealing with it.
Then there’s the selling club. He’s a decent enough player. Fulham throw out a ball park figure. Twelve million and he’s Canary. Secretly though, they’d be happy to take eleven. Ten million if Norwich throw Colin Sullivan into the mix as they’ve been after a left back for ages.
Norwich offer two million. Plus an additional million if, whilst Busby is a Norwich player, he scores 60 goals in one season.
Fulham would prefer a similar add-on if Busby makes one appearance for the club in the first year of his time there.
And so on and so forth.
We all saw this ridiculous footballing brinksmanship when we signed Robbie Brady.
Which took an eternity to sort out and only ended when Robbie’s agent rang his client up and said, “Rob, my man, you’re signing for Norwich.”
Meanwhile the agents, the financial advisors, the image consultants and just about everyone and anyone are raking it in whilst those who matter – the two clubs involved – sit it out like nerds at the school prom, on the edge of the action and entirely peripheral to the real action.
It didn’t always used to be that way. But we’re used to it by now and all the frustrations and let downs that follow in the windows wake.
I hate and deplore it myself.
It isn’t, no matter what anyone says, ‘good’ for the game. Its purpose, so I have been advised, is to prevent the elite clubs from signing who they want and when they want.
Which is pish and balderdash. Try convincing me that Chelsea, a club who have 38, yes, 38 players out on loan this season at the moment haven’t been ‘stockpiling’ players?
In his excellent and thought provoking book The Deal, football agent Jon Smith talks of clubs who sign players for one reason and one reason only: to prevent other clubs having them.
He doesn’t name any. But you can hazard a guess at a few.
Scott Sinclair comes to mind.
There should be a very sharp and clear divide between football and politics, especially those of a Machiavellian hue.
But spending a small fortune on someone with no intention to play them just so you can weaken a rival or two, how complex, how totally unsporting is that?
With the individual who suffers the most being the player at the heart of it. The patsy.
When Supermac left Norwich, the Canaries needed striking succour in a hurry.
Viv Busby was signed within hours of our initially registering an interest.
Today he’d be on £130,000 a week at Man City. He won’t actually have played any games for them but will have enjoyed loan spells at Nottingham Forest, Cardiff and AZ 67 in Holland.
And be untouchable.
Players used to live to play. Now they’re just pawns on footballs chessboard.
And it isn’t so simple anymore.
With the transfer window ‘slamming shut’ upon opportunity as much as anything else.
Well done Ed. Yet another fascinating, insightful and superbly written piece. Already looking forward to the next.
Spot on. It makes the transfer windows interminable. Personally I’d love to see the Brady exit tied up by tomorrow morning. Yet everything you’ve described above will drag this out and the thought of having one, if not more players actively engaged in eyeing up other clubs over a really crucial playing period is ridiculous.
martin penney says
Good article and highlights the current situation to a ‘T’.
I guess the supporters of just about every Club in the country share the frustrations. Ed hates and deplores it – I think most of us would thoroughly agree.
Mr Huckerby’s apparent conversation with his agent prior to joining us was refreshing and rare!
nick fribbens says
Ron Saunders said that he would call the opposite manager himself, talk in glowing terms about a good player that he was not interested in buying before switching to his target, who wasn’t quite there but had potential
Jim Davies says
The game is still simple, it’s everything that surrounds it that make it complicated, from agents, image rights, transfer windows, to moving games away from three o’clock on Saturday to any time of day or night or day of the week, regardless of the impact on travelling supporters. We know to blame for it all, step up and take a bow Mr Murdoch!
As for stockpiling players to prevent other clubs getting them, the answer is in the hands of the Premier League, the EFL, and the FA, but they’ve either got vested interests, or lack the cojones to do anything about it, in much the same way as they treat Financial Fair Play.
Great column as are most on here.
And Ed; it’s precisely why so many of us are falling out of love with the modern game.
So much money in it at the top end which is being removed by all these hangers-on who put absolutely nothing back!
Andrew Brewer says
Great article Ed, as ever.
I agree with all the coments but there is a further thought that I would throw in.
It was a simpler world and a simpler game back then but read the match programme stories of players from that time. Last Saturday it was Albert Bennett and the article told of his having to work in the summer to supplement his wages and of his very ordinary jobs after retirement.
That seems to me to be as out of kilter with the massive attendances and money earned by the clubs back then as the modern world is. Footballers then saw virtually nothing of the money that they earnt. The parallel is with musicians who were also ripped off in the sixties and seventies. They may have gone from the exploited to the exploiters but we ought to remember that they were exploited and not so long ago being in many fan’s living memory.
martin penney says
#7 Andrew: great comparison with musicians; even mega-millionaires Pink Floyd were exploited until the turning point came. Bowie too. And as for the Sixties bands, they were before my time but I have heard the stories.
I remember Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) moonlighting as an economics lecturer at an Essex college just as the band were about to explode onto the money-making scene.
It’s all in the detail (of the contract)!
Andy Head says
Great piece Ed. In terms of signings who were bought just to frustrate opponents I’d throw the name of Lucchiano Becchio and unfortunately Sergi Canos into the mix. No other explanation for buying someone only to ignore them.