With a nod in the direction of Real Madrid – who are never shy to spend money and gain marketing kudos from huge transfer spending – the sheer amount of money in the English game at the moment suggests the world record fee might stay on these shores for some years to come following the £89m transfer of Paul Pogba to Manchester United last summer.
English financial dominance squares a circle with record transfer fees being almost the exclusive preserve of its clubs from the early days of the professional era through to the years following the end of WW2. That this should be the case was natural: Britain was first to professionalism, the first to officially pay wages and the first to deal in transfer fees – so it was natural the financial base would be stronger and more developed.
“It is a painful commentary on this club’s boasted managerial astuteness that it holds the record for transfer fees. This questionable distinction is a truly sensational transaction that’s unlikely to be challenged for some time.”
So wrote journalist William Pickford about the £1,000 transfer of Alf Common from Sunderland to Middlesbrough in 1905.
Just 12 years earlier Willie Groves had moved from WBA to Aston Villa for £100 which in itself had been the source of much consternation; now the fee had multiplied by a factor of ten and its sheer magnitude cause collective swooning onto fainting couches the length and breadth of the country.
The Common transfer invoked no little panic at the FA who felt compelled to act against this scourge of the game after skirting the issue in 1895 when Jimmy Crabtree moved from Burnley to Aston Villa.
The highly-rated half-back was tempted by superior terms offered by Villa and duly signed a contract with his old club left completely out of the loop.
Burnley complained, but with the few laws governing transfers worded very vaguely, it was impossible to categorically prove the move was illegal. The FA approved the transfer and Burnley had to make do with £350 compensation.
Now, post-Alf Common, the FA decreed that from January 1st 1908 the transfer limit should be £350. Clubs had time before the rule came into effect and used it well to find a myriad of loopholes using undercover payments and makeweight players to get around the limit. An exasperated FA quickly recognised that their plan was no longer fit for purpose and rescinded it.
In mainland Europe the landscape was wholly unrecognisable from how we know it today. There was no chance that British stars would be tempted to warmer climes by lucrative offers as there were simply no rich clubs abroad.
The one recognised millionaire club patron was Dr Arpad Brull of MTK Budapest and he had no interest in British stars when there were so many brilliant central Europeans to sign. The superstar squad he built in the Hungarian capital cost him just wages and signing-on fees, as professionalism and thus transfer fees were not legal until 1926.
Italy was the nation that dominated the continent financially for the second-half of the 20th century and professionalism began there officially in 1929. Unofficially the big Italian sides preferred to pretend they were still amateur so they could raid South America and sign up by stars like the Argentinians Monti and Orsi without paying transfer fees.
That’s not to suggest the overall cost was negligible; Serie A became a financial Xanadu for players early in its existence and Juventus were paying the above mentioned Argentinian pair salaries of £1,800 each year. To put that into context, even three decades later British players were restricted to an annual salary of £1,100 under the maximum wage regulations in place.
Spain stepped into the picture in 1930 when Real Madrid paid Barcelona 150,000 pesetas (£6,000) for the legendary keeper Zamora, though this sum was still smaller than the record of the time which was held by Arsenal who spent nearly £11,000 on David Jack of Bolton Wanderers. The record even shifted for a while to Argentina when Bernabé Ferreyra joined River Plate for an unprecedented fee of £23,000.
By contrast English fees were levelling out somewhat in the 1930s with Aston Villa providing a sobering example of how big spending was no guarantee of success.
In the summer of 1935 the Birmingham giants lavished £35,000 on players only to be relegated the following year. Post-war inflation across Europe was an economic leveller and now the Italian League started to flex its considerable financial muscle: Argentinian Rinaldo Martin joined Juventus for £25,000 in 1949, only for Inter to raise the record to £29,000 just weeks later when signing Italian striker Amedeo Amadei.
The record returned to England briefly in the early 1950s with the transfers of Trevor Ford to Sunderland for £30,000 and Jackie Sewell to Sheffield Wednesday for £34,500, before a former Charlton Athletic amateur – Hans Jepsson – joined Napoli from Atalanta for £52,000.
Italy now thoroughly dominated financially, the country’s economic boom reflected in the football spending by its millionaire industrialists.
Between 1957 and 1963 the world record record jumped from £69,000 (Uruguayan star Schiaffino joining Milan) to £250,000 for the ruinous deal Roma put together for the Italian-Brazilian Mantova striker Angelo Sormani.
During the 50s Real Madrid, Barcelona and other Spanish clubs had themselves started bidding for South American stars to provide stiffer competition to Italy, but by the 1960s they were broken by this financial arms race and many of the Spanish League’s best players were themselves whisked to Italy for record fees: Luis Suarez to Inter from Barcelona in 1961 for £148,000 and Luis Del Sol to Juventus from Real Madrid in 1962 for £198,000.
When a middling Roma could spend £500,000 on new signings in one summer alone, not even the mightiest of Spain’s giants could compete.
The big English clubs wouldn’t have been able to live with Italian financial largesse either, even if they had not been prohibited from trying to anyway because of limitations imposed by the Department of Work and Labour. This was not of enormous concern when there was such a large talent pool north of the border in Scotland that could be raided with impunity. More than 25 Scots moved south of the border for five-figure fees between 1958 and 1961 alone.
Another transfer trait that was distinctly English was one of self-imposed austerity. A group of 1960s Division One managers led by Tottenham’s Bill Nicholson led a campaign in refusing to pay the exorbitant fees demanded by clubs for their best players.
So in the summer of 1963 when Roma were concluding a £250,000 deal for Sormani, the biggest transfers in England 1963 came in around the £50,000 mark. There were echoes of this approach twenty years later when England’s top clubs had a gentleman’s agreement not to offer more than £750,000 for any player.
A further three decades on and with record sums being lavished on uncapped goalkeepers like Ederson, there’s absolutely no sense of any financial pragmatism or logic at play in the English game now. The wheel has turned full circle and England has become the new Italy.