If you’re watching this summer’s unfolding Premier League transfer activity with the sort of disdain of a pathologist confronted by a particularly mangled corpse, you can rest easier in the knowledge that the English epidemic for vastly overpaying for footballers is not just a contemporary phenomena.
To illustrate this point we travel back in time to 1996 to take a look at the transfer deals dominating the headlines that summer. It’s first worth considering the context of that era. Substantial television money was starting to roll in to Premier League clubs and push up prices, but the English game still trailed Italy and Spain in the spending stakes – though the gap was closing rapidly.
The status quo of the time was illustrated by the overall market spending that summer in Spain (£128 million) and Italy (£85 million), with England coming in a little behind on £75 million. The interesting detail concerned the specific deals however.
Alan Shearer’s £15m move to Newcastle from Blackburn dwarfed all others and became a world-record for a time. Spain’s most expensive deal was the £12.8m signing of Ronaldo by Barcelona and in Italy an almost modest £10m that Parma spent on Sampdoria’s Enrico Chiesa. This trio were the only players to command eight-figure sums with the next tier coming in around the £6 – 7m bracket (Mijatovic to Real Madrid, Boksic to Juventus and Ravanelli to Middlesbrough).
Taking into account the status in the game that Parma and Deportivo La Coruna had two decades ago, in Italy and Spain the big spending clubs then are roughly the big spending clubs now. There’s just a couple of outliers, like Real Betis spending £5m on Finidi George from Ajax and Reggiana investing £4.2m on Bayern Munich’s Colombian striker Adolfo Valencia.
It was all rather different in England, however, with Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea all registering in the top ten with their signings of Karel Poborsky, Patrik Berger and Roberto Di Matteo respectively, but there’s no sign of Arsenal or Tottenham making any sort of significant mark on the market. Geographically the north east dominates with Alan Shearer to Newcastle and Fabrizio Ravanelli and Emerson moving expensively to Middlesbrough.
Other unlikely big spenders include Coventry City (Gary McAllister), Leeds United (Lee Bowyer) and, most jarringly of all, the £2.8m that Sheffield Wednesday spent on the Huddersfield Town forward Andy Booth. Andy was the best example from the summer of 1996 of the ‘English premium’ at work. Compare and contrast Andy’s fee with how broadly similar amounts were spent elsewhere in Europe – how about Clarence Seedorf (£3.2m to Real Madrid), Zinedine Zidane (£3.2m to Juventus) or Youri Djorkaeff (£3.6m to Inter)?
Of course fees then – as now – reflect different contract situations with different players, but that can’t shake the sense that English clubs – despite being at a financial disadvantage to their counterparts in Italy and Spain – were all too ready to over pay even then. Perhaps it’s no surprise that 21 years later and with all Premier League clubs now richer than Croesus, the willingness to overpay for unremarkable players feels increasingly more ‘idiot tax’ than ‘English Premium’.