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Jan 22, 2007

You paid how much?

Two charismatic Celts were on transfer business last week.

Graeme Souness, with a reputation for paying over the odds, offered £20 million for Wolverhampton Wanderers, one of the best supported clubs outside the top flight and boasting a glorious past. Martin O'Neill, a renowned bargain hunter, agreed to pay £9.65 million for Ashley Young.

Yet it is only a few months since Newcastle, normally the arch exponents of buying badly, were able to get, in Obafemi Martins, a young but high-class international striker for £10 million.

Ashley Young, in contrast, has had a decent but unexceptional first few months in the Premiership in a side destined for relegation. He has been left on the bench for two of the last four England Under-21 games and was not named in the 50 footballers figuring on Steve McClaren's radar, even if his judgment is by no means unimpeachable.

Young is much the most accomplished footballer in the Watford side, but that is on a par with being the sanest general in World War 1.

Were Aidy Boothroyd not drowning in his own positivity or swallowing another dictionary of management-speak, he could reflect on a price more unlikely than David Beckham's apparent earnings in Los Angeles. Bonnie and Clyde, Dick Turpin and Robin Hood would have been familiar with the term. Yet West Ham matched the fee Villa offered and Tottenham showed signs of entering the Young auction.

At a time when the cost of leaving the Premiership has never been greater - even the division's worst team will pocket £30 million in television revenue next season - it is obvious that desperation is becoming a guiding principle in the transfer window.

Hence West Ham paying £3 million for Calum Davenport, which is more than Spurs signed him for, even though his reputation has hardly been enhanced at White Hart Lane and, arguably, he lacks the ability of either Anton Ferdinand and Danny Gabbidon.

Others are attempting to capitalise on a new era of inflated fees.

George Burley said that £8 million would only buy one foot of his coveted teenage defender Gareth Bale, yet it is more than Manchester United paid for either of their international left backs, Patrice Evra and Gabriel Heinze. Preston are trying to secure £6 million for David Nugent, gifted but untried in the top flight; Nigel Reo-Coker, nicknamed Nigel Mediocre by his own fans, is apparently priced at £10 million while Alan Pardew has valued Darren Bent at £25 million - a 1000% increase on Charlton's investment 20 months ago.

No wonder Arsene Wenger rarely buys British. His managerial counterparts' willingness to pay exorbitant fees for homegrown players may be a consequence of a need for footballers who acclimatise rapidly to the Premiership.

It may reflect on a widespread distrust of foreigners that lingers beneath the surface of English football or their own, unacknowledged fears about their ability to manage them. But, unless the assumption is made that other clubs' eagerness to pay over the odds gives them a resale value that exceeds their talent, it makes little sense.

This observer is not nostalgic for the days when an England international could (seemingly) be procured for two and sixpence. Yet after a period of comparative normality in the domestic transfer market, insanity has been restored.

It had taken an unwelcome jolt to bring fees down. Football finances are marked by debts, whether the consequence of new stadia, a poor grasp of finance coupled with excessive ambition or just the reprehensible actions of ITV Digital.

But a sense of prudence returned, even in the English market. Aaron Lennon and Scott Carson (both £750,000), Paul Robinson and Tim Cahill (each £1.75 million), Jimmy Bullard, Steed Malbranque and Darren Bent (all £2.5 million) are among the examples.

Hopes that the increased television deals would result in something genuinely beneficial, such as lower ticket prices or increased investment in academies, already appear defeated. Instead, the duel evils of inflated fees and even more excessive wages appear an inevitability.

Even the normally cautious David Moyes may have kicked off the era of gazumping last summer, paying £8.6 million for Andrew Johnson, a player with obvious technical deficiencies and 11 Premiership goals in open play to his name. Wigan, meanwhile, invested £4.75 million in two Crystal Palace defenders, which suggests why Simon Jordan excelled as a mobile phone salesman.

In the brief outbreak of common sense, Chelsea were the exceptions, though the £24 million paid for Michael Essien and Didier Drogba is now starting to look like good business (the less said about Andriy Shevchenko, the better).

As Roman Abramovich perfects his unlikely impression of Gordon Brown, Manchester United look like being lured into the sellers' market. Michael Carrick, bought by Tottenham two years before for £2.75 million, moved to Old Trafford for £18.6 million. Owen Hargreaves, who surely could have been secured before the World Cup for £8 million, was the subject of a £20 million bid last week.

There is one antidote to inflation, even if may perpetrate stereotypes about Scottish prudence. Rangers offered £750,000 for Lee McCulloch, a mere £50,000 more than Wigan had paid for him when languishing in the third tier.

It is, however, very much the exception. While managers understandably reluctant to lose their prize assets try to talk up the price, the principles of supply and demand appear to have become distorted.

It is starting to bring to mind images of Weimar Germany where people with wheelbarrows of meaningless money were unable to afford anything. Pity the poor football manager who, pushing £8 million around, cannot exchange it for a rather unproven Ashley Young.

But the last time transfer fees became so inflated, Derby's funds received a boost that was so surprising that it remained a talking point for years.

Perhaps anticipating the current inflation and eager to ensure a repeat, they brought back the man responsible last season. Now, who will pay £7 million for Seth Johnson?


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