A big question mark hangs over Premiership sides this season, and one might say, over the big European leagues as a whole. As small clubs go to the wall (Clydebank and Airdrie in Scotland, folded this year), big clubs feel the pinch (Valencia, Lazio, Chelsea and Leeds are reportedly tens of millions in debt) and transfer revenues trickle almost to a halt, the predicted bursting of the bubble seems to already have happened.
Former Tottenham chairman, Sir Alan Sugar, spoke of this scenario several years ago. I’m sure he’s chomping away on a cigar right now with one of those ‘told you so’ looks on his face. There’s no doubt that Mr Sugar was half-right. He lambasted Arsenal when they chose to spend 7.5m on Denis Bergkamp in 1996. Two doubles later, Arsenal fans or directors don’t seem to be too worried about that.
But elsewhere, a lack of prudence has not been rewarded and the price is being paid. Leeds United have spent nearly 100m on new players, many of which have been proven to be poor value. With no trophies in the cabinet, and no European Cup football for two seasons, the likes of Michael Duberry, Jason Wilcox, Michael Bridges, Darren Huckerby and Seth Johnson (23m combined) have been expensive purchases that made little meaningful impact. And while Oliver Dacourt, Robbie Keane, Rio Ferdinand and Dominic Matteo (40m combined) have been more successful, the acid-test is always in the silverware and the revenues it generates.
The biggest world transfer this season will be Rio Ferdinand’s inevitable move from Leeds United to Manchester United. Ferdinand has re-iterated his desire to leave Elland Road and Sir Alex Ferguson will only be too happy to accommodate the centre-back for the significant fee of circa 30m.
Elsewhere, numerous players have been put in place by spend-thrift clubs. Everton rejected Gary Breen’s wage demands, Portsmouth told David Gionla that his 25k a week was too much, Middlesbrough and Juninho could not come to agreement on his personal terms and the Lee Bowyer move to Liverpool fell over after his salary request was snubbed. It’s all a far cry from the money-is-no-object approach that clubs employed in recent years. That has backfired on relegated teams like Bradford and Derby who have seen their big earners help cripple the club financially.
What all this may mean is that as the big money signings dry up, more youth players are going to get their opportunity to shine in their respective first teams. This will benefit the clubs, who will save money; the fans, who will see hungry and (in most cases) talented players get their chance; and the home country’s national team whose young players will get more exposure and experience in big games.
The benefits may become apparent for the smaller clubs too. Premiership managers may be more willing to take a chance on lower-league talent, who invariably will not be looking for outrageous money to play in the top division. This will see transfer money, although less than in the past, filter down the leagues again. After the ITV Digital debacle, numerous clubs are living on the breadline, several in administration. This development is key to their survival.
I often spoke of my wish to see changes in football. I longed for the good old European cup two-leg battles of my childhood. I wanted to see players covered in mud, referees with comb-overs and fat-as-fool managers who look as much like a former footballer as Barry White.
But most of all I wanted an end to the madness. I wanted a salary cap, performance-related pay and players who had an eye for goal rather than their bank balances and sexy women. I longed to see a Tottenham team consisting mainly of young strapping players from our youth set-up, sprinkled with the odd foreign talisman.
Maybe we won’t quite get there but while the bursting of the bubble might be bad news for some clubs and fans right now, it’s good news for everybody in the long run.
Roy Keane returned to Dublin to play for Manchester United in their friendly against Irish champions Shelbourne this weekend. The fact that United won 5-0 was not the talking point, but more the fact that Keane was given a wonderful welcome. However, the majority of people who defended Keane in the wake of his expulsion from the World Cup, were Man Utd fans. The fact that the ground was packed with thousands of them is probably the main reason why Keane was cheered relentlessly, sprinkled in with the odd boos from Shelbourne fans and neutrals who will not forget.
I suspect that if Keane were to return to the Ireland fold he would be overwhelmingly welcomed by Irish fans. It seems a shame that the stubbornness and ignorance that exists on both sides of the Keane/McCarthy divide is standing in the way of a nations progression in world football circles. In football, heroes and villains are born all the time, friends and foes are developed continuously. But there is no reason that both Keane and McCarthy can’t be heroes and foes together.