Managers' favourite motto

The golden transfer rule: 'Sell before you buy'

January 21, 2010
By Norman Hubbard
(Archive)

They are not a breed who naturally attract a great deal of sympathy, but pity the self-styled transfer experts. More than half way through what was supposed to be their busiest month until the summer, precious little has happened. Twelve months ago, the Premier League clubs' total outlay in January was around £200 million. At the moment, it amounts to less than a tenth of that. Even the annual late flurry of deals is unlikely to produce anything comparable to the spending spree that kicked off 2009.

Patrick Vieira
GettyImagesPatrick Vieira: His return intrigues but does not excite.

Thus far, the highest-profile deals have come with lashings of nostalgia rather than large sums of cash. Manchester City's move to bring Patrick Vieira back to England and Sol Campbell's return to Arsenal both intrigue more than they excite. Indeed, while by far the biggest expenditure has come from David Sullivan and David Gold, buying 50% of West Ham, the most spent on a player is £3 million, courtesy of Birmingham's purchase of Michel. In a division that was memorably called the 'greed is good league' by Brian Glanville, that is positively frugal.

But there is a new motto, one that has been used by several managers over the last few weeks. "We need to sell before we buy," is a common theme. It may herald a welcome and belated appearance of reality in football's finances; along with supply and demand, the basic principles of economics suggest it is hard to spend money you don't have. Football's age of credit may be expiring and as accountants study balance statements that make for unpleasant reading either because of the borrowings of the profiteer owners (at Liverpool and Manchester United) or the debts of the clubs themselves, with Portsmouth and Hull the most prominent examples.

Phil Brown spoke for many. "I will be doing everything I can to strengthen in terms of quality coming in as opposed to the numbers going out," he said. Quality in, quantity out: it sounds excellent in principle, but it is rather harder in practice. Raising the funds for a couple of high-calibre acquisitions by flogging five unwanted squad players would be a wonderful formula if it worked regularly. Sadly, it does not. Thus far, the only departure from the KC Stadium is the third-choice right-back, Nathan Doyle, while adding Amr Zaki, albeit on loan, has surely increased the wage bill.

But then Hull found themselves in a position that is familiar to many: with no one injecting money into the transfer market, there was no knock-on effect to enable others to spend. The merry-go-round is static. Brown's former boss Sam Allardyce is in a similar state of flux, awaiting bids that haven't arrived and unable to pursue the players he has identified. In some cases, the equation has become still more distorted. It is not selling before buying, it is selling before loaning or signing on a free transfer. Rafa Benitez had recouped more than £6 million for Andrea Dossena and Andriy Voronin - a rare case of fringe players yielding reasonable amounts of money - before recruiting Maxi Rodriguez without paying a fee. Across Stanley Park, David Moyes is another with a profit: Landon Donovan has been borrowed while Galatasaray have acquired Lucas Neill.

But most attempts to trim squads have either resulted in loaning players to lower-division sides or releasing footballers who had fallen out of the first-team picture, such as Sunderland's Russell Anderson and Fulham's Seol Ki-Hyeon.

And another phrase has become an unexpected addition to the footballing vocabulary: value for money. The January market can produce inflated prices and Roy Hodgson is one who has questioned the wisdom of making short-term signings to deputise for injured players. The Fulham manager said: "We would be limited in terms of what we would be able to spend. Maybe will just have to accept that we will make the best we can with what we've got."

Carlo Ancelotti and Didier Drogba
GettyImagesCarlo Ancelotti: Promised to run naked in the snow if Chelsea sign a new striker in January.

It is something many of his peers will have to do. One major deal could kick-start the spending, but Manchester City have pronounced themselves reluctant to emulate last year's £50 million outlay in the New Year. Carlo Ancelotti memorably promised to run around Stamford Bridge naked in the snow if he signed a striker; Sir Alex Ferguson, without invoking such unfortunate images, has been adamant he is unlikely to buy. Arsene Wenger, while publicly admitting an interest in adding a forward, is a reluctant shopper who, in any case, invariably spends his money abroad. Alex McLeish has a sizeable budget but an essentially cautious nature that may prevent Birmingham paying excessive sums. And at the other end of the spectrum, while Portsmouth seem to wish to recruit, they are prohibited by the Premier League as their transfer embargo remains in place.

But they are not alone in enduring three weeks of inactivity. Shadow boxing can be common at the start of the window, before the warring parties squabble over prices. But while there may yet be a series of loan and swap deals and moves for nominal fees and on short-term contracts, the chances of many clubs raising the funds for a season-defining purchase are deteriorating. Because if no one sells, no one buys.