Has the Premier League Transfer Market Reached Peak Absurdity?

Alex DunnFeatured ColumnistJuly 14, 2017

Offers over £100 million would likely land you both Eric Dier and Gylfi  Sigurdsson. What are you waiting for?
Offers over £100 million would likely land you both Eric Dier and Gylfi Sigurdsson. What are you waiting for?Athena Pictures/Getty Images

Like many things in life, talking about money irks Larry David. The co-creator of Seinfield and writer and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm is ridiculously wealthy, possibly to the tune of around half a billion pounds. Though he refutes that figure, few would dispute David could comfortably afford to buy Gylfi Sigurdsson and Eric Dier and use them as goalposts in his garden.

After the former—according to The Guardian's Stuart James—informed his club Swansea City at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday morning he would not be joining them on their pre-season trip to the U.S., 45 minutes before the team was due to leave the hotel, one can only hope David demonstrates his spending power by painting the Icelander white and placing him next to his gnomes. 

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 2011, he said of the fortune he has amassed through the syndication of Seinfield: "It's OK for all these other people you've interviewed to have it, but not me? Jerry's not getting asked about how much money he has. Only I am. It comes down to, 'Jerry deserves it, he starred in it, you got lucky!'…It doesn't suit me, that's why, it's uncharacteristic for a person with my personality to have it, that's what's askew, right? Something's off, and I agree with you. I shouldn't! It's an anomaly!"

Apply David's rhetoric to the Premier League. Equally as shocking as Sigurdsson's valuation is the fact it is Swansea and Everton playing chicken over anywhere between £40-50 million. The latter figure would make the perfectly able midfielder the 22nd most expensive footballer of all time, nudging Neymar down a spot. A slew of articles have surfaced this week asking the question, "Is he worth it?"

Presumably when you click on the link your computer makes an involuntarily splutter before breaking into a profuse apology like a butler who had momentarily forgotten his station in life.

People like Jerry Seinfield, and clubs like Manchester United, probably shot out of the womb wearing Ray Bans and driving a convertible Porsche, but Larry David and Swansea City? C'mon.

English football is less peering through the looking glass than has long since crashed straight through it. Even Lewis Carroll, the master of the absurd, would balk at Watford striker Troy Deeney being linked with a £32 million move to West Bromwich Albion. What price a Jabberwock in today's market?

It was another comic, Steve Martin, who said: "I love money. I love everything about it. I bought some pretty good stuff. Got me a $300 pair of socks. Got a fur sink. An electric dog polisher. A gasoline powered turtleneck sweater. And, of course, I bought some dumb stuff, too."

The lunacy pre the latest TV deal, which sees BT and Sky pay a combined £5.14 billion to show matches in the UK from 2016 to 2019 (global broadcast rights bring in an additional £3.2 billion), was largely confined to the ruling elite. Moneyed entitlement shared among the top six or so has in a strange way always been a uniting force. Perennially it has provided something for the rest of us to rally against, to sneer at from behind the railings.

Those of a charitable disposition might make a case for the spreading of wealth among English football's top-flight clubs as being some kind of warped champagne socialism. In reality the rich have got richer.

Players who used to rock up for away games in tracksuits can't resist a pocket square. From next season it will probably be de rigueur for Premier League goalkeepers to sport straw boaters on sunny days in lieu of the rather common baseball cap.

Football's gluttonous relationship with money, or more specifically spending it as though there is a surfeit to get through, tends to manifest an unwitting poster boy each summer. Last year's was Gonzalo Higuain. A less than svelte figure, combined with a £75.3 million fee that at the time made the then-28-year-old the third most expensive player of all-time, seemed to be perfect casting of a leading man in a film primarily concerned with excess.

The Argentinian striker's switch from Napoli to Juventus yielded cursory mutterings about how "the game has gone," but in reality much of the eye rolling and head shaking was done with a heavy heart rather than a fiery one.

Football lost its capacity to shock long ago, and a year on, Higuain's fee is starting to look like half-decent business. He did, after all, join the Old Lady on the back of a 36-goal campaign at Napoli, equalling the record for a Serie A season. Between now and the close of the transfer window, players in possession of far less impressive epithets will move clubs for not that much less.

Of course, being shocked by transfer fees no more belongs to the current generation than vinyl does. Alan Shearer has always said he enjoyed the pressure of becoming the world's most expensive footballer when Newcastle United paid £15 million to secure his services from Blackburn Rovers in 1996.

As a kid, though, it was the £3.6 million Blackburn paid Southampton for him four years prior—to set a domestic record—that had this naif adolescent questioning a sport he had previously thought of as being as pure as the driven snow. For the first time football became about money rather than the game. Once that bubble bursts, it can be hard to separate the two.

It is certainly a measure of where it is currently at that discussions of grotesque transfer fees no longer concern just the great (Cristiano Ronaldo, £85 million) or nearly great (Higuain), but also now the pretty, pretty, pretty good (Sigurdsson).

To give Sigurdsson his due, nine goals and 13 assists last season was without question the difference between Swansea retaining their top-flight status and losing it. Only Kevin De Bruyne (18) and Christian Eriksen (15) were the architects of more goals last term.

In a seller's market, Swans boss Paul Clement and the club's board are probably asking themselves would three £15 million players be more useful to Swansea next season than Sigurdsson? Probably not, given it is as hard to find value at that level as it is at the top end. 

Maybe there is method to the madness after all. My computer butler has just rolled its eyes, as have I.

Given Daniel Levy probably would have had rival clubs paying record transfer fees for Tottenham players had he been at the helm in north London during the Great Depression, it's always hard to gauge the state of the market going off deals involving Spurs.

Still, getting Manchester City to stump up £50 million for Kyle Walker seems like a pretty good price. A new world-record fee for a defender who is not mad keen on defending is really quite something. While again accepting the market dictates fees, and in reality this deal is probably no less ludicrous than the next one likely to be struck, it's probably worth reiterating that, by their very nature, markets fluctuate. 

Levy tends to play them better than most, and it will be even more interesting to see what he does with Eric Dier now. If Walker is worth £50 million, what price the man Jose Mourinho is seemingly desperate to have at the base of his midfield next season? As for Harry Kane's value, surely he's worth three Walkers?

Mauricio Pochettino will have to hope his chairman is not a convert to the Jean Paul Getty school of business. One suspects Levy probably admires a man once America's richest, who lived by the dictum: "Buy when everyone else is selling and hold until everyone else is buying. That's not just a catchy slogan. It's the very essence of successful investing."

As Sir Alex Ferguson once famously quipped, per The Telegraph, dealing with Levy was, "more painful than my hip replacement."

While we endlessly speculate over which Premier League players could attract the highest fees, just as interesting (if a little cruel) would be to try to work out who is worth the least. How low could you go in acquiring a Premier League player? Apparently at some clubs if you are valued at less than £20 million you have to use the outside shower. Less than £15 million and it's the outside loo. Let's hope Wayne Rooney doesn't read this column. Everton might make him get changed in his car.

According to the 26th edition of Deloitte's Annual Review of Football Finance, published July 12, "relentless revenue growth" has meant the Premier League has set new records for earnings, spending and tax. Deloitte's numbers, based on the 2015/16 season, conclude the Premier League's 20 clubs generated a combined £3.6 billion, almost £300 million up on the campaign that preceded it.

Its foreword reads: "We return to two familiar themes as we assess the 2015-16 season—the continuation of relentless revenue growth across Europe's major leagues, in particular the Premier League, and the commitment of this money to spending on players via transfer fees and wages, again led by English clubs.''

To give a little global context, the report states Premier League clubs collectively earn almost £2 billion more per year than the next wealthiest league, the Bundesliga. Before Harry Enfield dusts off his "Loadsamoney" sketch, it's probably worth noting how it also pays out £2.3 billion on wages, more than double that of Spain's La Liga, Europe's next biggest spender.

The Independent's chief football writer Miguel Delaney wrote an interesting piece this week in which he coined the term "Premier League premium," with European counterparts said to be setting prices on a sliding scale according to international dialling codes. Rather than be cowed into submission by English big shots waving lottery size cheques in their direction, clubs on the Continent seem steadfast they will only sell at absolute premium prices.

One doesn't have to be a fully paid-up subscriber to The Economist to understand the implications. English football is currently experiencing an acute state of hyperinflation.

As such, what has ensued is a stalemate of sorts. None of the top six have recruited anything like as extensively as they would have hoped going into overseas tours, which invariably are as draining mentally as they are physically. Long-distance telephone calls between managers and chairman over this period tend to be terse and tetchy. This year will be no exception.

A less well-publicised report, written by financial analysis experts Vysyble, titled We're So Rich It's Unbelievable!—The Illusion of Wealth Within Football, was also published this week. Essentially, it is the hangover Deloitte promised would never arrive just so long as everyone stuck to drinking champagne. According to the study, some Premier League clubs are losing as much as £876,000 a day. 

Via an insightful if alarming interview with ESPN's John Brewin, Vysyble's Roger Bell warned: "Financially, football is failing. Britain's biggest football clubs are spending much, much more than they are making. The Premier League, and (Executive Chairman) Richard Scudamore, should be very worried." 

According to Brewin: "Vysyble calculate that with transfer fees and salaries spiralling, clubs increased economic losses by 5,555 percent year-on-year from £5.66 million in 2013/14 to £320.08 million in 2015-16."

While England goes to sleep each night dreaming of Brexit and wakes up in the foetal position, its football clubs continue to spend with the gay abandon of 1920s high society in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

Vacuous consumption is feted as a prize in itself, with Sky Sports News cranking out its spendometer daily. The bigger the number, the bigger the grin, it's as though its presenters are somehow wired up to it. Perhaps they are. There's certainly little doubt some football supporters are more interested in transfers than the game itself. 

It hardly takes a writer of J. G. Ballard's prescience to predict that if the next round of broadcasting rights see a reduction in the bidding, which given the last lot was so ridiculously high it seems unfeasible this won't be the case, then not to put too fine a point on it, much hand-wringing in Premier League boardrooms will ensue. Particularly so at any club that in these boom years thought paying £25/30 million-plus for a middling Premier League player a sound investment.

It's not quite the last days of Rome territory, yet. But then the music business was probably still quaffing champagne the day the bottom fell out of that industry, too.

Sigurdsson might be worth £50 million today (he isn't); good luck trying to recoup that money a year or two from now.

Most Premier League clubs would be wise to heed another Larry David anecdote about wealth: "All of a sudden I discovered that I'm allergic to caviar. It was the perfect metaphor for my life. When I was only able to afford bad caviar, I could certainly eat my fill of it."