The transfer market doesn’t always repay spending sprees with success

CHELSEA’s latest spending spree has taken them to £ 3 billion since the Premier League started, an open wallet strategy that has confused a lot of people by its kid in a sweet shop approach. The club has generated a net spend of £ 483.6 million, an enormous commitment on the part of Chelsea’s new owners. In total, 22 players have arrived at Stamford Bridge.

It remains to be seen if Chelsea’s bold attempt at rebirth pays off. A mass influx of players doesn’t necessarily work, certainly not in the short term as the management try to work out their best team and the appropriate tactics for a sizeable group of new players. They also need the right manager/coach, and one has to assume that Todd Boehly has decided Graham Potter is the man to take them forward. But with such a big squad now fighting over dressing room pegs, it will take time to blend the talent at his disposal.

It’s not the first time Chelsea have been on a bulk-buying programme, when Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003, they spent £ 121 million on 14 players, some of which – like Juan Sebastián Verón and Adrian Mutu – were clearly bad buys. Over the course of the last 19 years, Chelsea have had to endure some misjudged acquisitions, such as Andriy Shevchenko, Deco, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Mateja Kežman, Romelu Lukaku, Timo Werner and even Fernando Torres. The difference between Chelsea and many of their rivals is that they have been able to afford the odd mistake.

Clubs have always been accused of being spendthrifts. In the 1920s and 1930s, Arsenal were known as the “Bank of England” club as they repeatedly bought big, notably when they signed David Jack (£10,647 from Bolton), Alex James (£8,750 Preston) and Bryn Jones (£14,000 Wolves). Arsenal could indulge themselves in the market in those days because, quite simply, they were very successful. In 1930, Chelsea tried to combat the Gunners and went on a campaign of hiring big names to draw big attendances to Stamford Bridge, and they signed Hughie Gallacher, Alex Jackson and Alec Cheyne, three crowd-pullers. Despite the £ 25,000 paid out, it didn’t make Chelsea successful.

In the early 1950s, Sunderland also earned themselves the tag of big spenders. They signed the charismatic Len Shackleton in 1948 for a record £ 20,050 from Newcastle United and in 1950, paid £ 30,000 for Aston Villa’s Trevor Ford. By today’s standards, such extravagance is small beer, but in austerity Britain, paying such fees was seen as somewhat outlandish. Sunderland scored plenty of goals – Ford and Shackleton netted 22 apiece in 1951-52, but they never won silverware.

Some of the most successful sides have not been created overnight but as the result of patient team-building. But, generally, a team was put together over a two or three year period, Leeds United’s 1969 league title winning side was mostly built in 1962 and 1963 as Don Revie introduced home-grown talent to his team. Derby County’s 1972 champions came together between 1967 and 1970 and triumphant Nottingham Forest in 1978 were constructed in their first season in the first division after promotion with the signing of Peter Shilton, Kenny Burns, Archie Gemmill and David Needham.

In 1979, Manchester City went on a bold and some might say foolhardy spree with Malcolm Allison back at the club for his second spell in charge. Allison may have been an innovative coach, but his best days were behind him when he returned to Maine Road. A larger-than-life figure, accessorised with big cigars, Champagne and expensive clothing, Allison seemed to believe that splashing the cash was also part of the act. He paid an incredible £ 750,000 for an unknown 21 year-old striker, Michael Robinson of Preston North End. He had earlier bought Steve Mackenzie, a 17 year-old midfielder from Crystal Palace for £ 250,000, a player who had yet to make his Football League debut. In September 1979, City paid £ 1.4 million for Wolves’ Steve Daley, a disastrous move that underlined the extravagance of Allison’s team building (pictured). Another £ 1 million signing arrived in March 1980 in Kevin Reeves.

While this extraordinary period looks tame compared to the behaviour of clubs today, it was bound to end in tears. City in recent years have had periods of high spending, such as 2017-18 when they bought £ 267 million of players, recouping £ 68 million in the market, and £ 143 million in 2020-21.

Liverpool were never renowned for over-spending and had a reputation for seeking undiscovered talent in the lower divisions – players like Kevin Keegan, Ray Clemence and Alec Lindsay, all of whom came from small clubs and ended up winning caps for England. But in 1987-88, Liverpool threw caution to the wind and signed two of the most sought after players in British football, John Barnes and Peter Beardsey, for a combined amount approaching £ 3 million. They had already spent over £ 1 million earlier in 1987 on John Aldridge and Nigel Spackman and also added £ 825,000 Ray Houghton to their squad. Liverpool built a new team that was exciting, virtually unbeatable, but ultimately, expensive. If it was a spree, it yielded immediate profits.

Manchester United went on a campaign of rebuilding in 1989-90 with mixed results, buying Mike Phelan, Neil Webb, Gary Pallister, Paul Ince, Danny Wallace and Denis Irwin for a combined amount of almost £ 9 million. United won the FA Cup, but were way down the table and didn’t win the first of many league titles in the 1990s until 1993.

In more recent times, Tottenham spent heavily following the departure of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for £ 85 million, buying seven players who were largely unsuccessful. Aside from Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela, the other players barely made 200 Premier appearances between them.

Everton also failed to make the best of their outlay between 2016 and 2018 when they paid out around £ 240 million, receiving £ 165 million in sales. Some players fared well, such as goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who was signed for £ 25 million from Sunderland, and Burnley’s Michael Keane, who also cost £ 25 million, but others, such as Davy Klaassen from Ajax and Turkish striker Cenk Tosun, had mixed experiences.

In the modern game, clubs have specialist recruitment staff and for most, players are signed after careful assessment, with data playing a huge part in the process. This also raises questions about mass buying and the vast sums involved. It would seem far easier to make mistakes amid so much player traffic. History tells us that spending sprees have pitfalls, so how much risk are Chelsea taking on at the moment?

Stop knocking the FA Cup – games at Brighton and Wrexham have kept the flame burning

THIS SEASON’s FA Cup has reminded us why the competition has such an important role to play in football. The games at Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday in the third round and at Brighton and Wrexham in the last 32 have lit-up gloomy January weekends and left people calling for more. We love a giant-killing, but we also clamour for cup-ties that have atmosphere, goals and twists in the tale.

Every year, a debate rages on about the terminal decline of the FA Cup, but at the same time, TV and radio keep telling us the competition is so special. They want to encourage viewers and listeners to tune in, but while they do this, managers are fielding weakened teams and sacrificing a cup run for the sake of Premier League mediocrity. In fact, the universal obsession with the Premier League overshadows everything, from cup runs to European trips. There seems to be no value in the glory of a cup run for some clubs. And frankly, when most clubs have absolutely zero chance of a Premier title or a Champions League place, surely the FA Cup and EFL Cup represent the best chance of silverware.

And yet, the FA Cup is won each year by one of the big Premier clubs, so nobody can accuse them of not caring. Since 1992-93, when the Premier League was formed, 26 of the 30 FA Cups have been won by members of the big six: Arsenal (9), Chelsea (7), Liverpool (3), Manchester United (5) and Manchester City (2). Moreover, these clubs have also been runners-up 14 times between them. The only four clubs outside the “big six” to have won the Cup since 1992-93 are Everton (1995), Portsmouth (2008), Wigan (2013) and Leicester (2021).

Clearly, the Premier clubs that field occasionally-seen squad members for their FA Cup ties feel they can either afford to go out cheaply or they have confidence in a second-string XI can do the job. In most cases, they are right, for the size and strength of their squads can overcome opponents in the lower divisions with some comfort. Sometimes, they even field weaker teams when they face another Premier side, such as Arsenal when they made wholesale changes to play Manchester City. As Roy Keane said on TV that evening, they sent a message to everyone that the game was relatively unimportant, and if you’re chasing a first Premier title in 19 years, it may well have been less of a priority for Mikel Arteta.

When Chelsea and Manchester City met in the third round, it was three days after they had clashed in the Premier League. The first game ended 1-0 to City, but on January 8, the two sides made a total of 13 changes to their starting line-ups for the FA Cup tie. City’s weakened side was stronger than Chelsea’s and they won by four goals at the Etihad. But how would you feel if you attended a game and realised you were not watching a set of first choice players?

The managers would probably argue that when the fixtures are coming thick and fast, making changes is a pragmatic way to keep the squad fresh, and they have a point, but it does highlight the change in status of the FA Cup. Perhaps clubs could play fewer meaningless games on summer tours?

In days gone by, the league was the bread and butter, the everyday, and the cup competitions, particularly the FA Cup, used to provide a little bit of gilding among run of the mill fixtures. In 1970, Arsenal versus Burnley in the league was humdrum fare, but if it was Arsenal versus Burnley in the FA Cup, it was a different story. The FA Cup was a distraction from the trials and tribulations of an attritional 42-game league programme. It is now a 38-game fixture list, but somehow everyone believes it is more intense, more demanding in an age of bigger squads and soaring wage bills. It is true that every defeat is treated like the end of days, whereas 50 years ago, cup defeats were the ones that really hurt and league defeats could be quickly forgotten by winning your next game.

The best teams always win the league, that’s for sure because of the format and the need for consistency over a long period which marks the elite. There are no lucky league champions. The FA Cup, traditionally, was a way for clubs to achieve success regardless of their league position. Although there have been fairy-tale FA Cup triumphs, such as the three post-war second division winners of Sunderland, Southampton and West Ham, over half of the FA Cups since 1946-47 have been won by teams that finished in the top six. Only one team has won the FA Cup in this timeframe and been relegated in the same season, Wigan Athletic in 2013.

Wigan Athletic’s win in 2013 was against Manchester City, creating one of the biggest shocks in the final. The act of giant-killing is thankfully still with us, although it’s harder and harder for the minnows to spring a major surprise. This season, Sheffield Wednesday’s victory against Newcastle United and Stevenage’s win at Villa Park will take some beating. Wrexham of the National League almost pulled off a major shock when they were 3-2 up against Sheffield United with seconds remaining in their fourth round game. It ended 3-3, so as the modern day cliché tells us, “we go again”.

The game at Wrexham, along with Brighton’s 2-1 success against holders Liverpool showed everyone that the FA Cup is alive and well and capable of thrilling the public. The competition is a genuine national treasure and should return to the social calendar alongside the Ashes, Wimbledon, the Proms and Henley. There was a time when it was seen as a special day in the English way of life (Brian Glanville, 1970), so attempts to tamper with its place in the game’s heritage should be absolutely discouraged.