You don’t have to spend if you’re champions, but it helps

EARLIER in the summer, Liverpool were receiving some criticism because they had decided not to spend to reinforce their title-winning team. Jürgen Klopp made a public statement about the club not being run by an oligarch or a country and a few people got a little bent out of shape.

Sceptics suggested Klopp was making a subtle attempt to get some cash for new acquisitions. The Reds’ activity in the transfer market since underlines that his well-timed comments worked. Liverpool have since signed a few players and suddenly, their squad looks that little bit deeper.

It doesn’t always pay to throw your tentacles around the market too aggressively when you’ve won the league. For a start, your status adds a premium to the price of any player. But on the other hand, if your squad gets too comfortable, complacency can set in.

New players are needed to add creative tension to the dressing room and ensure there is competition for places. Furthermore, a team can get “found out” and struggle after winning the big prizes.

Already people are wondering if Klopp’s style will endure another season, just as they questioned if Manchester City have been rumbled last year.

Keeping it fresh

Jota, Liverpool’s new signing

From a commercial perspective, a major new signing sells season tickets as well as merchandise. The legendary Tottenham manager, Bill Nicholson, liked to sign a big name every year to keep interest in the team bubbling away – players like Jimmy Greaves, Alan Gilzean, Martin Chivers, Martin Peters and Ralph Coates were all signed in the period between 1961 and 1971, each time for around £100,000-plus and all keeping Spurs in the headlines, although they didn’t win the championship.

Today the transfer market is a lot more strategic and scientific, but there’s no denying that a major signing keeps the money rolling in.

If you are the league champion club, you really have to leverage your position at the top of the game in order to lure players your way – everyone wants to be associated with winners.

Liverpool finally swung into action and two of their signings, the excellent Thiago Alcantara from Bayern Munich and Diogo Jota from Wolves are very impressive acquisitions.

The arrival of these players should remove any doubts about Liverpool sitting back. Their net spend is around £ 65 million since the end of 2019-20, which is actually higher than Manchester City (£ 39 million), Manchester United (£ 35 million) and Arsenal (£16.5 million).

The fact is, the transfer market is now integral to the entertainment of the game and the fans expect their clubs to provide that in the form of a truckload of new signings each year. It is almost as if boredom sets in if a club doesn’t unveil new faces each close season.

The media has also created this sideshow, notably in the days leading up to the end of a transfer window. In the past, transfers were almost incidental and a solution to a problem such as an injury or loss of form of a key individual and maybe one or two new players were brought in. These days, almost half a squad can arrive in the summer window, especially at clubs who are cash rich.

Often a successful team that has been crowned champions signs a big name as a power play and it doesn’t work out as envisaged. A good example of this is Fernando Torres at Chelsea in 2011, signed for £ 50 million. Chelsea were reigning champions at the time, but they finally captured Torres too late, he had peaked, although he did play his part in the club winning the UEFA Champions League in 2012.

Big signings

Go back to 1985 and Everton signed Gary Lineker for over £ 800,000 after he had scored 29 goals for Leicester City in 1984-85. Lineker had a great season for Howard Kendall’s side, netting 38 goals in 56 games, but Everton sold him to Barcelona after that solitary season for £ 2.8 million. Similarly, Tottenham, who won the double in 1960-61, signed an unhappy Jimmy Greaves from AC Milan in December 1961 for £ 99,999 and although he scored 30 goals, Spurs lost their crown as champions. Likewise, Leeds, champions in 1969, pushed the boat out to buy Allan Clarke from Leicester in the summer of 1969 and their new man scored 25 times in 1969-70, but Leeds won nothing, despite being a better side on paper.

Allan Clarke runs out for Leeds, 1970

History has shown that some teams needed to strengthen their squad but a lack of action (or money) meant their side disappointed as they set out to defend their crown – Manchester City in 1969, Arsenal 1971 and Aston Villa in 1982 all could have used some additional talent when they began their follow-up campaign. In the case of Arsenal, they signed Alan Ball halfway through the 1971-72 season, while Villa snapped-up Coventry’s Andy Blair. More recently, Arsenal’s “invincibles” of 2004 only received a £ 1.5 million reinforcement in the form of Emmanuel Eboué. Interestingly, the regular Arsenal title-winning line-up of 2003-04 had an average age of more than 28.

Manchester City, meanwhile, spent £ 285 million in 2017-18, won the title and then paid out just £ 70 million in 2018-19 for new players. When they defended their second successive title, they had a net spend of £ 88 million. There were times when Manchester United, in their pomp, spent very little in the market, but then they had a very successful youth system which provided Sir Alex Ferguson with the core of his team in the mid-1990s. In the post-Ferguson era, United have been less dynamic in the market and have signed a number of players who have not lived up to expectations.

Ferguson liked to shake things up, but also knew the value of continuity, one of the strengths of Liverpool in their 1970s and 1980s heyday. Only one player, Virgil van Dijk, started every Premier League for Liverpool in 2019-20, perhaps emphasising strategic team selection or rotation. When Liverpool won the title in 1965-66, nine players played 40-plus games in the league, while Aston Villa’s 1980-81 team included seven players who played all 42 league fixtures.


The pandemic and the lack of time between seasons may meanthere will be less of a frenzy in the transfer window, although it is a game of brinkmanship to a large degree and we can expect poker faces and cunning agents to come to the fore as time runs out. Football is an impatient game and that’s why squads change so much – everyone hopes that mass turnover can change the mediocre into the outstanding, the unlucky into the lucky. There seems little time to nurture a side, which makes a mockery of supposed two or three year plans. How many managers are given the luxury of a three-year build-up?

Making a champion team into a better one is possible with the right signings, but there is a fine balance between enhancement and disruption. It is important to keep a squad fresh, both tactically and in terms of its composition, but how do you improve teams that have averaged over 90 points each over the past three seasons? How do you spend your money wisely?

Photo: PA

Football behind closed doors is inevitable, but clubs need protection

EXPERIENCE of human nature tells us that panic and knee-jerk reactions are as infectious as the Coronavirus itself, so English football may be heading for “behind closed doors” matches just like Italy’s Serie A. The same fate could await football in Germany, Spain and other countries around Italy. Whether this strategy is effective or not is open to debate, but Italy’s decision will prompt discussions in government departments across the continent. As we have seen with financial markets and supermarkets, once a trend gets started, it spreads like wildfire.

The virus has taken on something of a dystopian angle, but when it affects football and travel, people start to realise the fabric of everyday life is seriously under threat. Given that global trade depends on the free movement of people, goods and services, if borders close and transit is made impossible, the problems will be more far-reaching than the postponement of football fixtures.

However, does it need to be as draconian as closing stadiums and suspending competitions? Football is an essential component of the morale of a nation and its removal from the routine of so many people will have a very negative impact. Even the Roman Empire realised the benefit of entertaining the masses.

Financial crisis

Furthermore, the financial status of a lot of football clubs will come under scrutiny if income suddenly dries up. If the Coronavirus does trigger a worldwide economic downturn, which is overdue, incidentally, then the collapse of trade will make things far worse than most people realise. We have already seen how feral people become as they attempt to clear supermarket shelves, stripping them of toilet rolls and soap, among other things. Restriction on trade will affect food supplies and if that happens, the scramble for extra-soft tissue will pale into insignificance.

There have been ominous signs this season that the bottom end of the football food chain is not in good health. Bury went out of the EFL and Bolton, Macclesfield, Oldham Athletic, Southend and Morecambe have all been in the news over their financial condition. If these clubs are in a parlous state how much will it take to send them over the edge?

Some clubs spend far too much of their income, leaving little margin for error. Southend, for example, paid out £ 5.6 million in wages from a turnover of £ 6.2 million in 2017-18. League Two’s wage-to-income ratio was over 70% in 2018. The Championship is regularly over 100%. The combined revenues of League Two clubs in 2018 was just £ 91 million, a mere fraction of a single club in the upper echelons of the game.

As the crisis gathers momentum, clubs in Leagues One and Two must be having sleepless nights. Wages account for most of a club’s income and there is little scope for manoeuvre if matchday income is suddenly suspended, even if season ticket sales are healthy and therefore, money has been paid up front. But given the size of crowds in the lower leagues, is ground closure really inevitable? Stadium utilisation rates are 57% and 40% respectively in Leagues One and Two. There is room to breathe at most grounds. Why not cut the capacity to allow more space between fans and therefore, limit the risk of infection? In the Premier, the utilisation rate is 97%, so some work would need to be done, but at the same time, it is unlikely the top division will run into difficulty.


Aside from these measures, clubs need to start talking to their banks and providers now to anticipate a possible worsening of the environment. The crisis could spark off a credit crunch and also, supply chains will start to clog-up. Negotiation over payment terms may become necessary. Banks don’t like to send a club to the wall, regardless of what fans might think. In the modern business paradigm, reputational risk is as important as credit and counterparty risk, so the negative PR would not be welcomed by any bank CEO.

Clubs may also need to offer discounting for season tickets for next season if the disruption means fans miss out. The Football Association/UEFA/FIFA needs to work together to find solutions for clubs that get into trouble.

This is, for most people, an unprecedented crisis that is rapidly becoming science-fiction in nature. Some things will surely change in our daily lives when the panic subsides. We may not be so keen to be in crowded places and we may better provision for travelling in packed trains and buses. We may no longer shake hands so willingly. Let’s hope the affect of the virus doesn’t bring an end to football crowds – after all, football without fans is nothing.




Photo: PA