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Transfer madness alive and kicking on deadline day

WHEN one wants to learn about conditions in the madhouse, it can be instructive to listen to a former inmate.

The signing of Radamel Falcao by Manchester United was  the headline deal on a busy transfer deadline day. Picture: Reuters
The signing of Radamel Falcao by Manchester United was the headline deal on a busy transfer deadline day. Picture: Reuters

Christian Purslow, a graduate of both Cambridge and Harvard, may be forgiven for bristling at any attempts to place him in Bedlam but he was managing director of Liverpool in a period from 2009 when he was involved heavily in transferring the ownership of the club from the American owners Tom Hicks and Geroge Gillett. It was a time of routine footballing financial mayhem.

Just five years on, this era seems almost sweet in its relative innocence and in its scale.

The transfer window has brought predictable comments about the excesses of the Barclays Premier League but it was fascinating to listen to Purslow yesterday after a night when the headline news - the only money spent - in Scotland concerned the recruitment of a Serbian forward by Celtic for £2.2m. This transfer fee equates to the September and October gross wage of Radamel Falcao, a 28-year-old striker, who has signed for Manchester United on loan.

There will be tedious squeals about the morality of this but it is perhaps more productive to investigate the method in this seeming madness and where it is taking the most popular sport in the world.

Purslow's comments came in the wake of Peter Lawwell, the Celtic chief executive, pointing out last week that there was a creeping colonialisation of the world by the Premier League.

Purslow, almost unwittingly, expanded on this in yesterday's radio interview. This is a man who talks in bottom lines but they very quickly assumed headline type in the mind of this listener.

In the world of EPL 2014, there is an argument that the £150m-plus spent by Manchester United in summer window was a necessary investment rather than a gaudy flexing of financial muscle. Purslow pointed out that the new television deals coming into force next season will mean that there is a £50m gap in revenue between fourth and fifth place in the EPL. That is, the team finishing fifth and outside the Champions League places will lose revenue equivalent to the entire turnover of Celtic in a good season for the Scottish champions.

It is extraordinary, it is absurd and yet it is true.

The imperative is therefore to finish in the first four. Two years outside that elite can cost £100m. That is the sort of gap that deserves the description unbridgeable.

The old certainties of English football have been destroyed in a generation. United are not the biggest team in Manchester. Liverpool, five times winner of Europe's top trophy, celebrate when they qualify for the Champions League, Chelsea, a club that went half a century without a title, now face a crisis after one trophyless season. Arsenal, the one-time Invincibles, prove to be annually frail in relative terms. Manchester City, once a punchline, are now the aristocrats, their ambition only tempered by UEFA measures on fair play.

These five clubs all need to be one of the four Champions League qualifiers. It does not require Purslow's accounting skills to discern that one must fail. Indeed, with Chelsea and City strong with deep squads, the equation is more likely to be three into two.

This is why spending in the summer transfer window has risen from about £250m 10 years ago to at least three times that in 2014.

With television revenue increasing further, this model will continue to grow. Manchester United now have at least four players (Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Angel di Maria and Falcao) who earn more than a £1m a month. In 2025, when the EPL rules the world, this may looked upon as the sort of sums categorised as quaint.

This observation is made because the EPL is rapidly becoming the preferred brand. Football is largely now run, organised and presented as a television sport. The EPL may not be technically the best, it may not be the most advanced in terms of strategy but it is the most popular.

Purslow believes that the best players will gravitate towards England in the immediate future, placing a strain of the powers of even Barcelona and Real Madrid to pick the very best talent.

The EPL is the football dish of choice in the growing North American market, and it dominates throughout Europe.

The business model is now loaded towards achieving prominence through television appearances at domestic league level and in the Champions League. All meaningful revenue springs from this exposure.

The frenzy of the transfer market is but a symptom of this condition. The top clubs have to spend to survive at the very elite level. More than ever before, there is a first world in football and a third world and very little of substance in between.

Internationally, the money is tilting towards England with, for example, Serie A a significantly diminished franchise. Parochially, the money madness has left Scotland on the sidelines.

The world of top-class football that was inhabited most conspicuously by Celtic in 1967, Rangers in 1972, Aberdeen in 1983 and Dundee United in 1987 is now on the other side of a television screen.

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