The ideal transfer set-up for football?

It’s that time of year again. With no domestic football to worry about or comment on, and no international football until the autumn (except at U21 level), attention inevitably turns to the clubs’ summer rebuilding plans, and the maddening transfer merry-go-round, as the infamous transfer window will soon open once more for business.
A transfer window is effectively the period when clubs can register a player into the club through FIFA. The window was introduced much more recently than I thought, in response to negotiations with the European Commission, stemming from growing concern at Commission level about spiralling transfer fees. In response Fifa devised a worldwide transfer system, including instruction for domestic leagues. The restriction of transfers had begun.

The system has been used in many European leagues anyway,  before being brought into compulsory effect by FIFA during the 2002–03 season. It was only brought into full effect in the lower leagues in this country during 2005. The Football League was massively against its introduction, fearing it would further hit lower league clubs already struggling after the collapse of ITV digital. Eventually they succumbed.

So the rule is that there must be two windows, a longer one (maximum twelve weeks) in the break between two seasons and a shorter one (maximum one month) in the middle of a season. The specific periods depend on the league’s season cycle and are determined by the national football authorities. The Russian authorities tried (and failed) for a third window, because of the way their league is set up next season (it will be 18 months long!).

Of course, the windows do not prevent movement of footballers completely. Free agents can be signed by a club at any time in the season, if they had been released by their previous club before the end of the transfer window. A club can request to sign a player on emergency basis, e.g. if several goalkeepers are injured at the same time, as Manchester City did only last year, causing considerable outrage.

Like any change to the fabric of football, be it transfer rules (see also the Bosman rulings), play offs or even points per win, there will be those for and against the change. Any system has its pros and cons. So what are the pros?

Well, it has been argued that it has limited clubs buying their way to success (or out of trouble) towards the end of a season, by stopping clubs with ample resources purchasing extra players to get them out of a “pickle”. This way, with set periods when purchases can be made, means that clubs have to plan more carefully, and work with what they have. Some have argued that this also gives more youngsters a chance of first-team action, as managers cannot splash the cash to cover an injury crisis or a run of bad form – they must work with what they have.

What’s more, it does protect (smaller) clubs who have some in-demand players. As they cannot be snapped up by predators at any time, there is a certain relief to be had that come September 1st or February 1st their players cannot be poached in the immediate future.

And the cons?
Well firstly, is it fair? We live in the European Union, with free trade, movement across borders, and increased workers’ rights. Is it acceptable to restrict trade for a whole industry for the majority of the year? Should clubs not be able to purchase as they see fit? After all, the clubs with bigger spending power will continue to spend more, whatever the system in place – nothing has changed in that respect.
It brings on a fire-sale mentality, and often means that rather than clubs planning well and working out what they require for the season, clubs actually purchase too many players, knowing that they have a limited time to do so. This was Steve Coppell’s argument, when he spoke out against the windows in 2008, frustrated at the endless speculation in the press about many of his Reading squad.

And if the introduction of transfer windows was designed to stop spiralling transfer fees, it certainly hasn’t worked. If it was designed to curb the spending power of the big clubs, it has failed too.

The main problem for me though is the January transfer window. Thirty-one days seems like a long time to sort out the odd deal or two, but it never seems long enough for a lot of clubs. And for teams whose season isn’t going quite as planned, it induces panic. Even for those that are doing well, it induces the feeling that perhaps some strengthening should be done whilst they have the opportunity. The end result is unnecessary buying and inflated transfer fees. There is little value much of the time in a January transfer window. Good for a selling club perhaps, but potentially catastrophic for those doing the buying.

And it seems that many people underestimated how much panic buying would happen in January transfer windows. When the BBC covered the introduction of the window all those years ago, they quoted the infamous football agent Eric Hall, who said: “I don’t think there will be any winter madness on the transfer market, with only about 10 to 20 players moving at the most. So it won’t affect people and clubs that much.”
The fact is it does affect clubs. Even in the summer window, there is a period of panic as the deadline approaches.

The greatest downside of transfer windows must be the tedious succession of transfer rumours throughout the summer period and throughout January, which leads to a raft of wind-up merchants on football message boards who are “in the know”. They can never say too much, but their brother’s girlfriend works with someone whose uncle is a kit supplier to the reserve women’s team at Arsenal, and he said that the club are definitely signing Miroslav Klose, and before you know it, someone has spotted him at the airport, or sneaking out of the back entrance of the Emirates, or in an estate agents in Highbury. Of course these rumours would exist without two transfer windows, but the windows intensify the scurrilous rumours and petty wind ups, especially as the deadline approaches, and deadline day is full of these fictional sightings, made-up whisperings and fabricated enquiries.

And there is always one story that runs and runs throughout the summer, until every fan has lost the will to live. As a Manchester City fan, I hope Carlos Tevez remains at the club (though I doubt it), but whatever happens, I pray to god that it is sorted soon – if I have to endure another three months of will-he-won’t he rumours I may have to go and hibernate in my garage until September. But if it is sorted soon, the press will turn to Cesc Fabregas instead, or maybe Samir Nasri, or Didier Drogba, or……

The window can be a guilty pleasure, especially deadline day – you never know if something truly surprising is about to break (though more often than not, it doesn’t). But on the whole, I cannot agree that transfer windows are a good thing. Not only are they a restraint of trade (an important consideration for smaller clubs and the lower leagues), but they cause panic buying close to the deadlines that creates swamped squads in some instances, and insufficient squads for those that were forced to sell late in the day. The limited period to deal leads to more bad buys, and a lack of reasoned planning in my opinion. You cannot have an all-year transfer window, and the current system is certainly not without its merits, but perhaps the system would work better if the transfer windows covered a greater period of the year.