The day money in football got out of hand

Seán Fay

"Two large whiskies for our guests, a gin and tonic for myself and a whisky and ginger ale for Mr. Wall."

"Sure thing, Mr. Chapman."

It was October 1928 and Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman needed a new player. Earlier in the day he had called his personal assistant Bob Wall into his office and informed him of his plan.

"Wall, come with me. I’ll show you how to conduct a transfer," Chapman told his young apprentice.

"We are going to sign David Jack from Bolton Wanderers as a replacement for our Charles Buchan, who is retiring. We’re meeting their chairman and manager at the Euston Hotel. Sit with me, listen and don’t say a word."

After ordering the drinks, Chapman exchanged a knowing glance with the waiter but was not gaining much traction with the transfer.

"Jack is not for sale," said the Bolton party.

"Just hear me out," replied Chapman and ordered another round. "Same again?"

It is no surprise that Bolton wanted to hang on to Jack (pictured above). The inside forward was a hometown hero who had scored 144 league goals in 295 league games with the Trotters during an eight-year spell.

His most memorable goal of all, though, came in the 1923 FA Cup final when he scored the opener in a 2-0 win over West Ham. It was the first ever goal at the newly-opened Empire Stadium at Wembley and was scored in front of an official crowd of 126,047, an estimated crowd of 300,000 and at least one white horse.

However, after a lot of talk and even more drinking, Chapman finally started to make progress; as the last orders bell chimed, the two sides finally shook hands on a deal.

The Bolton party would head back up north with sore heads and a cheque for £10,890. David Jack would travel in the opposite direction.

"Wall, that’s your first lesson in football," a clear-headed Chapman said to his young assistant after leaving the bar. "Now you know how to conduct a transfer."

Chapman had matched the Bolton men drink for drink on the night, but there was no 'G' in his 'G&Ts' – a plan hatched with the waiter.

Chapman might have talked himself into an unexpected coup, but this was certainly no robbery.

Bolton fans were not happy with the transfer but when they heard the fee – a British transfer record – things became a little more understandable.

A five-figure sum? For a footballer? Had the world gone mad?

Most contemporary references to the Jack transfer say that the FA chairman at the time, Sir Charles Clegg, immediately released a statement denouncing the fee.

This is only a half-truth: it is true that Clegg came out and said that no player was worth that kind of money, but he was merely defending the transfer system in response to remarks from the Dean of Durham who had said that money and transfers were ruining the moral fabric of the game. The Dean argued that the football community was drifting away from the charitable endeavours his church attempted to preach.

Clegg admitted in a speech at the jubilee banquet for the Lancashire Football Association that things were far from perfect, but still took the rather controversial step of publicly denouncing the Dean.

"I do not think the present system is perfect, nor does any member of the Football League," Clegg admitted. "But any criticisms of it must be accompanied by suggestions for improvement and not criticism made in ignorance of the position."

Jack’s signing was still a few days away, yet Clegg said: "If a club is sufficiently foolish to give £10,000 for a player, it deserves to be 'let in', and I should not be sorry if it were."

In truth, while the signing of Jack was a milestone in football finance that got even the Church talking, the issue of money burdening the game started as soon as clubs began paying players near the end of the 19th Century.

During the 1883-84 season, when the sport was still technically amateur, Accrington and Preston were both kicked out of the FA Cup for paying players.

That summer Preston, along with other clubs such as Aston Villa and Sunderland, threatened to form a breakaway league if the FA did not sanction professionalism. The Association caved in, but with the caveat that players had to have "been born, or lived for two years, within a six-mile radius of the ground".

By the turn of the century the game was fully professional and in 1905 the first £1,000 player was signed as Alf Common joined Middlesbrough from Sunderland. As fees continued to rise, in 1908 the FA brought in a rule that no transfer fee could top £350.

This restriction lasted less than a year as clubs got around it by signing the player they wanted plus a number of insignificant youth team players for £350 each to top up the fee for their prime target.

Financial issues remained at the forefront of football for some years. In 1926, two years before the Jack signing, The Times wrote: "For some time there has been a very real danger of finance overriding sport in association football and competition has become so keen that only the fit can hope to survive."

The piece highlighted two radical ideas put forward by our old friend Herbert Chapman to help revolutionise the game.

His first suggestion was that transfers should only be allowed during a set period in the summer so when the season started, teams would be blocked from making additional moves. The argument for this was that transfer fees became artificially inflated once the season began, as struggling teams desperately looked to plug holes.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, there was no 1920s equivalent of Jim White and his Sky Sports News team to drum up support for Chapman’s ‘transfer window’ - and the idea was shelved.

The Arsenal manager’s other idea was to cushion the blow of another threat that rings true today – relegation.

However, rather than suggesting parachute payments or scrapping relegation altogether, Chapman went completely the other way and proposed that the entire bottom half of the 22-team top division should be relegated each season and be replaced by the top 11 in the Second Division. This, he argued, would mean the price of relegation would not be so severe, as teams would consistently have a good chance of getting back into the top flight and wouldn’t be so inclined to make risky moves to try and ensure their survival.

Again, this idea was rejected. You can imagine the headaches such a scheme would give a few current owners if proposed today.

Nevertheless, pretty much all of the current concerns about finance in football had an equivalent worry back in the 20s.

The influx of foreign players on inflated wages is another oft-cited reason for the changing shape of the English game, but they had 'foreigners' back then too - although they were known as Scotsmen!

While transfer fees were going through the roof, the FA kept careful limits on wages and the maximum bonus a player could earn from a transfer was £650 - and only then if they had been at their previous club for five years.

There were no such restrictions from players coming down from Scotland, though. In 1927 a host of English clubs wanted to sign Airdrieonians striker Bob Craig and the club invited teams to submit blind bids for his services. Eventually, however, they sold him to fellow Scottish club Rangers for £5,000 despite a higher bid from Everton because they would have had to agree a cut of the deal with Craig if they were to send him down south.

With players somewhat on a leash, you might think that this meant club owners were raking it in - but this was far from the case. An FA rule that was in place all the way up until 1981 meant that nobody could draw a salary working as a director of a football club, and also limited the amount of dividends that could be paid on shares so that nobody could derive an income through running one.

Going back to Jack’s transfer: despite Arsenal splurging a huge chunk of cash, and Bolton losing their best player, the deal ended up working out for everyone.

People questioned Chapman’s decision to pay such a large sum for the 29-year-old Jack, who some suggested was past his prime. However, he went on to score 113 goals in 181 league games for the Gunners, helping them to win the first four trophies in the club’s history as the 1930 FA Cup was followed by three titles in the following three seasons. Chapman would later call the Jack transfer "one of my best ever bargains".

The legendary manager (pictured below), who also won three league titles in a row with Huddersfield in the 20s, would tragically die midway through the last of Arsenal's three titles in 1934, at the age of just 58. In reporting his death The Times praised his amazingly innovative mind and noted that: "the full effect of his influence on the game cannot be gauged yet... even Chapman could not always get his own way and the game is still played by daylight and players still go unnumbered."

Bolton fans had to endure the agony of Jack returning to Burnden Park less than three months after signing for Arsenal to score both of the Gunners’ goals in a 2-1 victory. However, the Trotters faithful would still get to taste success at the end of the season as two goals from Billy Butler saw them down Portsmouth 2-0 in the FA Cup final.

Meanwhile, clubs continued to buy and sell players and football evolved.

In 1947 Tommy Lawton became the first £20,000 player when he left Chelsea to surprisingly join a Third Division outfit in Notts County.

In 1961 PFA chairman Jimmy Hill successfully persuaded the FA to scrape the Football League's £20 maximum wage - his Fulham team-mate Johnny Haynes immediately became Britain’s first £100-a-week player - while that same year Denis Law left Manchester City to join Italian club Torino for £100,000.

In 1979, Trevor Francis became English football’s first million-pound signing as he left Birmingham City for Nottingham Forest.

In 1995 the Bosman ruling ensured that players could move freely to other clubs at the end of their contracts - but that didn’t stop Newcastle United from paying Blackburn Rovers a world-record fee of £15 million for Alan Shearer the following year.

Some feel that the incoming UEFA Financial Fair Play rules will stick a fork in the road for big-spending clubs like Manchester City, but history suggests that clubs looking to spend will continue to do so no matter what the rule-makers do to prevent them.

Eighty-four years ago the transfer record hit five figures for the first time, while currently Cristiano Ronaldo’s £80 million move from Manchester United to Real Madrid in 2009 is the biggest move we’ve ever seen. Who knows what the record will be 84 years from now? Chances are, it is a sum we cannot even comprehend.

However, there is one thing that anyone involved in transfer negotiations can learn from the past: if you are offered a drink, make sure you ask for water!

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