Phases of football: The transfer system

September 21, 1907
The transfer system as we know it has been evolved through time and the necessities of a complex situation, the whole being a puzzle to the football layman and difficult of comprehension even to many intimately connected with the game, and whose experience does not extend to the genesis of the system and cover its growth.

A new rule coming in force in 1908 is intended to limit the amount payable for transfer to £350, but prices have hitherto gone as high as £1,000 for a single player.

It may be asked why should such limits be needed?

Why should players not be able to command their own wages and their own price right along the line the same as if they were actors or variety artists?

These people work in single, or have their own companies, whereas the footballer goes to form one in eleven, and that eleven one in a League of as many as twenty Clubs. It is twenty in England and eighteen in Scotland.

In these Leagues it is absolutely necessary that there should be a certain amount of equality of ability.

If, therefore, the wealthy Clubs were permitted to use their money at will and the players to sell their services to the highest bidder whenever they wished, it can easily be seen equality would soon cease, real competition would disappear, and the League tournaments would become a farce – and all this simply because the Clubs with the most money would gobble up all the best men.

As it is they do it already to some extent, but not ruinously, the varios restrictions preventing this.

Transfer fees.
In Scotland huge transfer fees have been the exception, for as no wage limit need be considered, the Clubs prefer to go to the South of England for men, as has been done by the Dundee Club.

But now and then transfer fees are paid, as was the case when Dundee brought Muir from Everton for £100, and when the Rangers secured Livingston, the Manchester City suspend, but these two men had both fixed their own terms of transfger.

Then Celtic bought Templeton from Woolwich Arsenal, and the Hearts last season while in difficulties also secured a number of players at a substantial figure.

Before the agreement between the Leagues of Scotland and England recognising each others registrations as binding many dark deeds were done, and in spite of the Association’s poaching laws it was no uncommon occurrence for men to be engaged to new Clubs in the course of the playing season for the following season.

Surreptitious visits took place, and agents were engaged as go-betweens to prevent detection in law-breaking.

The writer has ever had knowledge of a noted player engaged for a Scottish Club being got at and practically secured by an English Club for a year later – and that before he had kicked a ball for his new Scottish Club.

Such doings were subversive of all discipline and honest working. In fact, the whole business was absolutely rotten.

To protect themselves from the rapacity of players and their own overwhelming ambition, agreements and restrictions became an absolute necessity. Hence the present situation.

A Boon to Poor Clubs.
In considering the heavy fees paid for players it must not be thought the men are simply herded and sold like so many cattle. Not so.

The player is practically a free agent, and if he objects he cannot be transferred. In fact, the player is master of the situation.

When he leaves a Club, or is no longer retained, he is well protected, and on application his case will be promptly considered and his interests safeguarded.

It is, however, curious that when he appeals he should have to do so to what is a Committee of employers.

Still, the situation is such that justice must be done, and is done as may be seen from the large sums that are regularly sliced off the prices fixed by Clubs for departing players. £100 being brought down to £10 or so, or, indeed, the fee may be cancelled entirely in accord with the merits of the case.

The system has undoubtedly been of great benefit to certain poorer Clubs. In our own country the Hibs have largely profited by it, while last season Aidrieonians must have made a goodly sum, and even the great Glasgow Rangers sold a considerable number of players, though they also entered the market as buyers.

In England Clubs like West Bromwich Albion and Bury might have been extinct but for the system, though it does not always turn out profitable to sell players, and depleted attendances and poor play may run away with the money in another direction.

Prodigious Sums.
The growth of transfer prices has been gradual. Aston Villa picked up the famous internationalist, John “Jack” Reynolds, for £40, while William Groves, the equally famous Edinburgh Hibernian, only cost the same Club £100.

The sum of £250 took Crabtree from Burnley to Birmingham, and when Everton paid £250 for Southworth there was a great outcry. It was then said his first year of service in transfer signing, bonus, and wages would cost £500, whereat there was much amazement.

In spite of this big price Southworth, poor fellow, proved of little value to his new masters, as he had not been long in the Villa (note, typo – should read Everton) service when he was severely injured.

Andy McCombie was secured from Inverness by Sunderland. He and his North of England masters fell out, and he was transferred to Newcastle United at a cost of £700.

Lockett went from Stoke to Aston Villa for £400, and Bury were content to part with Settle to Everton for a similar price.

Sums of £300 and £400 have been quite common wi9th Clubs like Everton and Aston Villa.

The latter figure removed the famous Dundee and Third Lanark forward, James McLuckie, from Bury to Aston Villa, and something like £700 was given by Manchester City to Glossop for Norgrove and Thornley, a fine lift for a small Club, and one which, if properly used, would set it on its feet financially.

This brings us to the prodigious fee of £1,000 paid by Middlesbrough at the back end of 1905 to Sunderland for the transfer of Alfred Common.

Common is a fine player certainly, but is there anyone who can be brought to believe that any man can be worth such a figure?

The position of Middlesbrough was desperate. The Club was in danger of losing its place in the First Division of the League, which would have meant a great deal more than the £1,000 paid for Common, to whom at the time credit was generally given for saving the situation.

The Purchase of Bloomer.
Such plunging has several times marked a turning point in the history of a Club, and it felt  to Middlesbrough a year later to again distinguish themselves in the same direction, for again the Club was in a desperate position, and the purchase of Steve Bloomer, the record internationalist, along with a number of other highly priced artists, not only amazed the football world once more, but is believed to have again saved the Club, at the expense no doubt of others less fortunate situated with regard to money.

It is not the purpose of this article to deal with the morality of Clubs thus practically buying positions for themselves, but at the time these transactions were most adversely criticised.

When the Manchester City players were suspended and prohibited from taking further part in the game of that Club, substantial sums were secured in transfer fees, but in turn the Manchester people had themselves to go to the market, and on the whole, whatever may be thought of the system of buying and selling of players, it cannot but be recognised that many poor Clubs, having within them the prescience to pick up and develop the best class of players, have greatly profited by the system, as against those clubs leaving skill and forethought out of the question and merely trusting to the power of the purse.
(Source: Aberdeen People’s Journal: September 21, 1907)

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