Tag Archives: transfer fees

Talent, Ambition and Affordability

An industry underpinned by talent and ambition is an industry that is primed for growth. But for growth to be sustainable, it also has to be affordable.

The football industry is no different. It is an industry in which affordability must anchor talent and ambition.

In Scotland, we have been struggling for decades to build a truly successful and sustainable football industry that is capable of competing at a decent level in Europe.

It is a tricky balancing act between talent, ambition and affordability that we have just not been able to get to grips with. Not so much because we are never going to be able to develop the talent required, and I genuinely believe that; but because we have been conditioned to perceive ‘talent’ through the lens of ‘unaffordability’.

An honest glance backwards will tell us that the few successes we have enjoyed in recent years, Celtic and Rangers reaching UEFA Cup Finals, for example, have been achieved only because of unique or non-repeatable circumstances.

These have included the temporary presence of one or two extraordinarily talented individuals, such as Henrik Larsson and Lubo Moravcik, the likes of whom we are unlikely to see again; or an unaffordable gathering of hard working players who displayed outstanding collective dig, the likes of which will never be allowed to happen again.

The problem is that we have allowed the link between talent, ambition and affordability to become distorted.

It has become distorted in the same way that magic mirrors distort our physical appearance.

But at the fairground, we understand the illusion.

There is absolutely no temptation to run out and buy new clothes we cannot afford to fit our distorted size. Our own clothes already fit perfectly well.

Not so in the case of football.

Our ambition fools us into believing that we need to buy expensive and unaffordable talent in order to be successful, rather than finding a way of maximising what we already have.

We wilfully stretch affordability beyond its natural breaking point.

Not only does this jeopardise the sustainability of our game, it also distorts our perception of what we need to do to become successful and it changes our definition of talent.

And that is the root of the problem.

Think how easy it is to assume that high transfer fees and salaries guarantee superior ability and success in Europe. And think how often this proves not to be the case.

We need to realign ambition with affordability.

And we need to redefine talent in terms of both.

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Quick to glorify, even quicker to vilify

When you think about some of the astronomical transfer fees paid in the past few years for football players who turned out to be distinctly average, it makes you wonder why we have a tendency to set our expectation levels so high on the basis of a few small achievements.

The obvious example that springs to mind would be Andy Carroll. Of course, there are many more examples than this, and it would be unfair to single him out, other than to illustrate the point that in general, we have become far too quick to congratulate, and too quick to criticise, when we realise that we have made a mistake in our judgement.

The problem is not unique to football. As a society, we can be too quick to glorify what appear to be a few good achievements, and too quick to vilify when the expectations we create around these achievements fail to materialise.

(Witness the farce with Mr Fred Goodwin, who was honoured with a knighthood for work that was highly regarded at the time, but which was later annulled when the results of his work turned out to be quite disastrous.)

Now, returning to football, perhaps in some cases we have become so used to mediocrity and banality that we purposely look for signs that certain individuals could have the potential to be better than those we already have in our teams. Quite often they don’t.

It is not uncommon to create expectations around a player’s abilities that are never going to be realised in reality. As a result, we are led to believe that such players should be valued significantly higher than the others around them.

For a short time, this psychological trick gives us hope and helps to justify in our minds the amount of money that is about to be spent.

Perhaps this, combined with media influence and market pressures, explains why we often fall into the trap of overstating what certain football players have achieved, when they appear to have shown some signs of being better than the norm.

There are also examples of players who are actually better than the norm, and who consistently prove this in one context. Yet when you take them out of that context their level of achievement drops significantly. Think about Fernando Torres as a prime example of this.

Many reasons can be given to explain such a loss in form, but the upshot tends to be that our disappointment is greater when our lofty expectations, and the fee we are lured into paying for their services, have been exposed as being embarrassingly high.

Our need to restore the emotional and psychological equilibrium when we are stung in this way often results in the need to publicly criticise and condemn, as well as make a hasty leap off the bandwagon.

In the same way that we sometimes build expectations around players that go well beyond their actual ability and potential, we tend to indulge in a level of public vilification that mirrors the chasm between our unrealistic expectations and a realistically adjusted statement of their original achievements.

And this is harsh. It is too harsh, in fact, on the players, when they have no real control over their stated market value. They may enjoy enormous salaries as a result, but the emotional and psychological pressure they endure with this level of expectation and criticism could be crippling.

Too many clubs fail to carry out proper due diligence when courting players, and investors, sponsors and supporters are always there to feed into this fantasy world and financial merry go round year after year.

This latest transfer window may have closed with little fuss. But when it reopens in the summer, the level of expectation will rise further still, and then fall in equal measure in due course.

The problem is that expectation levels have become so utterly out of synch with reality that they are no longer realistic, and this has become increasingly worse.

Now, when you have a small amount of investors pumping ridiculous amounts of money into a small part of a market that cannot really sustain itself, you create expectations that are rarely achieved. At first, there will be millions of people jumping on the bandwagon and enjoying it whilst it lasts.

But ultimately, this type of market will implode. And just as we witnessed with the collapse of the banking industry that over stretched itself, there will be millions of people queuing up to find someone to blame and vilify.

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