Strikers / Trajectory

There are many reasons, dear reader, as to why Bradford City are struggling to sign a striker following a two goalless draws one of which resulted in a penalty shoot out defeat to Accrington Stanley and what I am going to do is add a reason to the list.

Understand that I’m suggesting that this is a part of a nexus of a causal events that are conspiring to bring about an outcome and not the single and sole reason for Stuart McCall’s struggle to get a number nine who can put the ball in the onion bag.

It has to do with Japan, Andy Cooke, and West Bromwich in Birmingham.

1996

There is a temptation for anyone recalling the past to see it as halcyon. I am forty three years old next week and that means I’m old enough – just about – to remember that twenty years ago people were saying that things where better twenty years ago and to have lived through both time periods.

But I do recall that the character of football in 1996 differed from the current game in many ways but specifically in this one: Player used to decline.

Which is to say that one could watch a player on Match of the Day in the First Division for a few years of his career and when he lost a yard of pace or a touch of sharpness one could be sure that one would be seeing him at a lower league ground soon.

It was the natural order of things. Bradford City – like many clubs – number some players who declined from the top league to the grace of a good career lower down amongst their iconic figures. The top flight was done with Peter Beagrie when he came to Valley Parade, it was done with Trevor Cherry, it was done with Roy McFarland.

There was a steady stream of players who would have had a good career at the top level and would take a few stop offs down the leagues before they went to the job as a landlord/raconteur at some local boozer back near the ground where they were most fondly remembered.

2007

When Andy Cooke signed for Bradford City under Colin Todd he joined the club for a Korean side having had a few months in the Far East and got home sick. Cooke was a decent enough worker although he would not have been an answer to anyone’s goalscoring problems but he did show an interesting route a football could take.

Way batter yourself around Bristol Rover and Burton when Busan I’Cons will give you a year living somewhere exotic. Cooke was last seen playing for Market Drayton Town and one wonders if he might have thought that Busan to Bradford was not the best move he ever made.

Jay Bothroyd came through the Arsenal youth system and played for Coventry City in the top division and as he declined it became clear his career was a slow decline. Bothroyd handled that decline differently to most and cut a path that is increasingly common.

When QPR had done with him and the contracts on the table would have seen him schlepping around League One and Two he upped sticks and moved on to Thailand and Muangthong United and then to Júbilo Iwata in J2. He was J2 top scorer and got a promotion to J1.

Rather than opting to struggle in League One and Two Bothroyd went to someone else’s top flight. A modern football does not need the last pay day as was the mark of many a footballer. They can go where they going is good?

Or not.

2014

Rickie Lambert got his dream move to his boyhood club Liverpool and he got to play for England in what was an unexpected Indian Summer to his career aged 32. Liverpool moved him on to West Brom a year later and if Lambert was not already set up for life following his Bristol Rovers and Southampton career he was after a year going into an out of Anfield.

Lambert is currently at West Brom but played only eighteen games last season scoring once. I’d suggest that he is the type of player who twenty years ago would have been keen to not run down his contract at The Hawthornes and see what happened after knowing he had the comfort of a near limitless financial cushion but would have been telling his manager today that he wanted to find a club lower down to give him a three year deal to secure him a decent future.

Lambert is atypical in the Premier League in having played in the lower divisions of English football. I do not wish to cast aspersions on Lambert’s Baggy team mate José Salomón Rondón but there seems to be no future in which Rondón joined Walsall after four good years at Albion but accepting his yard of pace has gone.

Indeed it seems that when a Premier League player begins to decline rather than accepting a deterioration in contract terms lower down the league they head for the money of China, or Dubai, or somewhere else that allows you to fail upwards.

2016

It is not the sole reason that Stuart McCall struggles to find a striker but football – at the moment – has a supply problem. Players do not have the career trajectories they once had and do not end up coming to a Valley Parade aged thirty plus looking for a solid three year deal to secure their futures.

The scarcity of that sort of player makes other good strikers – the Rickie Lamberts on the way up – harder to come by and McCall, like many managers, is looking for scraps.

On the value of footballers

When Nahki Wells left Bradford City there was a suggestion that the fee the club got for the player was too little. Counter to that was the idea that the amount was correct and the reason it was correct was because in economic terms a thing is worth what someone will pay for it.

This is Economics 101. You learn it on the same day that you learn the supply and demand rules which lead to City who have a large supply of seats increasing demand by lowering price. All that something is worth is what someone will pay for it and so Wells was worth £1.3m. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

At the time of Wells’ exit I discussed Arsenal’s attempt to buy Yohan Cabaye from Newcastle United. Cabaye has been subject of another bid – £14/£15m from Paris SG – but still Newcastle United hold out for a price they have concluded Cabaye is worth.

Why? If a thing is worth what someone will pay for it then they have arrived at his value. Paris will pay £14m ergo that is what he is worth.

Of course not.

If that were true the would be worth both the original bid and the new one. One might conclude that must be something more to Economics than “its worth what someone will pay for it” and there is, and it is the ability of the seller to resist factoring into the equation.

If the seller is not motivated then the price of anything can – and in practice does – increase. In the case of Cabaye unless Newcastle United get what they feel is the price they want then they are not motivated to sell.

“The thing is worth what someone will accept that someone will pay for it” which raises question about the first part of the statement: “the thing” and what it is.

What is Yohan Cabaye? Or what is Juan Mata? What is Marouane Fellaini? What is Mesut Özil? Are they discreet economic entities? When one talks about footballer value in economic terms one must have a field of comparison otherwise one is simply saying Juan Mata is worth one Juan Mata.

Are these four footballers the same thing in economic terms then? All are top Premier League midfielders with degrees of international experience. The spread on bids on them this season ranges £8m to £40m. If we accept the fairly simple premise that these four players represent broadly the same “thing” then perhaps we have an answer as to why Newcastle United can turn down Paris’ bid for Cabaye.

If Cabaye is a Premier League midfielder, and if a Premier League midfielder costs between £28m and £40m then they are right to value their player within that spread with – one might suggest – how close they can get to the top end of those valuations being a reflection of their negotiation abilities and position.

The better Joe Kinnear does the closer Cabaye’s price is to £40m.

So we revise our statement to “a thing which is the member of a group is worth what someone will accept that someone else will pay for members of that group.”

Which is a workable definition we can apply to other transfer fees.

Let’s take – by way of example – the centre forwards of the early Premier League era who create a group.

Chris Sutton joined Blackburn Rovers for £5m. Les Ferdinand cost both Newcastle United (again, they make a lot of transfers) and Spurs £6m. Andy Cole cost Manchester United £7m. Alan Shearer left Blackburn Rovers turning down Manchester United for £15m and Dwight Yorke when he exited Aston Villa to join Manchester United for £16.1m.

If we pick our way through these moves they fit into that definition. Some were good deals and some were not. Most would accept that Blackburn Rovers got a lot of money for Shearer, Newcastle ended up letting two England centre forwards leave and replacing them with one who was arguably better but not so on the granularity we are applying. Manchester United paid over twice as much for Yorke as they did for Cole who could not be said to be significantly better and so perhaps one was a good deal or the other a bad one.

All these transfers in the space of a few years (in which we saw market inflation) and give us a spread of £5m – £16.1m. What was the value of a centre forward in the early Premier League era? If you did business well and sold to motivated buyers it was around £15m. If you ended up in a position where you needed to sell it was less than half that £15m. If you had Les Ferdinand it was £6m.

Which – returning to the question in hand – leads us to ask if the fee Bradford City got for Wells was correct and the reason it was correct was because what someone will pay for him. I would suggest that it was not correct for that reason, although that it was not incorrect.

A look at a list of players transferred from League One shows us a spread of values for players sold from League One clubs to teams in the divisions above.

The list goes from Fabian Delph costing £8.4m down. It includes Andy Gray being sold for £1.6m in 2010 which one might say is an example of a club paying far too much and Rickie Lambert’s £1.1m move from Bristol Rovers which does not look like great business now.

Change the same list to strikers only and one gets a spread from Dwight Gayle at £4.7m down. Wells is equal on this list of Andy Gray’s move five years ago. We extend the spread to £1.1m (Lambert) which is the first internal League One move rather than a move up. That point is arbitrary but appropriate and gives us a spread of values for League One strikers moving up the leagues of £1.1m to £4.7m.

That is the marketplace that City were selling into. That is the value of what Bradford City were selling. Of those 22 players in that marketplace Wells nestles right in the middle being worth an median average.

That is if one accepts that grouping of the market. One might say that one could exclude players who went to the Premier League and point to Nick Maynard’s £3m move to Bristol City as the high figure. I believe that most of the groupings one could make tell the same story.

And that story is that City did averagely with the value of Wells in the marketplace. Whomever was negotiating the deal with Huddersfield Town (and I could not say who was involved on either side) could be said to have performed adequately.

We might long for the negotiation skills that they have at Peterborough United or Crewe Alexandra who are able to sell players who have objectively achieved less than Wells for much, much more money but we do not.

And it is at this point where the club and supporters find a way to learn and move on from the sale of Nahki Wells. Wells and his City team mates over-performed last season and the club benefited more than could have been expected from that. It was an example of what can happen when a high performance culture is fostered.

The sale of Wells represents a return to adequate performance.

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