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.

What could have been done when Wells decided to join Huddersfield Town?

“Nahki Wells only wanted to join Huddersfield Town” – Bradford City joint chairman Mark Lawn told local radio with the inference being that once the striker who departed Valley Parade for the our West Yorkshire rivals for a fee described as a snip all the Bantams could do was arrange a fee which could aptly be described as “what the buyer wanted to pay”

Lawn’s interview suggested an honesty which won many people over although while no one doubts the veracity that he could do nothing to stop the striker leaving for a fee which was half of what Julian Rhodes had said he wanted for the player but a month before the question – for me at least – is not how little could Lawn do but what could someone else have done?

What can you do when a player decides he wants to leave?

John Henry is about as far away from Mark Lawn as one could hope to find. Urbane, American and successful Henry’s level of fame as Boston Red Sox owner is such that he is able to go to the movies to watch someone playing him (in the film Moneyball) or he can turn on Channel Five’s Being Liverpool and see himself in charge of the Merseyside football club he bought in 2011.

In the August of 2013 Henry faced a situation not dissimilar to the one City faced with Nahki Wells and perhaps because of his being an outsider he did not buy into the “what can you do” wisdom that Lawn speaks.

When Arsenal decided they wanted Luis Suarez to give them the advantage in pushing for the fourth placed spot which Henry wants for Liverpool the American owner said no. Henry – a devotee of Sabrenomics – concluded that because Arsenal were a rival for that position, and because Suarez would afford Arsenal a competitive advantage over Liverpool, he would not be allowed to join the Gunners for any price.

And so Suarez – who like Wells had made it clear that he wanted to join a named, specific club – was sent to train with the juniors. The risk of a sulk and the idea that you cannot keep an unhappy player was challenged. Henry and his manager Brendan Rodgers waited for other bids and there were none so at the end of the August transfer window – with only a bid that Henry would not consider on the table – Luis Suarez was invited to apologise and return to the fold.

Five months later and he is currently the top scorer in the Premier League and perhaps the player of the season.

But Bradford City are not Liverpool? Can we afford to have a player like Wells on the sidelines? Do we have Liverpool’s strength in depth? I’d argue we could. I’d argue that James Hanson is the most important forward at City and that Wells is our Daniel Sturridge not our Luis Suarez.

Had Wells been told that he could not join Huddersfield Town and that his choice was to either consider a bid from another in the open market or stay at City then on February the first had one not emerged would he really have sat out the rest of this season and next? Or would he, like Suarez, have returned to the fold?

Could City have done that? What would we have to lose? Unless the money for Wells’ is urgently needed – which would be a damning indictment for a club that was at Wembley twice last season – then one fails to see why not? We would have broken the Huddersfield Only monopoly and been able to sell him for something like the price we wanted.

Or we could have sold him to Huddersfield Town for more money. Yohan Cabaye – again having raised excellent reviews for Newcastle United this season – spent most of August in “the wrong frame of mind” to play after a bid from Arsenal of £8m for his services.

Cabaye wanted to leave St James’ Park for London but was told that he would be going nowhere unless the club’s valuation of him was met. Newcastle United said they wanted £20m, the rumour was they would have settled for £16m, but unlike Bradford City they did not let the buying team set the price.

Arsenal were told in no uncertain terms that there was a price to pay and unless they met that price they would not be able to sign the player. Cabaye sulked – or what is termed as a sulk for footballers – and missed August but again when he was faced with months on the sidelines he midfielder came back into the fold. The fans forgive him for his long face and his and Newcastle United’s performances this season have been excellent.

Newcastle United chairman Mike Ashley – much maligned in the North East – and his team decided that they did not have to accept the idea that “player power” decided what they could and could not do. They decided they would exercise what control they had and get either the money they wanted or keep the player.

And why could the same approach not have been taken about Nahki Wells. Why could Huddersfield Town not been told that unless they were to give the figure which City wanted for the player, rather than the one that they wanted to pay, then Wells would not play for anyone.

Huddersfield are given a stark choice – £3m or don’t have him – and Wells gets to choose between cooling his heels on a Saturday if that money can’t be found or playing football to try attract someone who will pay it. If he chooses cooling his heels then so be it but very few footballers decide that they have 18 months of their career to spare and if there was anyone the fans could forgive it would be a goalscorer.

Again one wonders what would have stopped Bradford City doing that? The need to do business early in the market is a short term concern about trying to reignite a promotion push which is fading while the attempt to get twice as much for a player fuels the long term prosperity of the club. Is getting a player in this season really better than another £1.5m in the bank? That is the entire wage budget for our promotion season.

Which is not to say that either of those approaches were guaranteed to work but neither represent the meek surrender which City showed when allowing Wells and Huddersfield Town to decide the future of Bradford City.

I don’t think there is any dishonesty when people say “what could the board do when Wells had decided he wanted to join Huddersfield?” but that is different from “what could have been done?”

Sadly the answer to that last question is “anything, which would have been better than nothing”.

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