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.

The development squad and a plan to improve the club

Blame it on Silvio Berlusconi. Back in the early 1990s the man who would bring the term bunga bunga into common usage was the flamboyant chairman of an AC Milan team which sported Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard as the allowed three non-Italian players.

UEFA and Serie A rules mandated that a club could only have three non-Italians and so the practice was that the Lira went to a chosen trio of outsiders. Clubs were defined by the foreign players they had and Milan were the Dutchmen, across the City Inter were German with Jürgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthäus and Andreas Brehme. It was a simpler time to watch football, and to be Silvio Berlusconi.

The future Italian PM announced though that Milan would be signing three more World Class non-Italians and – starting with the unfortunate Gianluigi Lentini – eight more Italians to create a second team which would play in European competition in the week. The one would be fresh for the weekend, the other fresh for midweek, and players would swap between the two teams.

And so modern squad football was born.

Bradford City’s own Phil Babb was a part of the emergence of the squad in the English game. in 1994 Babb and John Scales joined a Liverpool side managed by Roy Evans who already had the beloved Neil Ruddock at the heart of the back four and the maths did not match. Was Ruddock for the chop? Would Babb be out at left back (or up front, as he was at City)? What was Evans doing signing more than two top quality central defenders?

“Moving to a back three and wing backs” turned out to be the answer to the question poised by the question itself was illustrative. Growing up in the eighties my brother and myself could name the one to eleven of every team in Division One and that one to eleven was set in stone, seemingly unaffected as today’s line ups are by loss of form, injury and failing super-injunctions.

A team like Liverpool seemingly had no need for a spare defender – one sub, four four two and all – but soon the idea verbalised by Berlusconi would make the sort of questions that Evans face irrelevant. Within two years and in the run up to Euro ’96 Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United were signing Tino Asprilla when they already had Les Ferdinand, Andy Cole, Peter Beardsley, Alan Shearer, Super Mac, Wor Jackie Milburn et al.

In 1981 Aston Villa won the League using only fourteen players all season. The modern football squad demands eighteen per match and a host of others to insure that even the League Two player is not required to take the field with the sort of injury which was played through in earlier eras after which players retired at thirty, and could not walk.

So we have a situation where Manchester City have over forty players in their first team squad as an extreme example and most teams could put out something approaching Berlusconi’s two teams a week. If you are on the edges of one of those huge squad – and Bradford City’s is 21 strong at current assessment – then you seem a long way from the first team. Unless you get to do something special from the bench you are a long way from the first team.

So while the dozen and some who regularly feature in the first team focus on getting from game to game the players on the edges – especially the younger ones – should be focusing on improvement. Enter the development squad.

It seems to have come from Archie Christie who came to Bradford with John Still when the Bantams interviewed the entire Dagenham and Redbridge backroom staff for roles at Valley Parade. Something had powered the Essex club’s rise from non-league compound to League One club and it seems that Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes believe that Christie is it.

Chief scout and he brings in some young lads from Falkirk which seems a sensible move but not an unexpected one but as Head of Football Development Christie’s Development Squad offers something new.

Wayne Allison approves and has been recruited to coach “The Developments” as they shall be hamfistedly dubbed with his aim on taking players who have signed professional contracts after their two year apprenticeships but are not in the first team picture week in week out, or who are falling in the limbo between young player and first teamer, and concentrate on improving them as players over getting them ready for matches as the first team squad do.

Squad sizes have increased massively in the last fifteen years, but the focus of training is on preparing a group of players for the next game leaving those who play ready, and those who do not having wasted that time. The Development Squad offers a chance to make better use of those players allowing the first team to focus on preparation, and the fringe on improvement.

Of course the idea could be a failure. Dag & Red’s success might be down to something else entirely, Christie’s ideas might not be relocatable, it all just might not work but for once Bradford City have come up with a plan to improve the quality of the footballers at the club rather than trying the tried and failed method of trying to buy in promotions or assemble squads on a season by season basis.

A plan on improving footballers is a plan to improve the football club and, in effect, the first time since the Premier League that Bradford City have had a plan to improve the club that might work.

Alan and Stuart

They were 99.8 miles apart and the level of volume was different, but last Saturday Newcastle United’s Alan Shearer and Bradford City’s Stuart McCall received the same reception.

Alan had just walked into the St James Park arena he knows so well and is still revered for his heroics in – 206 goals in 404 appearances in a black and white shirt – at the start of a new chapter. Having retired to the comfort of the Match of the Day studio, he is back as caretaker manager with eight games to save his club from relegation. A pack of photographers surround him as a capacity crowd applaud and chant his name.

Stuart has just completed what has become a familiar walk from the dressing room to the dugout in the Valley Parade arena he knows so well and is still revered for his heroics in – 45 goals, but so much more in his 395 appearances spanning two spells in the Claret and Amber – for game 95 of a fledgling managerial career. Under pressure and increasingly unloved by some, the City boss nevertheless receives a great ovation from most home supporters ahead of a game his team must not lose to remain in the promotion hunt.

Alan was confirmed as caretaker boss on April Fools Day but the position of his club is no joke. A pitiful six wins all season has left Newcastle staring the unthinkable, the Championship, in the face. Only five seasons ago they’d narrowly missed out on a Champions League spot for a second successive season, after finishing fifth. Shortly after they sacked manager Sir Bobby Robson, then quickly went through Graeme Souness, Glen Roeder, Sam Alladyce and Kevin Keegan. Now boss Joe Kinnear isn’t well enough to salvage the mess and the under-performing club come under the control of one of its greatest performing players.

Stuart was confirmed as City boss in the summer of 2007 and how the club needed him. Since Paul Jewell was allowed to walk away in 2000, with City in the Premiership, the club has gone through Chris Hutchings, Jim Jefferies, Nicky Law, Bryan Robson, Colin Todd and caretaker David Wetherall, slumping to three relegations in six seasons. “We need some passion,” was the cry, and there was Stuart learning the ropes with Neil Warnock down in Sheffield, ready to go it alone.

Alan is what’s needed to save the club, is the general feeling of Newcastle fans scratching their heads at how a squad with the likes of Michael Owen, Damien Duff, Obafemi Martins, Steven Taylor and Kevin Nolan are in such a mess in the first place. One supporter sums it up by saying of Alan, “if he can’t inject some passion into these players, no one can” and most people can relate to times when their team is in such a mess that matters such as tactics, picking the right players and confidence don’t matter – you just want to see passion displayed. Passion can lift Newcastle out of relegation, surely?

Stuart set about rebuilding his beloved Bradford City and instilling passion but, very quickly into his first season, the pledge to deliver promotion looked rash and the team were underperforming. How can a legend like Stuart tolerate seeing his team thrashed 3-0 at home to Accrington? How can he pick less than committed players like Omar Daley? Eventually Stuart turns it round but there’s too much ground to make up and it quickly becomes a case of building for the next season.

Alan couldn’t have picked a worse opposition team for his managerial debut. Chelsea are still fighting for the title and second half strikes from Frank Lampard and Florent Malouda ensure there is no fairy tale start in the hot seat. Other results have not been kind and the situation is becoming ever desperate. Sections of the media are smug and pour scorn over supporters’ hopes that inspired words from their hero was all that was missing. One such journalist writes, “That’s the problem with Messiahs, things tend to get messy for them pretty quickly and, in this context, passion is a loaded word.” Does passion cloud judgement? Is passion a poor substitute for managerial ability?

Stuart appears to be getting it right second time round, with a blistering start to the season giving way to some gritted determination which keeps City in the automatic promotion into February. But it suddenly all goes wrong again and rising anger from some prompts Stuart into re-thinking his future and vowing to quit if a play off position isn’t achieved this season. “That’s the problem with Stuart, he’s not a manager,” becomes an oft-used phrase, in between loud booing and abuse at his players. Numerous arguments are started with the words, “he may be a legend, but…” Is passion a poor substitute for managerial ability?

Alan probably knew his Newcastle would lose to Chelsea and next week’s game at Stoke is now massive. It’s unthinkable that Newcastle could lose that one, maybe the one after that too. Three points is the gap to make up, but can a team which has been wretched all season be turned round by passionate words from the legend? Does he have the managerial ability? Suddenly the dream managerial appointment feels almost nightmarish. Surely Alan – 206 goals in 404 appearances – isn’t going to be man who drags his club into the Championship, is he?

Stuart is applauded as he walks to the dug out against Brentford because, even with his team on the brink of failure and facing another season in a division everybody hates, the vast majority are still desperate for him to stay on, still desperate for him to succeed. No amount of name calling behind an online alias can distort the fact many others still believe. That 45 goals but so much more in his 395 appearances means he is a leader we should not discard so readily. That if the club is going to be plotting for promotion to League One again during this summer, its better it is still Stuart doing it. City don’t play great against Brentford, but, despite the lack of quality, they improbably equalise in injury time. Credit to perseverance and also credit to Stuart for effective substitutions that changed the tide back in City’s favour. Would he be celebrating passionately on the touchline without some managerial ability?

Alan might be back on the Match of the Day couch next season, but Newcastle may no longer be appearing on it. Yet what if the great escape is pulled off? What if Shearer can get the passion back and get the results? How much more of a legend will he become to the Toon Army? And what chance would Joe Kinnear have of re-claiming his job with the inevitable pressure to offer Alan the permanent position? Not even Mike Ashley is that stupid.

Stuart might be out of work this summer, but what if Peter Thorne’s stoppage time equaliser is the turning point? What if the top seven spot is achieved? What if in seven weeks City’s players and management are dancing around Wembley with 30,000 City fans chanting Stuart’s name? No one would be calling for him to go then. Passion would be back in vogue.

Alan would learn in time that fans who, at this moment believe he can do no wrong, will eventually be compiling lists of why he doesn’t have a clue and why he needs to go. He will have to explain why a player who doesn’t look interested to the fans is a key part of his side. He will sign strikers not fit to lace his boots and face questions over his judgement. 206 goals in 404 games will in time be used against him. He may be a legend, but…

Stuart knows all of this and more, but is learning to have broad shoulders and that some things need taking with a pinch of salt. That for every fan pleased he’s picked one player, there are others scratching their heads and how ultimately this should not matter. He will know that, as he keeps building up the club in front of and behind the scenes. Working tirelessly to return the club to the sort of position it enjoyed when he, with his 45 goals but so much more in his 395 appearances, was playing such a big part of.

Alan and Stuart both have much resting on their shoulders during the season’s final weeks and there is much in common with the clubs they oversee. Both have been in the decline. Both have guilty of looking at the here and now and forgetting the bigger picture. Both have too often believed the answer to the problem is to bring in another manager.

Alan is still able to walk on the River Tyne water in Newcastle fans’ eyes, but Stuart’s untouchable status has long disappeared. Some fans argue his lack of experience has held back the club, though recent history hardly suggests a different manager would have done a better job in rescuing the sinking ship. Maybe the fact City are doing more than tredding water now is something Stuart deserves credit for. The passion to do more than a good job, but do a good job for his club; the increased experience to know what’s needed to deliver success, using his passion in the right way.

Whatever Alan and Stuart can deliver in these next few weeks, their commitment, work rate and desire to deliver a better future for their clubs will not be questioned. Not to save their bacon, not to look like heroes, but because they care deeply. Success and failure will mean more to them because of who it is for.

Perhaps the biggest lesson their employers and supporters could learn is where hiring and firing has got them and what they would lose if Alan and Stuart aren’t still in their respective dugouts come August.