AS THE old saying goes there are lies, damned lies … and nonsense factoids which pop up in the bottom left-hand corner of our TV screens, telling us how far a footballer has run.
I’ve always smelled a rat regarding this stat, suspecting it was forced on broadcasters by Brand Beckham to buttress the boy David’s legend when he could no longer reach the opposition byline and so made himself look busy further back. And if you really want to know, I’m unimpressed by statistics generally.
But I heard a great one last week. When Real Madrid splashed £63 million on James Rodriguez, it pushed the total spend on their forward line to a whomping £229m. Here comes the stat, at least the first part: £229 million is more than Ajax have spent in their 114-year history. And here’s the poignant Scottish bit: that’s more than all of our clubs have ever stumped up for players, put together.
Think about it for a moment: that’s absolutely everyone. Everyone who’s ever cost a fee. Billy Steel, who cost £22,500, a Scottish record in 1950, when Dundee brought him back from Derby County – and if you’re too young to remember Steel, here’s the great pressbox scribe Hugh Taylor: “Iron physique, a puma’s pounce, eternal grace, a choirboy’s face that masked a devouring, often ruthless determination to achieve football perfection – and a caustic tongue.” Pat Quinn who finally broke that record in 1963 when Hibernian paid Blackpool £30,000 for him, just in time for a Manfred Mann hit to be chanted in his honour. And all those £30,000 guys who Jock Stein bought – Willie Wallace, Harry Hood, Tom Callaghan, etc.
Then there was Alex Ferguson, Dunfermline to Rangers for £65,000. That worked out at £32,500 per jaggy elbow which in 1967 was another record.
Fergie was closely followed into Ibrox by Colin Stein – lethal elbows, lethal knees, lethal everything – and Crazy Horse fairly shot along the M8 from Hibs to finally take Scotland into the six-figure realm. All the deals involving the itinerant net-bulger Joe McBride wouldn’t even buy one of Rodriguez’s nail-clippings but Joe-Joe-Super-Joe repaid all those who hired him with thumping goals.
The best £12,000 I’ve ever seen spent? Probably Alan Gordon’s switch from Dundee United to Hibs. And maybe Alex Edwards to Easter Road from Dunfermline was the best £13,000. For the fermenting of the great Aberdeen team, local boys came good but there were key buys including Steve Archibald (£20,000 from Clyde) and Gordon Strachan (£40,000 from Dundee). The latter deal also featured Jim Shirra going the other way and we mustn’t forget those with walk-on parts in this epic saga of modest fitba transaction, allowing them to be quoted on the same page as a World Cup wonderboy.
We certainly won’t forget the £1.5m required for the most incendiary Scottish player-unveiling there’s ever been, sparking actual bonfires of scarves and season tickets – Mo Johnston’s midnight flit to Rangers. Still we tally up the transfers, hoping to inch our way to a respectable sum, and it’s true that Graeme Souness at Ibrox spent some serious money – £11m in three years.
In the seasons that followed, with the Old Firm in particular growing fat on TV revenues, the stakes were upped. There were bargains to be had – £650,000 could buy you a future immortal such as Henrik Larsson – but also Brattbakks, Harald of that ilk coming in at £2m. Like demented prog-rock bands competing for the most synthesisers, the longest trucks and the most arduous drum solos, the Old Firm indulged in a game of Big, Bigger, Biggest. You couldn’t opt out; you had to go with the flow. Rangers went with Tore Andre Flo and he cost them a still-gobsmacking £12m from Chelsea. If Celtic and Rangers fans ever sit down together for some good-natured winding-up about their clubs’ strangest days in the transfer market, then Brattbakk and Flo would be uppermost. But Peter van Vossen and Wayne Biggins – the latter costing a relatively modest £100,000 but many Celtic fans believing Christopher Biggins would have been a better option – couldn’t be far behind them.
Trying in vain to keep up with the Old Firm, the rest of our top division blew too much money on players with too many vowels in their names and too many holes in their CVs. Then some clubs spent cash they simply didn’t have, at a cost to the game’s general wellbeing that we’re still paying. Add them all up. Add the authorised prices of thousands more footballers, good and true, that I simply don’t have room to mention here. Add the bungs. Add the bags of potatoes that may – I stress “may”, please no one sue – have helped clinch the signature of a kid from somewhere in the sticks where old-timers chewing grass and leaning on gates marked him down for greatness. Add the number you first thought of, but we still can’t top £229m.
But do you know what? I don’t care. I’m not remotely self-conscious about the smallness and only the occasional madness of our game, compared with other money-drenched leagues. The English Premier can be exciting, as it should be given the global superstars on display. But we can be spoiled by it, just like Yaya Toure when he whinged about his club forgetting his birthday. Not all the games are solid-gold classics either and the decline of the England national team is almost entirely down to the league and the lack of opportunity for homegrown players.
James Rodriguez had a terrific World Cup and now, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, he’s part of this Scot-spend-trumping triumvirate at Madrid. Good luck to him, he’s a bonnie talent, but I’m not sure this is the best move he could make. Real don’t buy because they need, they splash because they can. They’re collecting galacticos again and the last time they did that – Zinadine Zidane, Luis Figo, Beckham, which is where we came in – it was an expensive failure. You really can have too much of a good thing.
I certainly don’t want Rodriguez, when it’s all over, to reflect on his career thus: “Well, I was part of the most expensive attack in football. More expensive than all that was ever spent by Scottish clubs, where outwith the Old Firm no transfer fee changed hands for ages, not unless you count my namesake Hah-mes Collins, who Hibs fans quickly forgot in any case. But, you know, I wasn’t really happy.”
Great stat all the same – one of the best.