English Premier League: Now for the main course as all roads lead to, er, Norwich in the chicken-lickin' world of the £100m clause
The area known as “The Ferry” briefly enjoyed this status again on Wednesday night. More specifically, one fortunate restaurant did. Nowhere else can there have been more millionaires gathered in such a small space.
The neighbourhood’s value suddenly shot up as a busload of Manchester United players were dropped off outside one Brook Street eatery. Millions and millions of pounds’ worth of Premier League footballers converged on Forgan’s restaurant after they were given a night off from their training camp at St Andrews University. Among them was £89m man Paul Pogba – or “Pogba, Pogba!” as he was referred to by one excitable young Dundonian bystander in a video that did the rounds on social media.
You’ll have digested what the lads had to eat by now. Their choices were leaked on the internet, including Scott McTominay’s chicken tempura followed by, er, chicken supreme and Juan Mata’s typically sophisticated side order of halloumi chips. Nutritionists might not have been completely on board with all the choices but then unlike in Scotland, where football is already up and running, these players are not yet back playing in earnest. That changes this week when what some would contend is the main course is served up. The English Premier League – or EPL as it's otherwise known - is back. It’s (big) business as usual.
Actually, this is not strictly true. It’s even bigger business than usual. And it could be set to grow bigger as Lionel Messi ponders his options. It is sixty years since Johnny Haynes became the first footballer to earn £100 a week following the abolition of the maximum wage. No one bats an eyelid these days at weekly wages of £100,000. Now we have the dawn of the £100m player.
There was a time when Scotland broke British transfer records. It was not simply a case of a Scot being bought by an English club from a Scottish club either. Rather, it was a transfer between two Scottish clubs. When Duncan Ferguson moved between Dundee United and Rangers, admittedly 28 years ago, he did so for a British record fee of £4m – about the price of a row of Broughty Ferry townhouses. Roy Keane moved from Nottingham Forest to Manchester United for £3.75m days earlier.
Now the figures are astronomical. Does anything sum up it better than Aston Villa inserting a £100m clause in the new contract Jack Grealish signed last summer in the charmingly naive expectation that this would be enough to frighten off suitors.
“We set the value at a level we hoped would not be met,” said Christian Purslow, the club’s chief executive in a well-received video where he explained the background to what is, though only at the time of writing, British football’s biggest-ever transfer. Rather than frighten suitors away, it presented them, or at least Manchester City, with a new barrier to smash through. It makes the £1m transfer of Trevor Francis in 1979 from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest, which smashed the financial glass-ceiling, seem like chicken feed now.
It’s sobering to realise just how far behind Scotland have been left but as last weekend proved, money is not everything. The opening weekend of the Scottish league season provided more than enough entertainment to keep the patrons happy.
England is a different ball game of course. Brentford, the side the bookies believe are favourites to go straight back down to the Championship, have just paid Celtic over £13m for centre-half Kristoffer Ajer. It is the third highest fee received by a Scottish club - in each case Celtic - after Kieran Tierney and Moussa Dembele.
Tierney will join his old Celtic teammate in helping to kick off the Premier League season when Arsenal travel to face the newly promoted side at the Brentford Community Stadium on Friday night. How long will this new ground’s name remain refreshingly unspoiled by the absence of a sponsor? Not very long one wagers.
Some will be put off by all this money swishing around, this soulless chatter about finishing not necessarily as champions, but “in the top four”. Others cannot afford to be, among them Steve Clarke.
The English top flight is where the Scotland manager would spend every weekend if he could. He knows - and the Euros would back this up - that his side are still some way short of the quality required to make an impact at international level. The more players that are playing at this rarefied level, the better.
As it stands, he’s not too badly off. This is despite not just one, but two of his strikers slipping through the trap door following Sheffield United’s relegation last season. Oliver Burke and Oli McBurnie began their league campaign in the Championship with The Blades this weekend. After missing out on this summer’s Euros squad, the former through lack of game time and the latter because of injury, they will do well to return to the fold in time for the resumption of World Cup qualifying next month.
Because that’s the thing. Clarke has been counting down the days to the belated start of the Premier League season as he frets over players’ match fitness ahead of 1 September, when Scotland face Euro 2020 semi-finalists Denmark in the first game of a triple-header.
The likes of McTominay, Tierney and skipper Andy Robertson will only have played three league games before then. Clarke might have his eye on less well-established names. Reports from Selhurst Park indicate new Crystal Palace manager Patrick Viera is ready to hand 19-year-old Scott Banks a significant amount of game-time. The former Dundee United midfielder scored in consecutive pre-season friendlies against Charlton Athletic and Reading and could feature when Palace visit Chelsea on Saturday.
If things had been different, there might have been the prospect of a Banks v Billy Gilmour midfield contest at Stamford Bridge. It seems obvious where Clarke will plan to go when he scans the fixtures list ahead of the opening weekend.
Norwich might be a devil of a place to get to but he will make the effort now the on-loan Gilmour has joined Grant Hanley there and with Robertson’s Liverpool due to visit Carrow Road on Saturday evening.
Gilmour has already distinguished himself in a canary yellow jersey after a clip of his slide rule pass to set up a goal in a friendly against Gillingham went viral last week.
In truth, it was a rather straightforward delivery, the kind which we hope to see him perform on each and every outing in a Scotland shirt. But as we know, or at least have been programmed to believe, everything is bigger and better in the EPL.
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