Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Stick or Twist?

Almost two thirds of our way through the mythical January transfer window and most clubs have kept their powder dry, but in the next 10 days teams at the top, and arguably more importantly, teams at the bottom, must decide whether to take that big gamble - spend money now…or end up paying later 

Speculate to accumulate, or gambling put another way, is attempting to make money (or build success) by investing big despite the inherent risks involved. It’s rolling the dice and playing the pros of success against the cons of financial meltdown. It’s an all or nothing game that football clubs deliberate on, arguably never more than during January when they have that one manic month in the middle of a gruelling season to decide whether to spend their money or play it safe; do they stick, or do they twist?

Having reached the campaigns half way mark, the true challenge facing each club, be it at the top or bottom, has more than likely been revealed. The month of January, when the transfer window is flung wide open allows clubs to make a crucial decision on just what level of risk they dare take on in order for them to achieve what they need.

In the condensed world of this 2013/14 Premier League, where the races at the top and bottom are, for once, equally wide open, most have something to play for and almost all will be looking to make investments for improvement. It’s usually those scrapping away, precariously perched on that trapdoor to the oblivion of potential trips to Yeovil and Bournemouth that have the most to gain, but then conversely, the most to lose. For while teams at the top and challenging for trophies may look to bring in that extra little ingredient or the cherry to top the icing, those struggling are looking for things altogether more basic like eggs and flour in their desire for a brand new cake.

If things are going well, the old adage applies: ‘if it ain't broke, why fix it?' It may seem obvious, but chances are if you’re in a position to be challenging for titles then your team is probably, in the main, pretty decent, and you won’t have to worry about sniffing around Carlton Cole or Kenwyne Jones. Thus little, if any, additions it could be argued are imperative. Indeed sometimes the gamble for those at the top is whether a new signing will unbalance a side, upset the system or wreak havoc in a harmonious dressing room. English football like’s a tale of a Rodney Marsh or Faustino Asprilla, signings to put the seal on a title but that ended up, albeit perhaps more in folklore than reality, as a catalyst for a club spectacularly falling away. So while those at the top may think there is an inherent wisdom at choosing to ‘stick' those front runners may also care to heed the warning that those that tend to be happy to standstill risk the chance of being overtaken in the home straight.

Arsenal are right in the middle of that catch 22 situation of whether to hit the January sales or batten down the hatches. This season they are serious title contenders rather than pretenders as they’ve been for much of the last several years, but despite them being top of the league as we come to the end of January, and currently benefitting from goals from a variety of sources, this becomes a defining moment where they could seize the initiative to hold off the bigger and more powerful squads of Manchester City and Chelsea or risk over egging the pudding and throwing money down the drain.

Those in the hell of the relegation zone and the purgatory currently extending up to 11th place in the Premier League are the ones most seriously contemplating the mad dash to the transfer window cash and carry however. These are the teams taking the ultimate gamble; risk spending big money on what you can get hold of because you can't afford to contemplate going down... or not spending the money because you can't afford to contemplate the pitfalls of spending money and then going down. In many ways, you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

How many are in that position, stuffed wallet in hand, heading to the roulette wheel? In a way it doesn’t matter how much money you actually have; more times than not it’s the game of bluff to see if you can risk what you don’t have to achieve what you need. The stakes for survival are so astronomically high. For many clubs relegation wouldn’t just be a mild inconvenience, it’s simply not an option. To fall from the cash-laden waters of the Premier League and into the murky depths below, you risk being dragged under and scattered on rocks titled Birmingham City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Bolton. The prospect of relegation brings unwelcome words like ‘administration’, ‘bankruptcy’ and ‘Leeds United’. Bigger levels of cash coming into the game has meant bigger fees and bigger wages, but with that unquestionably, bigger risks.

It’s why people will spend, or indeed beg borrow and steal before the month is out; playing it safe and sensible for the future goes out the window when the here and now means potentially losing out on the big shiny golden pot at the end of Peter Scudamore’s rainbow. Do you dare spend... or risk the drop? Outside of some particularly shell shocked Chelsea fans still coming to terms with an early 2000’s UEFA Cup elimination at the hands of Viking Stavanger and keen watchers of Manchester United reserves in the late 90’s many won’t necessarily recall Erik Nevland. But a number of Fulham fans just might, notwithstanding the fact he didn’t really enjoy a hall of fame career down on the banks of the River Thames.

The 2007/08 relegation battle may not be an eminently memorable one in many (OK all) regards but illustrates a point, and how the role of Nevland but more significantly a transfer window signing can have a seismic impact. Back in January 2008, neither Reading nor Birmingham City significantly strengthened and dipped hands in pockets with the result that both ended up paying the price. In contrast, Fulham under Roy Hodgson brought in several new names and several millions of pounds worth of new ‘talent'. When the season was said and done, how many of the players brought in had actually substantially altered the quality of the side? How many had long term futures? How many retained their market values? In this simple equation however, all of that matters little, the end result was they stayed up; they gambled, and won.

The signing of Erik Nevland was used by Kevin McCarra, at the time Chief Football writer for the Guardian Newspaper as a clear example of the fine line trodden at this time between prudence and extravagance. As McCarra writes; ‘the forward has started only two matches since Roy Hodgson spent £1.8m to buy him from Groningen at the very end of the January 2008 window [however] Fulham fans will still not scorn the signing vehemently. In the closing weeks of the season Nevland came off the bench to hit the clincher in 2–0 wins over Reading and Birmingham. Both teams were relegated, while Fulham preserved their status on goal difference. Nevland made a small yet measurable contribution and that is what managers yearn for.'

It’s why apparently ‘sound business practices' go out the window. Clubs faced with a player out of contract in the summer, when they would be free to leave without their employers receiving a penny would normally be keen to sell but there is often far more at stake than a relatively small transfer fee in the here and there now. Selling a player for the short term gain of 2 to 3 million can mean putting at risk some 60 to 70 million in the summer. It's why January is a seller's market; clubs able to charge eye watering prices to a captive market – supply and demand. As McCarra wrote back in 2009; ‘Options are always limited at this time of the year. The renowned footballers tend to be unavailable.' Any club taking a punt will in all likelihood pay way, way over the odds, the market becoming inflated; desperate men doing desperate things.

QPR went for that gamble of spending big in January 2013, and the result was disastrous. The clear warnings of staking it all on a particularly large and un-athletic horse summed up in two words: ‘Chris’ and ‘Samba’. That’s not to say that the experiences of the men from Loftus Road 12 months ago has dissuaded people this time around; Hull have already thrown their chips onto the table and gone all in, breaking their transfer record twice to bring in a brand new £13 million strike force of Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long. They probably won't be alone.

As former West Ham Chief Executive Scott Duxbury noted a few years back "January is not the best time to be making any significant investments. As we know from experience, it is an inflationary market with teams paying top prices out of necessity." It may defy rationality but to a gambler, logic becomes eclipsed by the rewards on offer. Clubs enter into a game of chance and who dares wins. Survival in the world's richest league is all important. If taking a punt in January and throwing tens of millions of pounds is an all or nothing shot, then so be it, it's the ultimate gamble that clubs cannot afford not to take.

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