How FFP ruined the transfer window

Mike McGrath
Aston Villa's signing of Mbwana Samatta was one of very few deals to have gone through so far this month - Aston Villa FC

“It’s a graveyard,” is the description from one leading football agent. The market has been open for three weeks but the big-money moves of Fernando Torres, Andy Carroll or Virgil van Dijk are ghosts of transfer windows past.  

The good news for brokers and fans following every potential transfer is that it will get busier, much busier, before next week’s deadline. But this January window has been about snatching a bargain rather than splashing the cash. 

Premier League clubs are finding it difficult to find value, while Championship clubs cannot find available players. And there is no doubt over the main reason behind chairman and chief executives keeping their powder dry: Financial Fair Play. 

Last season Birmingham were deducted nine points for failing to comply with EFL “profitability and sustainability” rules, which asks clubs to keep their losses to £39million over three years. 

“Clubs want loans,” adds an intermediary at one of England’s leading agencies. “Some ask for swaps. It is all down to FFP and not wanting to overspend on fees or wages. Owners want to spend but they cannot do it. 

“It’s like spending £200million on a three-bed semi and not being allowed to do any work on it.” 

Telegraph Sportrevealed this month that Derby were under scrutiny and face a points deduction if found guilty of recording “excess losses”. 

Clubs can also be put under a “soft embargo”, meaning they need dispensation from the league to register players. Sheffield Wednesday were subject to a soft embargo last year but others are not always made public. 

It is all part of a stagnant market in the Championship, with barely a permanent transfer in sight.  

Clubs chasing promotion are desperate for strikers to fire them to the Premier League but even if they are ready to spend, they have been frustrated. 

Eddie Nketiah had his pick of clubs when he returned to Arsenal from Leeds, only for Mikel Arteta to keep him at the Emirates. Che Adams is wanted at Elland Road but Southampton are reluctant to let him go. Dwight Gayle, pre-hamstring injury, was only available in a cash deal, while Matej Vydra is needed at Burnley after an injury to Ashley Barnes. 

Then there is the likes of Glenn Murray at Brighton, with a proven track record who is also valuable to his club off the bench.

When investment is made, other clubs are looking closely at whether any rules have been broken in the race to the top flight. 

“It used to be about getting the best eleven players on the pitch,” adds the agent. “Now it is teams against each other off the pitch.”

Clubs are thinking twice about taking on the wages of Premier League youngsters, while Under-23 prospects at top academies are not getting out on loan.

The “emergency loan” rule was scrapped ahead of the 2016/17 season. That had allowed EFL clubs to make loan signings outside of the window, lasting between a month and 93 days.

Harry Kane had four loans before breaking into the first team at Tottenham, giving him exposure to men’s football. Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish went to Notts County for his first taste.

And for those players in the Championship looking for a move to the Premier League, second-tier clubs now have to get their sums right when entertaining offers.

Jarrod Bowen could fetch £20million if Hull choose to cash in, but his goals have given his club a chance of making the play-offs. Promotion would be worth more than £100million. He could be worth hanging on to.  

Then on the other side of the coin, some Premier League players can happily stay where they are, picking up their wages without the risk of failure on their CV, which makes a move harder in the future.  

Some spending has been out of necessity, with Aston Villa needing to move swiftly to get Mbwana Samatta from Genk for £10million when Wesley Moraes was injured.

Meanwhile Jurgen Klopp spent £7.25million on Takumi Minamino from Red Bull Salzburg when they saw value in a generous buy-out clause but that was completed before the window opened, strengthening Liverpool’s reputation as shrewd market movers who stick to their plan rather than being dictated to. 

Without Inter Milan trying to snap up unsettled Premier League stars, it would be a window almost void of excitement.

Clubs are finding it hard to land their top targets mid-season so are willing to wait until the summer before investing. Even big spenders like Manchester United are now in the loan market.

It has filtered down the leagues, with little spending and nowhere for young players to go. “The biggest concern is the quality now compared to where it was a few years ago,” says one agent, with all sides hoping for some action before the window shuts.