Excess yields to new sense of realism
Tottenham's shrewd boss should be proud of his "wheeler-dealer" tag following his late swoop for Van der Vaart, writes Paul Wilson
In the light of Harry Redknapp's explosive response to a fairly mild bit of media stereotyping the other day, we all now have to consider whether "wheeler-dealer" is the pejorative term the Spurs manager clearly thinks it is or whether it can convey a degree of admiration for a confident and successful transfer-market operator.
The dictionary defines wheeler-dealing as "shrewd bargaining to one's maximum advantage", and it is difficult to see why any football manager should object to that, especially one who has just bought a Real Madrid player at a knockdown price with about three seconds to spare before the transfer window closed.
There is a suggestion of the unscrupulous when the expression is used in a political context, though in terms of business deals it does not normally denote anything more sinister than the ability to act quickly and think on one's feet. Redknapp should be flattered, particularly as it is Daniel Levy who does the actual dealing. The Spurs manager, as is his wont, appeared to fancy everyone this summer from Joe Cole to Diego Forlan and, though the capture of Rafael van der Vaart could be depicted as an audacious, stroke-of-midnight swoop for a top international, the more mundane reality is more likely to be that one of the last of Redknapp's transfer targets was waiting to see whether Tottenham made it to the Champions League proper before making a decision.
Never mind considering that, however -- consider this. Redknapp picked up Van der Vaart, fresh from a World Cup final, for £8m. Manchester United have just spent £7m on Bebe, a Portuguese player fresh from a free transfer just a few months ago, whom Alex Ferguson admitted he had never seen in action.
Ferguson is the manager who is fond of complaining there is no value in the transfer market, and United are the club widely supposed no longer to have money to throw around.
If Redknapp had just spent £7m of his club's money on a total unknown whose principal international achievement was playing in the Homeless World Cup, he would be getting called worse names than wheeler-dealer by now. Fergie gets away with it because he and his scouts have a good track record at the bargain end of the market -- some of United's less convincing purchases over the years have been the top-dollar ones -- and because everyone basically agrees with him that the sums being asked for leading players were stupidly inflated even before Manchester City came along.
We will have to wait until Bebe gets a few games to see whether Ferguson spent his money well, and similarly there is no point hailing Redknapp's apparent coup until Van der Vaart has proved himself in this country.
At 27, he is not going to get many more chances to live up to the billing he received in his teens as the latest Ajax wunderkind, and like Manchester City with Mario Balotelli, Spurs have signed a fringe player rather than a central performer for his club or his country.
Balotelli, like Bebe, at least has youth on his side. Van der Vaart comes with a bigger reputation but his first task will be to win a place in a side already well off for attacking midfielders. If he is selected ahead of Luka Modric, for example, assuming Spurs will want to keep the penetration that Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon provide on the wings, the net gain may not be all that great.
Redknapp may even choose to try him as a secondary striker, though that will only mean Jermain Defoe or Peter Crouch missing out.
What Bebe, Balotelli and Van der Vaart all have in common is that rival clubs such as Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, will not be kicking themselves for not signing them first. That's the way the transfer market seems to be at the moment. Flat, at least from an English perspective. Not even Manchester City have signed anyone the rest of the world desperately wanted, though David Silva and James Milner could both turn out to be excellent, if expensive, acquisitions.
The same could be said of Ramires at Chelsea, yet the boldest buy of the summer, in terms of a club sticking its neck out and taking a financial risk to obtain a World Cup star, was surely Sunderland's purchase of Asamoah Gyan. Sunderland are not the most glamorous of clubs, Steve Bruce not the most adventurous of managers, but were there a Premier League prize for most exciting signing of the summer transfer window -- and there ought to be, don't you think? -- the Ghana striker would get my vote.
Javier Hernandez at Manchester United would come second, and in third place, or perhaps winning the honorary award for consistent low level achievement, would be Sam Allardyce's truffle-hound's nose for loans and frees. Blackburn is now the somewhat unlikely home of two Dioufs (El Hadji and Mame Biram) and Benjani Mwaruwari.
Who needs a £300m takeover? Who needs to splash out at all when you can let City and United take the financial risks and wait for their playing stock to become surplus? City's prodigious outlay is masking a new sense of realism on terraces and in boardrooms. The age of excess is on its way out.
After an economic downturn and a sobering World Cup, thrift could be coming back into fashion.