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English football feeling the pinch

CLUBS' spending on players this month could be the lowest since the introduction of the transfer window seven years ago as teams struggle with massive debt and soaring player wages, experts predicted.

Only £7m changed hands in the first 14 days of the window, according to Geoff Mesher, the head of the forensic sports industry team at accountancy firm KPMG, compared with £58.8m in the first fortnight last year.

While the game savoured a list of big-money moves last year, featuring players such as Jermain Defoe, Wayne Bridge and Andrey Arshavin, the only excitement this month has been generated by two players nearing the end of their careers who have come back into the Premier League on free transfers -- Sol Campbell at Arsenal and Patrick Vieira at Manchester City. Most deals have been low-level or loans.



STRUGGLE

City were the big spenders 12 months ago, throwing £50m at the market, closely followed by the £45m spent by Harry Redknapp at Tottenham Hotspur as total spending rose to about £175m.

This time last year, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson had spent a reported £9m on the Partizan Belgrade pair of Zoran Tosic and Adem Ljajic.

Unless the Premier League's richest clubs reach for the chequebook soon, the total for January this year could struggle to reach the £35m recorded in the first window in 2003.

But City, under Roberto Mancini, their new manager, show no signs of going for a marquee signing, while even the traditional big spenders at Chelsea are sitting on their hands for now and Ferguson has vowed not to spend in this window.

The snow might be gradually ebbing from the car parks of clubs, but inside, the finances in many boardrooms are still suffering from the economic freeze. All the signs are that most clubs have little money to spend or cannot -- or do not want to -- afford the exorbitant wage demands of players.

"It has been very quiet," Mesher said. "Clubs are struggling across the board, but it is not just the capital outlay of the transfer fee but wages, which have become a major issue over the past few years -- and not just in the Premier League.



STRINGENT

Football League clubs are feeling it, too. "You might pay £3m for a player, but if he wants £25,000 a week over three years, that will put an extra £3m on the bill that has to come out of your monthly cashflow. That is a big demand on any club."

Although there were no fees for Campbell and Vieira, they will be paid huge wages by their wealthy clubs, with Campbell on £50,000 a week and Vieira signed for a £150,000 a week.

Mesher predicts that football is being forced to confront a more stringent future, particularly with dire predictions that at least one high-profile club could go to the wall this year.

"We have to hope that clubs are trying to get their finances sorted out," he said.

"Debt is only a symptom of the problem. What has been happening is not sustainable and everybody knows that. It is one thing having rich owners, like Manchester City, but the rest have to live on their income and that could be contributing to some caution in the marketplace this year."

Relegation-threatened clubs have traditionally used January to shore up their squads with some emergency purchases, but the Premier League looks short of sides who can afford to save themselves.

Of the four at the bottom of the table this weekend, Bolton Wanderers have slim resources, Hull City have serious financial problems, West Ham United are loaded with debt and up for sale, and Portsmouth can barely pay the players they have, never mind being a strong tip for relegation and even administration unless the club's mysterious new owners can find urgent finance.

© The Times, London


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