Thirty three years ago, Brian Clough smashed the British transfer record, bringing Trevor Francis to league champions Nottingham Forest from Birmingham City. The million pound deal was the first time a seven-figure fee had been paid to English clubs for the services of their star striker.
Last week, another striker was signed in a deal that broke another British transfer record, yet it barely registered as a tremor to the worlds sporting press amidst the Champions League Final build up and the England squad being announced. This time it is not Manchester City, United or Chelsea breaking the records, but Leicester City.
The Foxes have reportedly paid a fee of £1 million to newly crowned Blue Square Bet Premier Champions, Fleetwood Town, for their star striker Jamie Vardy. The twenty five year old hit 31 league goals in Fleetwood’s race to the title and also helped Fleetwood to their best ever FA Cup run, scoring a memorable goal against this seasons defeated play off finalists, Blackpool.
What makes this deal unique is that it is the first time a fee in excess of £1 million has been paid for a non-league player.
When most people hear the phrase “non league” they think of up-in-the-air football, overweight players and tin sheds for stands. Twenty years ago, in what was then called The Conference this may well have been the case.
Today’s top flight of non league football could not have moved on further. Most clubs (but not all) are professional and have access to decent training facilities, throw in to the mix the bigger, ex Football League clubs like Luton, Wrexham, Cambridge and Grimsby with the up and coming, well financed clubs like Fleetwood, and what you have is one of the most evenly balanced professional league’s anywhere in Europe.
Jamie Vardy is the prime example of this. I will happily admit that I only managed to watch Fleetwood a couple of times this season, and have searched for his goals on YouTube prior to writing this, and Vardy really does appear to have everything needed to be a force to be reckoned with. A five feet, ten inch tall striker, he has his fair share of pace, likes to sit off the shoulder of the last man, and most importantly, finishes chances with a real air of confidence.
He has a fair amount of trickery in his boots too, as those who saw his goal in the game against Blackpool will testify. Fleetwood fans will tell you that goal was no fluke, and there is plenty of evidence to back up their theory online.
It remains to be seen, of course, if Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson’s million pound gamble will pay off.
Plenty of strikers in recent years have scored many a goal in the fifth tier of English football, then progressed well in to the lower two divisions of the Football League, only to find that the Championship was a step too far.
Freddy Eastwood first caught the attention of Southend United’s scouts whilst playing for Grays Athletic in the conference and was soon banging in the goals left right and centre as Southend enjoyed two successive promotions between 2005 – 2006. After scoring 115 appearances and 53 goals, including a memorable free kick against Manchester United in the League Cup, Wolves came in with a £1.5 million offer, and Eastwood was off to Molineux.
Joining Wolves, then in the Championship was to prove a mistake for both club and player, Eastwood finding the net just 3 times in only ten league starts, and soon being shipped off to struggling Coventry City, where there was to be no reversal of fortune for the Welsh International.
Lee Trundle is a player whose story has a lot in common with that of Eastwood. After gaining a reputation as a free scoring box of trickery in the Welsh Premier Division, Trundle went on to have initial success at Wrexham before moving to Swansea City, where his form seemed to keep getting better by the match.
Bristol City then shelled out £1 million to bring the Liverpool born front man across the Severn Bridge to Ashton Gate, but, as with Eastwood, the step up, for whatever reason, proved to be too much as Trundle’s form evaporated.
There are probably dozens more strikers who share this exact same story of having a £1 million price tag on their head and struggling to live up to the expectations of a bigger club.
Jamie Vardy’s story will be different.
All of the players I have mentioned above, started in non League, made the step up to the League before ultimatley failing in the Championship.
In becoming the first non league player to be sold for £1 million, Vardy has leapfrogged two whole divisions and is still yet to kick a ball in the Football League. This will surely be of concern to the more sceptical of supporters at the Walkers Stadium.
If Trundle, Eastwood and co were attempting to make a step up, Vardy is surely attempting a death defying leap.
Then again, the pacey forward might turn out to be the top scorer in the Championship next season and, as I previously stated, Vardy certainly looks like a real handful up front – I actually think he stands a better chance than some ever did. Besides, you can’t write him off until he has been given a fair chance to prove his worth.
However I feel that something else, besides the professional reputations of the player and his manager, is at stake here, and why I think it could be important for the game in this country, that the first £1 million non league player enjoys success with Leicester.
If Leicester City have a successful year next season and Vardy is at the heart of it, then other clubs comparable with Leicester may be tempted to look as far down as England’s fifth tier for the next big thing. It would hopefully indicate to bigger clubs that there is strength in depth so far as the English game is concerned, and maybe they wouldn’t feel the need to scour the globe for players quite so often.
Should Vardy inspire a revolution, with top teams “buying British” and lesser clubs earning seven figure fees for their top talents more regularly we would see less clubs going into administration, more stability within the league from grass roots right to the top.
A stable business can start to think about how to grow, and football clubs are no different. All of this extra income that League and Conference clubs could be getting paid in transfer fees would make it easier for them to set up things like Academies and Centres of Excellence to develop more young English talent and a snowball effect starts to take place, which could of course mean good things for the National Team.
There is a strong argument that, whilst fans want to see the best players in the world play for their clubs regardless of nationality, too many very average players have come to England from overseas, when there are plenty of average ones here, and if you look hard enough you might even find that some are actually pretty good. Chris Smalling being the prime example in recent years.
In making this deal, Leicester City have broken the taboo of parting company with cold hard cash for a non league player. Hopefully, they will have started a trend.
Lower league clubs play a vital role within their own communities, both with football related and other activities, that they really are the foundation of football in England, if money from the higher echelons of the game were to trickle down to the “Grass Roots” a little bit more frequently then the footballing landscape in this country could flourish.
I for one will be keeping my fingers crossed for Vardy next season.
What Cloughie would make of all this however, 33 years after he conducted the first million pound transfer deal in British football, is anybody’s guess.