It seems a long time ago that West Bromwich Albion signed Hungary captain Zoltan Gera for £1.5 Million. That was in July 2004. Gera played just over 250 games for the Albion and Fulham in a ten-year stint in England’s top division, and was consistently one of the league’s most reliable and entertaining players. Thirteen years on, football clubs couldn’t buy a teenager from Colchester for the same amount of money, inflation in football having reached epidemic levels. The most recent example being the £43 Million that Manchester City have shelled out for Bernardo Silva. Do not mistake me, Silva is a good player, but that is an exceptional amount of money for a 22-year-old whose reputation is largely built on one good season at Monaco. Compare that with the £7 million fee paid by Chelsea in January 2012 for Gary Cahill. True, this was a truly brilliant piece of business from the London end and a particularly disastrous one for the Wanderers, but it does show that value could be had until very recently for the top drawer of players; Cahill having been named in the PFA Team of the Year three times and having won every domestic and European trophy open to him since arriving at the Bridge.
It is not as if teams did not pay over the odds in earlier times, Fernando Torres’ £50 Million move to Chelsea in 2011 and Andy Carroll’s switch from Newcastle to Liverpool on the same day come to mind, but what is worrying is that it has become far more common and it is squeezing the bottom of the market. Take West Brom again, a team run on a very secure financial basis with a tight wage structure and no superstars. Amongst the team that finished 10th in this year’s Premier League, Claudio Yacob and Gareth McAuley were signed as free agents and Ben Foster joined for a reported £4 Million. This represents huge value for money in a market where the very best players are beyond the reach of the vast majority of teams and finding hidden gems is a continual preoccupation.
Compare this to Rugby Union. The best teams are not always those with the most money. Look at Toulon, even though the Mediterranean team have imported numerous foreign superstars on big money deals since the start of the decade, they have only won one Top 14 title, although they have secured three European Champions Cup triumphs. If it was entirely down to money, Toulon or some other French spender would have won the Champions Cup in the last two seasons as well, but instead Saracens have taken the crown. Why? Because once you reach a peak in sport there is only one way to go and that is down. The All Blacks have proved exceptional in sustaining themselves at the peak of international team sports longer than virtually anyone else, but the same does not apply to Toulon. They had their time, and they still have the playing quality, but desire and teamwork often count for more and having won it three times you can understand a dip in drive.
Moving from France to Devon, the greatest current example of team work and desire overcoming money and superstardom lies with the Exeter Chiefs. This year’s Aviva Premiership Champions following a close fought final against Wasps, the Chiefs have retained several players from their promotion success seven years ago and it was fitting that one of those, Gareth Steenson, kicked the winning points on Saturday. They have focused primarily on local and British talent, bringing through the likes of Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie, with a few foreign signings along the way. But it is the squad cohesion and enthusiasm that makes this team better than the sum of their parts. Opposition teams continually underestimate Exeter because of their lack of pretence, but Exeter have proved they can deliver on the biggest stage against teams with seasoned internationals and years of European experience. And long may it continue.
West Brom are unlikely to emulate Exeter because of the financial imperatives of the Premier League. Football has strayed too far from it roots to the point where players receiving £150,000 a week feel that they are being underpaid. Rugby, thankfully, still retains a measure of its amateur ethos and has not entirely succumbed to commercialism as football did under Sky, but it needs to be wary of following a similar path. Thankfully they have an example of how not to do it.