£150 for a player? You Must Be Mad! An Early History of Football Transfers

On one of our first podcasts, Gareth and I decided to dedicate the hour of discussion to one thing, the transfer window. In recent seasons, the amounts spent on players have frequently totaled well over a billion pounds with remarkable figures being put on fairly unremarkable players. "The game's gone mad", I hear you say - but is this anything new? Indeed, it is common to find twitter feeds and articles entitled 'Against Modern Football' - but what does this really mean? In this piece, we are going back to the turn of the twentieth-century as football reached crisis point. It is fair to say that the transfer window has always caused conflict and debate.

The Victorian sporting revolution had promised a reintroduction of 'Christian values' to a what many saw as an increasingly immoral society. Starting in the public schools - the next leaders of the country would help to disseminate 'strength, loyalty and manly prowess' throughout the nation. Sport and in particular, football, could offer all of these things.

For 20 years,this idealistic vision seemed to be providing positive results as public school alumni had dominated the early forms of the modern game. The introduction and initial winners of the FA Cup were testament to this. The Wanderers, Royal Engineers and Old Etonians were all from privileged and financially affluent backgrounds. Football's simplicity, mixed with an increase in social liberties and free time, meant it wasn't long before the game became increasingly synonymous with the working-class of society. By 1883, a working class side from the north of England had won the FA Cup - Blackburn Olympic. Olympic's success had turned the tables of football forever.

Although not necessarily through payment to players, Olympic has introduced football to a more 'professional' approach to the game. Training camps in Blackpool, Bournemouth and Richmond had been set up by local financers to help the side to prepare for the Cup Final. Such attitudes hadn't been seen before and by winning the tie 2-1 (aet), meant other sides would adopt similar strategies. Football was about winning. Winning at any cost. Together with these progressive attitudes, the emergence of professionalism, or 'veiled professionalism', through the use of broken-time payments, brought with it football's first major crisis. 

Broken-time payments were essentially fees paid to players to compensate the time they had taken off work. Although seemingly understandable now, in the 1880s it introduced fierce debate as the game completed its shift from public school dominance to a working-class phenomenon financed by middle class entrepreneurial visions. Naturally, the will to win would require clubs to source the best players and offer them lucrative deals to guarantee their signature. 

The introduction of the Football League in 1888-89 saw Preston North End sweep all aside and win both the League and FA Cup. Remarkably, in doing so, they had finished both campaigns unbeaten. Comfortably boasting the finest squad ever assembled, their opponents would need to bolster their own respective squads, in order to compete in the following campaign. Despite not being initially accepted as common practice in the league - transfers would eventually come in to effect in the following decade. The gradual increase in teams competing in the league would help to develop greater competition an increasingly profitable gate receipts.

The retain and transfer system adopted by the Football League in 1893 would introduce a sense of consistency to the market. Players were forced to register each season with a club and signed annual contracts which meant sides could retain them, if they wished. The system would require players to seek out the permission of their current club if they were looking to move to a rival club. Where the notion fell down, was in its idea that a professional would still need consent from the club, even if their contract had expired. This saw a wealth of players marooned and unable to play and unable to be paid.

Larger transfer fees were to be steadily introduced in order to prize certain players away from their respective sides. An article from Sporting Life told of the transfer of Wrexham's Harry Trainer to West Brom in 1895. A fee of £29 (£2379 today) plus a friendly in Wrexham was enough for the Welsh club to part with their star centre forward. [Trainer's remarkable career was written about by The Blizzard here.] Such fees would only continue to rise in the coming years with newspapers becoming increasingly fond of the speculation and rumours that went with it.

Over the next few seasons, transfer fees would grow fairly rapidly. Alongside increasing attendances, money was being put into the game at an incredible rate. Now firmly consolidated of its place in the game, the Football League would see transfer records frequently beaten and surpassed. In 1897, the Manchester Evening News reported the transfer of Bolton's James M'Geachin to Stoke for £150 (£11,725). Furthermore, the article goes on to comment on the possibility of W.Maxwell moving from Stoke to Villa or Liverpool. Valued at around £500 (£39,000), such figures would become common in the market.

Liverpool's 1901 Champions

That was until 1899. So much of modern football conversation is centred on the transfer market, but just ten years in the Football League's journey, debate about this very issue would engulf the relatively juvenile sport. In November 1899, an FA commission sought to improve the transfer system by introducing limits on fees. The Derbyshire Courier noted that the proposals included clubs charging no more than £10 for the transfer of a player. Heavily criticised by the press, the notion would have seen a huge fall in prices. The article noted that such acts would make league football an 'impossibility'. Furthermore, citing a similar piece in the Birmingham Daily Mail, it continues to speculate that clubs with a 'long purse' would end up poaching the best players, thus limiting competition.

Further ideas are common to find. The Lancashire Evening Post suggested that 'no larger transfer fee shall be demanded than the amount paid by clubs on acquiring players'. This would also fall upon deaf ears. The financial side of the game, which had caused unrest and ill-feeling since its introduction into the game would eventually lead to the maximum wage being brought into action from the beginning of the 1901/02 season. Taylor writes that leading players, like those at 1901 champions Liverpool, would see their wages cut dramatically. As the wage was limited to £4 a week, this was a substantial drop to many who had been earning up to £10 before. 

In terms of wages, this helped poorer league sides to compete with those above them, but over the course of the next decade, transfer fees would reach new heights. By 1905 £1000 (£78,569) was being paid out for professionals. Sunderland's Alfred Common would become the first to move for the amount as he transferred to Middlesbrough. Two years later, Aston Villa would sign George Reeves for £1200 (£94,283) before Newcastle broke the bank to capture Everton's G.Wilson in 1908 for £1600 (£125,075). The St. Andrews Citizen would also comment on the buying power of the recently formed Chelsea FC. Spending upwards of £3000 (£234,516) on new players, the side would hope to improve on their first season in the top-flight, where they finished 13th. 

Notably, at the end of the article, it makes a final statement that the £1600 paid for Wilson 'will not be beaten for the rule restricting the maximum transfer fee of £350 came into force on January 1st'. Football had taken an active measure to limit the spending power of the biggest clubs and also to stop transfer fees from spiralling out of control. The Luton Times described the intervention as 'very satisfactory' and warned of the ridiculously high transfer fees (sound familiar?). There is little surprise then that Newcastle managed to pay such a high fee for Wilson just before the new rules came into place. They had their man, and the following season, they had the league title too.

Footballers too were still at the mercy of their employers. Compared to the modern day professional who can seemingly demand what they want (often through their agents), footballers at the turn of the 20th century could face uncertainty and even a complete loss of earnings. If a club chose not to renew a contract or didn't allow them to leave, then they had no obligation to pay for the services. This led to a number of professionals seeking out other means of finance. Incredibly, an article in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph records the 'Football Transfer Hardship' of Grimsby's Samuel McAllister. It was reported that McAllister, who  'not having a halfpenny in his pocket...committed a theft'. Stealing a pair of boots, he was caught and fined 10s by the magistrates. McAllister's potential transfer to Burnley failed after the two sides failed to reach a compromise on the fee. Without pay, the player was at risk of being evicted from his house.

The earliest days of the transfer market draw stark similarities and parrelels to the modern day. In recent seasons, football transfers have likewise spiralled out of control. The €222m paid for Neymar in 2017 offers perhaps the clearest example of the absurdity of modern markets. Since his move, subsequent deals for Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Demebele, Joao Felix, Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Greizmann have all surpassed £100m. It has reached a point where transfer fees have become almost meaningless and Financial Fair Play merely a term to feebly throw at clubs that show its principles little respect.

Furthermore, we are introduced once again to rich vs. poor debate. The rise of the Premier League has brought with it an improvement in football but a widening of the gap between the super-clubs, the top teams and the lower league sides. Bury's expulsion and Wigan's recent administration has further added to a sense of resentment from those outside of the top-flight. In the early 1900s, this feeling was no different as sides able to offer players higher wages, and clubs higher fees, could poach the best professionals. It is often said today that football has become a business and is at risk of losing its identity. But what does this really mean? After all, if the early history of the transfer window has taught us anything, football has arguably always been at the mercy of economic intrusion. It remains to be seen whether the COVID-19 outbreak will help the game to reimagine its principles and aims - lets hope that a fairer and more open game emerges from the ashes.


Matthew Taylor, The Association Game (London: Routledge, 2008)
Sporting Life, 08 January 1895
Manchester Evening News, 03 December 1897
Derbyshire Courier, 25 November 1899
Luton Times, 06 December 1907
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 08 January 1907

©The Football History Boys, 2020


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