Grealish and Lukaku deals expose inequalities of the Premier League
It is safe to suggest without the slightest fear of contradiction that the first thing that went through Jack Grealish’s mind following his extravagant transfer this month was a dream of Len Shackleton. Hailed as an entertaining trickster in the old school style, Jack has just a little bit of Shack about him and, if he makes his Premier League debut for City at Tottenham on Sunday, he will be aiming to make the sort of first impression that the so-called “Clown Prince of Soccer” did back in 1946.
After joining Newcastle for what was the second-highest fee paid by an English club – £13,000 – Shackleton inspired his team to a statement victory on his first start: 13-0 against Newport County, with Shackleton scoring six times, including a hat-trick in under three minutes and, for his final goal, an improvised finish with his arse, just for kicks.
Inflation being the blighter it is, Grealish could achieve that level of symmetry only by running amok at Spurs in a 100-0 win, a scoreline that is highly unlikely given Gabriel Jesus is City’s only specialist striker.
There is no need to get into the fact that Shackleton’s debut was a false dawn and he never really found happiness at Newcastle, satisfaction eluding him until he departed for rivals Sunderland, where he felt much better treated. As indeed did his strike partner Trevor Ford, who particularly enjoyed trips to Tottenham and other clubs in the capital, explaining: “When we went to London for an away game, we were always sure of a taxi to the West End and the best seats in the theatre, and during the journey back every Sunderland player that wanted it could have a packet of cigarettes.” Don’t get any ideas, Jack.
It is worth mentioning that Shackleton for ever held a grudge against the club he believed had wronged him. As time went by he never missed an opportunity to take the piss, tossing environmentally friendly barbs that have been recycled many times in recent decades, such as, “I’ve heard of players selling dummies but Newcastle keep buying them”, “Newcastle have a problem with injuries: their players keep recovering” and, “I feel no bias when it comes to Newcastle: I don’t care who beats them”.
It would be lovely to think Harry Kane will devote himself to slagging off Spurs at every opportunity if he leaves them or, even better, if he stays. Gentleman’s agreement or no gentleman’s agreement, he is in the entertainment business, after all.
Of course, another aspect of sporting entertainment is competitiveness, and that is where the joke in football is wearing thin. With Chelsea’s rehiring of Romelu Lukaku making Grealish’s only just the highest transfer by an English club, and Pep Guardiola eager to demote Grealish to the second-highest by making Kane a “Cityzen”, it is clear that money means little to those with almost limitless supplies of it. Meanwhile others scrimp, shrinkage imposed by a pandemic. Not that Villa and Spurs are pitiable urchins – the point is that if even those clubs’ best players think they have no chance of winning trophies soon, then the game is too skewed.
Time, then, to balance it up, and the solution, like Mo Salah in one of those fashionably banal selfies he posts on social media, is staring us in the face.
When Premier League sides kick off this weekend, so too will millions of people’s fantasy league teams. If fantasy leagues were as lopsided as the real thing, no one would bother playing, especially not with irksome work colleagues who will never let them live down a defeat. So organisers keep things interesting by building in fairness. Everyone has the same budget and everyone pays the same price. Something close to that could happen in the real world, too, if the transfer currency is changed.
Spending £100m means next to nothing to clubs whose owners accrue more than that while they sleep. Instead clubs should have to pay for transfers in points, of which there are a finite amount for everyone. So, for instance, a club is deducted a point for every £10m they spent on summer recruitment, so signing Grealish and Kane would oblige City to start on minus 23 points or thereabouts, while Chelsea, Manchester United and others would also have plenty of ground to make up on less carefree spenders. Then we would have a proper title race, genuinely unpredictable drama.
We could go farther and acknowledge the twisted structure of England’s football pyramid by awarding, say, a 15-point headstart to clubs newly promoted to the Premier League, with another 10 points in their second season, since half the clubs who have come up this century have fallen back into the Championship within two seasons and many have diced with ruin while trying to thrive or even survive. Naysayers will complain about artificially distorting the Premier League but what do parachute payments do to the Championship? And don’t practically all of football’s cup competitions have a form of seeding, usually to favour the mighty?
The only valid quibble with introducing points deductions for transfers concerns enforceability. Football finances would grow even murkier. Chelsea might find themselves tempted to explore legitimate ways of saying a top striker was sold to them for a bag of balls and an audience with Roman Abramovich, and another club might try to offer £100m for a superstar plus another £50m to say the deal was done for £9m.
And then there is the question of pan-European application, and how to factor in lavish packages offered to players who leave Barcelona for free. But if authorities had the will, they would find a way to keep track of trading and use points deductions to level up the playing field.