Big guns hold fire as window slams shut

In a season in which the Premier League title race was meant to be the most widely and hotly contested ever, and in which clubs received record television income, there appears to have been a change of the tide after not a single one of the big six were willing to put their heads above the parapet and make a statement on transfer deadline day.

Christian Benteke celebrates scoring Crystal Palace's second goal against Bournemouth in their Premier League clash last night.

When you consider the €6.6bn pumped into the game by Sky and BT in 2016, not to mention worldwide television and internet rights and the rise of China as a possible new financial power, there was every reason to think the latest window would surpass the record of €290m set in 2011.

But as the world waited for a marquee signing, a last-minute masterstroke that would hand someone the title advantage, deadline day turned out to be a damp squib and left the race for the championship very much as you were.

Arsenal, who lost at home to Watford last night as they once again turned their noses up at the market, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, and even Manchester City — who by all accounts appear to be in dire need of recruitment — all failed to make a single meaningful signing during the month and showed little or no interest in taking part in the January 31 jamboree.

Perhaps it was the ludicrous sums being offered by Chinese clubs — including €26m for Watford’s Idion Ighalo who has barely scored a goal all season — which freaked the market and persuaded Premier League chairpersons to keep their chequebooks locked away. Or perhaps so much money was spent in the summer that most clubs opted for consolidation.

But whatever the reason, the result was that smaller clubs stole limelight as they spent record amounts in a desperate bid to reach the promised land — and fans of the big boys were left feeling frustrated.

The fact that a string of key games were played on transfer deadline night, when managers would usually be busy in the market, added to the feeling that the current arrangements are in need of renovation.

The on-off transfer saga of Brentford striker Scott Hogan, a player who has been on Martin O’Neill’s radar and who is heavily linked with a call-up to the Republic squad, perhaps sums up the now destructive and confusing nature of the window which makes clubs wary of doing business.

Hogan, who has recovered from two cruciate knee ligaments to score 21 goals in 34 Championship games, was heavily and publicly pursued by West Ham, told by agents and intermediaries that a deal was inevitable, and promised his dream of Premier League football was about to be achieved. 

The chase was so open, so blatant, that even West Ham’s owners happily tweeted about it despite the negative effect the speculation had on Brentford’s season and Hogan’s concentration.

And yet eventually manager Slaven Bilic left him hanging. 

“Of course he’s a good player. We watched him for many, many games. But I believe that we have really good strikers in our squad and that’s why we won’t have a Hogan deal,” he said.

“It’s not a question of him, it’s a question of what we’ve already got in the squad.”

Eventually it was Championship side Aston Villa who found the €15m and although Hogan had always insisted he would only leave for the Premier League, he had little option but to accept the move. 

Considering Villa are currently 14th in the table after losing to Brentford last night, there is little chance of him playing Premier League football until at least August 2018.

Brentford manager Dean Smith said: “In all intents and purposes he left four weeks ago when the first bid went in, and that’s no criticism of Scott. 

"That’s what happens with all the money in the Premier League — and it doesn’t help when you have representatives in your ear all the time who can make money out of it too.

“January is a frustrating time; as soon as club like West Ham comes in a player’s head is turned. I don’t know how you stop it. Maybe football clubs should start setting their own transfer windows and just say if a bid doesn’t come in by this date then we don’t do business.”

Dmitri Payet’s departure from West Ham to Marseille, completed before transfer deadline day, was another ugly episode — one in which the player rather than the club was a driving force. 

It has totally tarnished the Frenchman’s legacy in east London as he effectively went on strike to force his employer’s hand.

W

est Ham eventually acceded to Payet’s request to leave after his teammates indicated they would prefer him to be sold, in a bid to maintain team morale at a crucial stage in the season. Once again the window led to ugly headlines.

Burnley, too, took advantage of the inertia to bring in Robbie Brady from Norwich in one of the day’s biggest deals.

But for the bigger clubs, those with the financial muscle to feel like a predator in the market rather than prey, it was all quiet.

Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool all steered clear of over-priced transfers, leaving the hordes of transfer day watchers with little to talk about.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho had always made it clear he was unlikely to do business, and opted to keep both Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney, who had been linked with a move to China.

“Ashley stays with me until the end of the season. It’s finished,” he said.

“Rooney stays as well. We don’t have players in, we don’t have players out.”

Liverpool, who famously once paid €45m to sign Andy Carroll on January transfer deadline day, were also silent, even though it is clear Jurgen Klopp’s squad, beaten in both EFL Cup and FA Cup, is short of what it should be, while City, in desperate need of defensive quality, also opted to wait.

For leaders Chelsea, it was more about who they kept than who they bought after persuading Diego Costa to turn down overtures from China — and although the Chinese market does not close until February 28, that could prove to be the most important signing of all.



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