By the 1970s the days when professional footballers had to supplement their income with part-time ‘proper jobs’ were long gone and ordinary working folk marvelled at the spiralling pay packets of top players.
British football was fast becoming big business, no better demonstrated than on February 9th, 1979, when the domestic game saw its first £1m. transfer fee. Sports writers and commentators had a field day with the notion that a single player, however talented, could command such a huge fee.
The player in question was striker Trevor Francis (pictured), who was signed to league and cup-winning Nottingham Forest for a reported £1,180,000 after eight seasons with Birmingham City. Strictly speaking, the transfer fee for Francis was £975,000, but the addition of VAT, Football League fees and Francis’ own £45,000 signing payment took the total well past the magic million mark.
Orchestrating the deal was Nottingham Forest’s outspoken manager Brian Clough, who was determined to continue his run of success at the club. Since becoming manager in January 1975, he had restored Forest to the First Division in 1977 and the following year won the Football League seven points ahead of Liverpool, who they also beat in the 1978 League Cup Final.
Signing Francis, a capped England player, was the next step in Clough’s masterplan, and one that would pay dividends. News of the signing, and the record transfer fee, came after weeks of speculation and many hours of meetings involving the two clubs, plus Francis and his representatives.
Clough had originally objected to Francis’ plans of playing in the United States over the summer, during the British game’s closed season. Francis had been offered a lucrative £80,000 deal by American club Detroit Express and was keen to take up the offer, but it proved an early obstacle to the Notts Forest deal. Birmingham had also been undecided about whether to let Francis go, though some commentators claimed that was a negotiating ploy to ramp up the fee.
The deal went through when Clough backed down on the American issue and the transfer fee reached a level which Birmingham – in need of cash to strengthen its own team – could not refuse. The figure agreed was double the amount received by Liverpool when it sold its star player, Kevin Keegan, to Hamburg in the summer of 1977.
Forest’s assistant manager Peter Taylor told reporters: “We can afford to pay prices like this because of good management in the past.” In fact, it was the first new signing Clough and Taylor had made in 14 months, amid speculation they had been ‘saving up’ for a big name to boost the average 30,000 gate at Forest’s City Ground.
Francis had made his league debut in 1970 at Cardiff and went on to make 300 league appearances for Birmingham, while also turning out for England at senior level a dozen times. The only other club though to be in the running to sign him was Coventry, whose manager Jimmy Hill was co-owner of Detroit Express and had arranged the summer signing there. But Coventry could not match Forest’s spending power, having put a ceiling of £900,000 on their bid for Francis.
Paying the record fee worked out for Clough and Taylor when their new star striker proved influential in securing European Cup victories for the club in 1979 and 1980, and continued success in the domestic league. However, there were also significant periods when he was out through injury or had lean spells with his goal scoring. Francis left the club in September 1981 after 70 appearances and 28 goals when he signed for Manchester City, this time for £1.2m. In the course of his career he would play for England 52 times, scoring a dozen goals.
Since the 1970s, transfer fees for top players have skyrocketed. A new bar was set when Manchester United paid £29.3m. in 2002 to sign Rio Ferdinand from Leeds. It was a high-flying Manchester United who made the headlines again in July 2009 when they shelled out a reported £80m. to sign Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid.
Fees continue to rise and last month saw a new record set for the British game when Liverpool paid a reported £105m. to sign Phillipe Coutinho from Barcelona. Even that pales into insignificance compared to the international transfer market, which last year saw Paris Saint-Germain pay £198m. to sign Brazilian superstar Neymar from his former club, Barcelona.