Another recent and over-hyped twist in the British game is the ‘transfer window’: now 15 years old, originally an idea to stop clubs from being perpetually engaged in wheeler-dealer player-swapping, but now a tight time-frame that bids up the prices for top players at big rich clubs and causes serious pain for smaller cash-poor sides who have no choice but to get involved.
For the majority of football fans the transfer window is a source of exquisite agony, frustration and envy. You know you shouldn’t be goggling at Sky Sports News or the tabloid back pages or your team’s fan websites, fuelling the speculation about who’s been talking big and who’s moving where. But you do. And you find yourself madly urging your team to spend more money than you’ll ever see on some extravagantly tattooed young millionaire who’s liable to care less about the club they’re joining than about what they’re driving, who they’re dating, and where they’ll be moving to next.
It’s a brutal thing, but football success can be bought. And the Russian, American and Arab tycoons who have bought up England’s top teams since 2003 pay top dollar for off the shelf talent that was, invariably, reared and tested overseas. Back in 1977 Kevin Keegan left Liverpool, having made them European champions, to join Hamburg in Germany, and Keegan made clear he needed to better himself since the English game was short-changing its home-grown talent. Since Keegan, from Ian Rush to Paul Gascoigne to Gareth Bale, the really eye-catching moves for British players have been abroad. The idea that a British-born player transferred between British clubs could cause a sensation in the game now seems to belong to another era.
Still... if you seriously ask yourself what was the single best signing ever made in British football – even solely in terms of the weight of pure silverware to the pound – then it’s very hard to see past Liverpool’s acquisition of Kenny Dalgish from Celtic for £440,000 in 1977. Liverpool needed a replacement for Keegan and had change over from the Hamburg deal. Celtic were a selling club in decline, and Dalglish, the finest player in Scotland, had effectively downed tools for a move. Liverpool manager Bob Paisley was quite sure he’d got himself a bargain; and he was right.
Fans and pundits alike really doubted Keegan could be replaced, so integral had he been to Liverpool’s success. Yet Dalglish took over Keegan’s number seven shirt and, incredibly, inspired the club to greater heights: to speak only of three European Cups and five league titles as a player, and a further three titles after becoming player-manager in 1985. There was a Roy of the Rovers aura to Dalglish that can’t possibly be overestimated: he hardly ever missed a match, scored loads of vital goals (including league and cup winners), and was the beaming hero of innumerable schoolboys – the top Panini card in the pack, no question.
As Liverpool manager Dalglish also steered the club through the catastrophe of Hillsborough, at great personal cost, which he bore bravely and so earned a yet deeper, undying love from the support. One of Liverpool’s loyalist servants, from this season Dalglish will have a stand named after him at Anfield, and he has spoken of the ‘absolute pleasure and a privilege for myself and my family to have been part of such a special club and a special city.’ Any supporter of any team anywhere would walk over coals to have had such a man wear their club’s colours: it just doesn’t get any better than that record of service. In bringing Kenny Dalglish to Liverpool, I contend, Bob Paisley made the hands-down greatest deal in the history of British football.
(For a more multi-stranded version of this argument, I refer you to my Keegan and Dalglish, published today.)