Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Motion made,

Line 37, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 46, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 48, at the end insert the words:--
'(4A) notwithstanding paragraphs (2) and (4) above, where more than two committees or sub-committees appointed under this order meet concurrently in accordance with paragraph (4)(e) above, the quorum of each such committee or sub-committee shall be two.'-- [Mr. Allen.]

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

(i) put the Question on the Motion in the name of Mr. Secretary Straw relating to Police Grant Reports (England and Wales) not later than Seven o'clock; and
(ii) put the Questions on the Motions in the name of Mr. Secretary Prescott relating to Local Government (Finance) not later than Ten o'clock.--[Mr. Allen.]

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

23 Jan 2001 : Column 897

23 Jan 2001 : Column 899

Football Transfers

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Allen.]

10.1 pm

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood): I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the important issue of the proposed abolition of football transfer fees by the European Commission. I have an interest in the matter, but not a registerable interest in the strictest sense: I am the parliamentary spokesman for the Scottish Professional Footballers Association. It is an unpaid post, but I am happy to perform the role of adviser on behalf of the SPFA.

That organisation north of the border and the equivalent in England, under the stewardship of Gordon Taylor, have played an important role in the debate and have been vocal on behalf of the football players and, in some respects, the football clubs.

I do not have a professional football club, or even a part-time football club, in my constituency. I take a keen interest in football, but in my constituency I have only two junior clubs--Arthurlie Juniors and Neilston Juniors--so I have no registerable interest or a local constituency football team to speak of in professional terms.

Like me, many football fans throughout the country who support large teams and small teams are extremely concerned that major aspects of our national game may be under threat. Of course, the past few years have been a period of change in football. Much of the change has been good, but some of it has been very dangerous.

If the European Commission makes the proposed changes unconditionally, without listening to the voices of the players, clubs and supporters, I fear for the future of many of our football clubs. Already, more than a quarter of the players in the Scottish premier league are from outside Scotland, and the number continues to increase. To some extent, that change has enriched the game, but it has also undermined much of the indigenous talent.

There have also been changes in terms of salaries. The average income of players in the English premiership is £400,000 a year. Many earn a lot more, and some earn much less, but I am informed that the average salary is about £400,000 a year.

As a consequence of the changes that have taken place, we have four leagues both in Scotland and in England. In Scotland, we have the Scottish premier league and the three other divisions. In England, we have the premiership and the three divisions below that.

Those are the four official divisions, but clubs could be categorised in a different way: first, those that are extremely rich; secondly, those that are prosperous; thirdly, those that are struggling to get by; and fourthly, those that are impoverished in both football and financial terms.

It is remarkable that such a situation exists in a country where football is our national sport, and in a nation where countless column inches are devoted to the world of football and the latest intricacies of a player's injury, cold or mood that day, and where football players internet sites receive tens of thousands of hits every day.

23 Jan 2001 : Column 900

As a nation we are obsessed by football, yet we allow such enormous inequalities to permeate our national game. If that took place in society as a whole, the Government would be rightly punished and there would be a demand for firm and convincing action, but in the world of football it is unfortunately tolerated.

Several people and organisations deserve the blame or the responsibility--perhaps some would say the acclaim--for that condition. I do not lay the blame at the footballing feet of the current Minister for Sport or, indeed, those of the Prime Minister; it involves cultural and financial developments and a shift in power. Perhaps the condition has always existed, but it has become more acute. If we are not careful, it will become much worse in the years ahead.

Perhaps the European Commission can abolish transfer fees unconditionally and without compromise, but the first stage will involve abolishing transfer fees across national borders--so Forfar could still sell players to Rangers, and Bournemouth could sell them to Manchester United. That would still be a realistic proposition, but no one who knows anything about football truly believes that, if the European Commissions makes that alteration, the change will not quickly take place in the United Kingdom. As with Bosman, there will be court action. It will take only one court action to ensure that transfer fees will be swept away not only across European boundaries, but within domestic boundaries, and the lifeline for many clubs will be pulled away.

A minority of clubs have sufficient revenue, but the gate receipts are insufficient for the vast majority in all the leagues throughout the United Kingdom. Some clubs survive on very low attendances. Their merchandising is limited, as is their use of the worldwide web, unlike some larger clubs. The television money is concentrated, in any meaningful sense, in the hands of a minority of clubs. The once-in-a-decade hope of drawing a big club in an FA cup or a Scottish cup competition is but a dream except for a fortunate few.

The transfer fee system offers those clubs a lifeline. Every few years they sell, perhaps reluctantly, some of their best or young and developing talent simply to pay the bills involved in stadium modernisation, to pay their players' salaries, to meet other overheads or perhaps to dedicate the money to youth development--an important issue. Nevertheless, that lifeline could be taken away and all those opportunities and funding chances could be lost.

In the central belt of Scotland, teams such as Falkirk, Airdrie and Hamilton have all struggled to survive recently. A Scottish local town football team was in difficulty and crying out for change and support, so it adopted a political platform to ensure that its voice was heard during a by-election. I do not want to make too many predictions, but I dare say that that will become commonplace in England as well. Hamilton football club, with an average attendance of 400 or 500, got four times that number of votes in the Hamilton by-election, beating the Liberal Democrats into fifth place.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): I was supporting the hon. Gentleman until then.

Mr. Murphy: Perhaps clubs will beat other parties, such as the Conservative party, into fourth or fifth place at by-elections in other constituencies. Clubs such as

23 Jan 2001 : Column 901

Morton and Clydebank are homeless without funds and have an uncertain future. They may not even survive this season. The transfer fee system probably will not help them this season, but if their records and those of many other clubs now in difficulty are examined, it is obvious that one of the few things that has kept them alive was their ability to sell on some talent to the larger or neighbouring clubs. That ability will end.

Tomorrow evening, Dumbarton football club will open a new stadium. It will do so not because of a great cascade of wealth downwards in the game, but largely because of the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall). I pay tribute to him for finding that money through the Football Trust and other sources. However, five or six clubs face real difficulties, and that number will multiply enormously if we are not careful and if we allow the European Commission to amend the rules unconditionally.

I say without a trace of joy or satisfaction, but with a feeling of terror for many clubs, that if the European Commission continues on its current path without compromise, it is conservatively put that perhaps a quarter of Scotland's clubs--10 clubs--and perhaps an equivalent fraction in England would go bankrupt or, if they were professional, go part-time. A quarter of our clubs would disappear from our leagues simply as a result of the European Commission making that change; I predict that that would happen within five years.

That is not the only problem with the proposed changes. The area that has not been talked about enough, and perhaps the greatest danger not only to our club system but to our national teams, is the fact that the abolition of transfer fees without age thresholds will undermine our national game by reducing our ability to grow our own domestic or indigenous talent. I suspect that the youth academies that are springing up in England as a condition of membership of the premiership, and I believe of the first division, would fade away. Where is the incentive to grow one's own talent when there is no transfer fee attached to that talent if it then moves on? Why not simply wait and buy the pre-prepared article--the fully developed player--without donating millions of pounds to a youth academy?

The Scottish clubs have been much slower. Some have begun to put together youth academies, but if they have not set up a production line to grow their own talent under a system of transfer fees, why would they ever do it? What sense would it make to introduce youth academies and football learning academies when there is no transfer fee at the end of it if, after four or five years, that youth moves on free of charge?

If we allow that system to develop, our national teams will no longer pick their teams from among the top domestic leagues; perhaps they already do not. The Scotland manager Craig Brown is doing an excellent job, but he would be forced to pick players from the bottom end of the English premiership and the bottom end of the Scottish premier league. Teams that are struggling against relegation would sometimes provide the core of the Scottish national football team. I fear that there would be a similar situation in England, where the coach would import players from the lower leagues at the bottom end of the English premiership.

We must introduce a threshold whereby clubs receive a transfer fee or substantial financial compensation for losing players, perhaps under the age of 23. There can be

23 Jan 2001 : Column 902

a debate about the exact threshold, but there must be a threshold, so that the club is rewarded for investing in its future and the future of young talent in and around its area.

Some foreign imports have contributed greatly to our national game, but unfortunately too many of them are mediocre players, in what is often now a mediocre league. The Scottish football league is not, colloquially, the Scots believe, something to be proud of. It is made up of at least three or four divisions. There are two teams at the top. Fortunately for me, they have started to take it in turns to win the league, but for a period one team used to win the league. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s it was one half of Glasgow, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s it was the other half. That is unhealthy. I fear that a similar situation is developing in the English premiership, with Manchester United winning more often than not. The national teams will be undermined enormously.

Let us look ahead to the footballing environment that we shall have in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe if transfer fees are abolished. Forty years ago, the idea that a football player would command a transfer fee of £1 million would have seemed crazy. Only five or six years ago, the idea that a player would now regularly command an annual salary of £1 million would have seemed absurd. If there is increasing individualisation and a breakdown of team spirit, with very few superstars moving between clubs, we shall be in a very difficult situation.

The abolition of transfer fees will work to the benefit of a very few star players who, I fear--this may be controversial--will move from team to team throughout the season. They will team up with their agent--who will make huge amounts of cash even though transfer fees have been abolished--and their sponsor, and shop around. They will shop around and European stars who, perhaps, are coming to the end of their careers, will sign for one or two weeks in big city clubs, get a share of merchandising and the television deal and then move on. That is not healthy. In future, we will see a period when individual stars will copyright their own names, images and everything about themselves so that they can attract even more funding.

As parliamentary spokesman for the players' union in Scotland, surely I should welcome players becoming more prosperous. However, prosperity will be in the hands of the few, not the many. The majority of football players will have short-term contracts, if any at all. Teams will have no transfer fees and clubs will know that those players will command nothing, so there is no reason at all to tie them into the system.

To wind up, some of those trends already exist and many of them are, perhaps, unstoppable. However, the proposed unconditional, uncompromising change by the European Commission will hasten the downfall of many of our clubs. If we think of the rich heritage across our continent, the famous and historic matches and brilliant individual flair and skill, and, in years to come, ask our own children which football player contributed most to European football and had the greatest lasting effect on our national game and the European game, sadly, the answer will be a gentleman called Bosman--not the great Platini or any other player. If we do not see meaningful change at this late hour in the European Commission's proposal, Bosman II will run him close as the second best known football player ever to play on our continent.

23 Jan 2001 : Column 903

Next Section

IndexHome Page