Below the radar, Watford have so far been the busiest club in the transfer window. Hassane Kamara, a full back, has arrived from Nice, centre back Samir from Udinese and midfielder Edo Kayembe from Belgian club Eupen.
It is thought experienced Croatian defender Domagoj Vida will soon follow, from Turkish club Besiktas.
So far, no fees have been disclosed. They won’t come to much anyway. Kamara fetched around £4million a year and a half ago, Samir more or less the same in 2016. Kayembe’s value is estimated at £4m, too, and Vida has never cost more than that in his career.
And for all the talk of Premier League extravagance, this is what many deals are like outside the elite, even quite important ones.
Michail Antonio cost West Ham £7m; Leeds goalkeeper Illan Meslier was £5.85m; Burnley paid £3.6m for James Tarkowski; Jan Bednarek went to Southampton for £5m.
The small numbers count in the Premier League and here’s the irony. The people who came up with the blasted 39th game understood that, the champions of the fan-led review do not.
Rotten idea, the 39th game. Opposed it then, would oppose it now. A league should be an equal number of matches, home and away, and no fan should have to fly to Singapore to watch his or her team.
There are fans who pride themselves on being ever-present. They should not have to save up for a trip to Melbourne to maintain that record.
Yet the 39th game did have a purpose and it was this — to increase competition. To bring the lower reaches, in some small way, nearer to the elite.
There was going to be £100m raised and it was going to be divided equally, 20 ways — so £5m each. To Chelsea or Manchester United, £5m is nothing. Yet to those outside the elite, £5m can be a lot. A goalkeeper, a striker, a centre half. Important positions, important players, if spent wisely.
So the 39th game would have been of negligible worth to those in pursuit of the title, but might have made the difference at, say, Norwich.
Now think about the transfer tax. Its supporters will argue that some Premier League clubs, privately, are not against the scheme. But we can guess which ones.
What difference would a 10 per cent levy on transfers make at Manchester United, who paid agent Mino Raiola £41m for bringing them Paul Pogba? Or at Manchester City, where wages have now risen to £355m?
Yet, at Watford, a 10 per cent add-on might be the difference between recruiting another player and not. And that player gets them nearer to being able to compete with the elite, or keeps them north of Saudi-backed Newcastle. It shrinks the gap between haves and have-nots.
The misconception is that the Premier League is awash with money. Not relatively, is isn’t.
Oldham, bottom of the League Two table, are much nearer top club Forest Green Rovers than Norwich are to Manchester City. The difference is Forest Green have a business model that works while Oldham do not.
And whose fault is that? Why should Norwich be denied the opportunity to be more competitive in their own league just because the Oldham owner Abdallah Lemsagam can’t make his sums add up?
Atrocious idea, the 39th game. Until the Super League came along, we thought nothing could be worse. And now, we’re fixing the Super League with something that is.
It could be on the statute books this year.
And by the time you see the ramifications for top-tier competition, it will be too late.
Costly Claret may still turn sour
So Newcastle did have inside knowledge when pursuing Chris Wood. A move that appeared doomed — why would Burnley sell, weaken themselves and strengthen a rival? — turned out to be a sure thing because Wood’s agents, CAA Base, had tipped off Newcastle about his £25 million release clause when they did Kieran Trippier’s deal. And kicking down at Burnley makes perfect sense.
Yet it isn’t Burnley who Newcastle need to finish above. It’s Watford, or Leeds, maybe Everton, even Brentford. Burnley and Norwich dropping doesn’t necessarily save Newcastle. And does Wood? He’s scored three goals all season, the last on November 20.
The man he is covering for, Callum Wilson, has double that in four fewer league starts. The final game of the season sees Newcastle at Turf Moor. It will be interesting to note where Wood has taken his new club by then.
United at risk of failing to unlock Rashford's potential
Legend has Brian Kidd standing next to Alex Ferguson, the day they were watching a 15-year-old Ryan Giggs. ‘If we can’t make this one a player,’ Kidd murmured, ‘we should pack it in.’ Much the same might have been said about Marcus Rashford once.
Yet, somehow, Manchester United are managing it. Rashford is a player, sure. Almost 300 games for Manchester United, almost 100 goals; 46 appearances for England, an MBE. But he’s not Giggs. He’s not at football’s pinnacle.
Rashford doesn’t even have an established place in Manchester United’s team. Ralf Rangnick has coached seven games so far and Rashford has occupied three positions. He has made just 15 appearances in all competitions this season and scored three goals.
There is one manager in Manchester who would know what to do with him but, sadly, he is at the wrong club.
Rashford is the United player Pep Guardiola most admires, yet one can never imagine him in a blue shirt. Might his trajectory have been different, though, had United possessed a more coherent vision? And might Kidd’s worst fears have been realised had Giggs had the misfortune to arrive at Old Trafford in an era of underachieving turmoil?
Peaty’s cash for medals hopes are in recession
Cheltenham's Gold Cup is one of the grand events in the sporting calendar.
It will no doubt find a sponsor before the 2022 edition on March 18. That it is still looking, however, with little more than two months to go, is a sign of a recession that has barely begun.
Yet when Adam Peaty stood before MPs last year and cited the £551,000 athletes in Singapore receive for gold medals, he urged the Government to offer similar incentives.
‘If you’ve won a gold medal for your country, you got us to a final, here’s a little bit of a thank you,’ he said. Do you know how much Singapore would have paid out to their athletes since 1948 had they offered £551,000 per gold? £551,000. That bonus would have gone exclusively to Joseph Schooling in 2016, for winning the men’s 100 metres butterfly.
By comparison, if Great Britain paid for gold over the same period, this country would be out £95.3 million; £55.1m of it since 2008. Tokyo 2020 would have cost £12.1m. And that’s before we include finals, as Peaty did. There were also 21 silvers and 22 bronze in Tokyo, not including those who made finals, but not the podium.
We cannot keep pretending we have money for everything; certainly not for individuals to become millionaires out of modern pentathlon or BMX. Olympic athletes work very hard. They have the gratitude of the nation.
They also have sponsors, prize money, a government wage and commercial cachet. Ideally, bonuses too. But there is a recession looming and surviving it will depend on the correct priorities. We can’t be in hock to skateboarding.
Reds rivalry not behind the Axel axe
One thing we can guarantee is that Steven Gerrard wants to win matches for Aston Villa. To do this, he will utilise any player he believes can be of assistance. To imply, then, that Axel Tuanzebe’s Villa loan soured because of some festering resentment between Liverpool and Manchester United is quite preposterous.
Yet that was the accusation from Dimitri, Tuanzebe’s brother and agent. ‘Following the arrival of Gerrard, it felt as if the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United came to life,’ he said.
‘Axel can only reach his full potential in an environment where opportunities are fair.’
It is true that United central defender Tuanzebe (right) did not start a game once Gerrard arrived. He is now on loan at Napoli.
Equally, there could be more to it than prejudice. Tuanzebe did begin six league games under Dean Smith, but of those, Villa lost four and drew one, conceding 11 goals. Might it be that Gerrard is less motivated by spite, more by what he has seen?
Benitez has form for player fall out
Lucas Digne left Everton with a parting shot at Rafa Benitez. ‘Sometimes it only takes one person from outside to destroy a beautiful love affair,’ he said. And it does seem strange that Benitez should have fallen out with the player many would regard as Everton’s finest asset.
Then again, it would not be the first time. Benitez exiled John Terry during his time as interim coach at Chelsea, too. After Benitez took over on November 21, 2012, Terry only started another five Premier League games, four of them in the last six weeks of the season.
When Jose Mourinho arrived in the summer he restored Terry, who played 34 league games the following year and was ever-present in 2014-15 when Chelsea won the title. To this day it seems bizarre that Benitez did not build bridges, as he didn’t with Digne. Yet where will Everton find a full back of his calibre for £25million?
Mike Ashley could restore some pride at Pride Park
Increasingly, Mike Ashley is linked with Derby. Now we may find out where those who castigated previous owner Mel Morris for his extravagant tilts at promotion stand, if Ashley arrives balancing the books with a strict financial regimen.
Ashley knows he failed at Newcastle, but not in every area. He ran a sustainable football club, the antithesis of Derby under Morris. Maybe he will learn from his mistakes, too, and not allow the estrangement that ruined much of his Newcastle tenure.
Either way, it will be fascinating to discover how much hard economic reality followers of Derby wish to entertain; or whether there will be fury when much-needed fiscal responsibility does not come with a splurge on players incongruously attached.
AJ's ten commandments
Anthony Joshua is in training for his rematch with Oleksandr Usyk in April and has, apparently, set up a list of 10 commandments for his gym. These include such insights as ‘2: No f***ing about’. The rest — ‘3: Protect hands. 5: Be on time. 6: Give 100 per cent.’ — would appear to be little more than common sense.
There does seem to be one glaring omission, however. So, 11: Try not to get completely outboxed this time.
AFCON could do with some action
What an ordinary spectacle the Africa Cup of Nations has been so far. After the first tranche of 12 matches, only one — the tournament opener between Cameroon and Burkina Faso — had featured more than a single goal. The average number of goals per game was one, with nine 1-0 wins and two goalless draws. A third of goals scored had been penalties.
This is before we factor in the cancellation of Tunisia’s training session due to a separatist rebel attack in the city of Buea, where four teams are based, and the dismal refereeing of Janny Sikazwe, who blew the final whistle short, twice, when Mali played Tunisia. It has since been claimed he was suffering from heatstroke, and became confused. Maybe the strikers are, too.
Criminal action for 'rent boy' chants aimed at Chelsea
The Crown Prosecution Service has warned it will take criminal action against fans who use the homophobic ‘rent boy’ chant, particularly popular against players from Chelsea. And it is quite horrible, true.
Still, it now leaves ‘yid’ as the only racial slur it is possible to shout at full blast at football matches, because it has become legitimised by, among others, the Metropolitan Police, the Oxford English Dictionary and supporters of Tottenham Hotspur. Daniel Levy must be so proud.
Tennis in danger of inviting unnecessary Netflix drama
It is a worrying trend that tennis is planning its equivalent of the Formula One Netflix show, Drive To Survive. The inside track on the Novak Djokovic scandal is being promised, yet why stop there?
The next time Djokovic is leading a final, will the organisers arbitrarily award two sets to his opponent, and insist on the 20-time champion serving the deciding set underarm to add to the drama? After all, that’s pretty much what happened to Lewis Hamilton in Abu Dhabi.
Tragic end for mighty athlete Snowfall
Snowfall, the brilliant winner of the Oaks, the Irish Oaks and Yorkshire Oaks, has been destroyed after damaging her pelvis in a horsebox. ‘She was fed at lunchtime by one of the lads and when he went back an hour later, she was lame,’ said Aidan O’Brien, her trainer.
Snowfall set a record last June when winning the Epsom Classic by 16 lengths. It is such a terrible tragedy that these mighty athletes can be, at once, so fit and yet so vulnerable.