It’s time to scrap the January transfer window
Neil Clark: That’s just the first measure needed to make the Premier League permanently exciting
Most pundits, as well as English football's longest-serving senior manager, are in agreement: this is the most exciting football season since the Premier League started. Instead of the usual dominance of the same two or three clubs, top-flight football has at times been gloriously unpredictable and fiercely competitive this year.
Reigning champions Chelsea have recorded only one win in their last seven matches. Arsenal have already lost at home three times. Manchester United have drawn almost half their games. "The general public like what they're seeing now, ourselves dropping points, Chelsea dropping points, Arsenal dropping points," says Sir Alex Ferguson. And he's right.
Since August, we've witnessed a succession of startling results such as Chelsea 0 Sunderland 3, Arsenal 2 West Brom 3, Liverpool 1 Blackpool 2, and Tottenham 0 Wigan 1. Sunderland, available at odds of 1,000-1 at the start of the season, lie just seven points off the top of the table in sixth position, while only six points separate the side in eighth position, Newcastle, from the side in eighteenth, Wigan Athletic.
But as refreshing as all of this is, normal service is likely to resume after Christmas. The reason? The January transfer window.
The window, which runs from January 1 until February 2, allows the richer clubs to effectively buy points, by poaching the best of the talent from other teams.
Ian Holloway's Blackpool, who have been one of the surprise teams of the season so far, and who have delighted neutrals with their fearless attacking play, are resigned to losing their influential playmaker Charlie Adam.
At Bolton, manager Owen Coyle, who has guided his team to seventh place in the Premier League, has conceded that his star striker Johan Elmander could leave in January.
West Brom, who apart from winning at Arsenal this season, also held Manchester United to a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford, could lose winger Chris Brunt, who has been linked to Liverpool.
It's been reported that Chelsea are eyeing up a bid for Tottenham's Luca Modric, while Chelsea and Spurs are said to be 'monitoring' Newcastle striker Andy Carroll (above), who has scored 10 goals for the Magpies, and is the league's second top scorer.
Shorn of their best players, the likes of Blackpool, Bolton, Newcastle, and West Brom are likely to slip down the table in the second half of the season.
The richer clubs will start to reassert themselves, and top flight football will revert to its boring predictability.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
If we want to maintain the current excitement of the Premier League, then we need to scrap the transfer window - as Sunderland manager Steve Bruce has advocated - and force teams to play with the same squad all year round.
Once we've done that, we can look at ways of making the league even more competitive.
Although this season has been the most unpredictable in the league's history, the fact remains that at Christmas Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, the only teams to have won the league in the past 15 years, still occupy three of the first four places. The monopolisation of the Premier League is in stark contrast to the situation in the late 1960 and early 1970s - where seven different teams won the old First Division title between 1966 and 1972.
To get back to having a truly competitive top flight league, we need to impose salary caps (as exist in rugby union and rugby league) and a variation of the US college draft system, which operates in America's National Football League.
As I explained in an article for The First Post in 2006, the NFL, in addition to imposing a salary cap, operates a draft system in which the teams that finish at the bottom of the league have first pick of next year's college recruits, while Super Bowl winners have the last selection.
As I wrote then: "Imagine if a similarly redistributive scheme operated in the Premier League. Wayne Rooney (provided, that is, a college could be found to accept him) might have found himself playing at Portsmouth or Sunderland; Manchester United would not have had a look-in."
If capitalist America can operate such a redistributive and socialistic sports system, why can't we? The Americans have grasped something which British free marketeers find it hard to understand - that if you leave sport to 'market forces', you don't get more excitement and unpredictability, but much less.
Wouldn't it be great if the Premier League were to be won by Bolton Wanderers one year, and a newly promoted team such as Cardiff City, the next? And if the 'old guard' of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United faced the real threat of relegation every once in a while. These same 'big clubs' are likely to resist any moves to make the Premier League more competitive, but if we really want a top flight where anyone can beat anyone, we need to take action now. ·