It’s July, pre-season is underway, and we find ourselves in the third tier of English football for the first time in thirty years. Together, Jack Ross and Stewart Donald need to build a league-winning team practically from scratch.
While we may have already signed six players for the first team, many fans seem worried, or even angry, that we have yet to spend a penny on transfer fees. This is an understandable concern, seeing as we’re arguably yet to see evidence of the new regime’s financial clout amid promises of a “hefty” budget, and that both Man City and Wolves won the Premier League and Championship respectively by outspending those around them.
However, the transfer market changes drastically below the Championship, and examining the transfer records of the teams promoted from League One in the last three seasons shows we need not be concerned by a lack of spending. In fact, the opposite may be true.
While many are understandably concerned that we have yet to pay money for a ‘proven’ League One player, a look at the transfer activity amongst the league’s clubs show this kind of deal simply does not happen. The biggest ever transfer fee paid between two League One clubs was the £1.2 million Sheffield Wednesday paid to sign Gary Madine from Carlisle back in 2010/11.
Proven League One players rarely move to other clubs in the division, but to Championship or even Premier League clubs. When they do move to League One clubs, it’s generally done when recently relegated Championship clubs buy players with a proven history in League One, who aren’t getting a game for a Championship club following a move.
These moves generally don’t cost much money, but Will Grigg’s transfer from newly-promoted Brentford to newly-relegated Wigan Athletic in 2015/16 for around £1 million shows how effective they can be - Wigan went up that season as champions with Grigg winning the Golden Boot.
Conversely, Wigan should also illustrate the risks of spending big in League One. Their total spend during this season of roughly £4.4 million accounts for more than half of all promotion-winning sides’ total transfer expenditure throughout the last three seasons.
Wigan secured key players such as Grigg, Morsi, and our own Reece James in this season, forming the core of their side for seasons to come, but ultimately meant they could only afford to spend £2 million the following Championship campaign. The club has yoyo-d between League One and the Championship since, and whilst their players outstanding in the third tier they’ve been unable to survive at the level above.
Generally, successful League One clubs follow a similar model. Those that can afford to, and are seriously challenging for promotion, use their funds to bring in a select few quality players then fill out their squad with free transfers and loans. Five of the nine promotion-winning teams of the last three seasons followed this model.
Last season’s champions Wigan split their £700k budget between Jamie Walker and James Vaughan (yes really), and second-place Blackburn Rovers spent the majority of their £1.7 million budget securing the services of key player Bradley Dack. Stewart Donald’s recent statements suggest we are to follow a similar model, using our limited transfer spend only to secure key players that will provide the goals and assists to get us out this division. History suggests this is a shrewd strategy.
Two standout players that fans of almost all EFL clubs would love to see their teams sign are Peterborough’s Jack Marriott and Marcus Maddison. Both players showed immense quality for the Posh last season and are also two examples of incredibly shrewd business.
Marriott only cost Peterborough £500k when they signed him from League Two Luton last summer, and Maddison was signed from Gateshead in 2014/15 for £300k after he was released by the Mags. This is the kind of business we need to emulate, signing young, hungry players for small fees that can go on to star for Sunderland in the Championship or make us a big profit.
However, unless we are signing players such as those, there really is no need to spend any money at all on League One players. This is a division that runs on free transfers and short-term contracts the likes of which we’ve signed players on and to so far.
Outside of the Premier League and Championship, free transfers represent not the value of the players involved, but the financial reality of football lower down the leagues. Clubs generally can’t risk signing players to three-to-five year contracts, nor can they afford to pay fees for players in divisions with massive player turnover.
A look at the last three seasons shows that nearly a third of the promoted teams spent nothing on players at all.
Bolton and Millwall in 2016/17 didn’t pay a single transfer fee, and Burton secured automatic promotion in 2015/16 paying out only one sum - £50k for Timmy Thiele, a striker who went on to score 1 goal in 25 appearances before leaving on a free transfer the following summer. Similarly, Rotherham gained promotion last season despite only spending on a single player, the £77k fee for Jamie Proctor going to waste as he missed most the season with an ACL injury.
Of course, Sunderland shouldn’t needlessly hamstring themselves in the transfer market, but fans should not feel worried about the club forming a squad largely composed through free transfers.
Similarly, fans should not be worried when they look back at the club’s transfer record and see us making a profit overall this season, as we almost definitely will. The sale of players such as Khazri, Kone, and Ndong will likely net us a profit head-and-shoulders above those our competitors, but a failure to spend this revenue should not be perceived as profiteering on the part of the owners.
Throughout the last three seasons, including the relatively massive spend by Wigan in 2015/16, the only promoted club to have made a loss on transfers overall is Blackburn Rovers - this made even more incredible by the fact they sold the unbeatable Jason Steele and released the invincible Wes Brown in the summer.
Combined, clubs have made a profit of over £13 million on transfers despite securing promotion. Following this model, we can save our funds to spend them when we need to - getting out of the ever more financially and sportingly competitive Championship.
For the first time in decades we find ourselves the overwhelming favourites to win a league campaign, a leviathan in a fish bowl.
Compared to the teams we find ourselves against we have every advantage off the pitch: better facilities, a bigger ground, a bigger wallet, and a massive, impassioned fanbase ready to enjoy their football again.
While we definitely need to leverage these factors when building our new squad, we shouldn’t let ourselves get carried away by unrealistic expectations or demands and risk ruining the positive atmosphere surrounding our new season.
Transfer Balance from the Last Three Seasons
Wigan: Spent £678k, received £1.16 million. Champions.
Blackburn: Spent £1.7 million, received £795k. Second Place.
Rotherham: Spent £77k, received £1.62 million. Promoted via playoffs.
Sheff Utd: Spent £755k, received £4.94 million. Champions.
Bolton: Spent £0, received £6 million. Second Place.
Millwall: Spent £0, received £0. Promoted via playoffs.
Wigan: Spent £4.76 million, received £5.78 million. Champions.
Burton: Spent £50k, received £460k. Second Place.
Barnsley: Spent £200k, received £1.4 million. Promoted via playoffs.
Total Transfer Spend: £7.83 million
Total Fees Received: £21.47 million
Net Profit: £13.64 million
All figures are from transfermarkt.com