In a crazy month in 1979 the British transfer record was broken twice in four days. It fuelled speculation a spending spree would see it spiral out of control. In reality it didn’t. The record wasn’t broken again for another two years, and then a further five years thereafter. But in a balmy summer two transfers had many in the game, hot under the collar. 1979 certainly was a year of sensational transfers.

It is difficult to understand the level of transfer fees when you go back many years as the standard of living, and average earnings, were vastly different. But let’s try and bring this into context.

When Kevin Keegan moved from Liverpool to Hamburg in the summer 1977 for £500,000 it raised the previous record, Bob Latchford from Birmingham to Everton, by £150,000.

Two years later West Brom paid Middlesbrough £516,000 for David Mills. Mills was a decent striker, but certainly not one of the best in the country and was never capped by his country. Ron Atkinson decided it was worth splashing the cash and so the record was broken.

TREVOR FRANCIS TRACKSUITS

Just a month later the football world was shocked when Brian Clough doubled it. Trevor Francis was one of the most talked about players when he made his debut for Birmingham at the age of 16. Before his 17th birthday he scored four goals in one game against Bolton. He’d made his international debut in 1977 and starred in the North American Soccer League (NASL) towards the end of the decade.

League Champions, Nottingham Forest, decided they needed more fire up front and so Clough approached Birmingham and offered £999,999. He maintained he didn’t want to breach the million pound mark in case it went to the player’s head. But VAT took the fee over the line and Francis was enshrined in history as the first million pound footballer. Registration restrictions meant he wasn’t able to play a part in Forest’s European Cup campaign until the semi-finals. But Clough kept him under wraps until the final where he scored the only goal of the game just before half-time. Forest two years earlier scraped a promotion place from the Second Division on goal difference. Now they’d won the league title and European Cup.

MALCOLM ALLISON

Meanwhile, Manchester City were making plans to bring the league title back to Maine Road after a ten-year absence. Manager Tony Book was moved upstairs to a role of general manager, and in came the flamboyant Malcolm Allison.

Allison had been part of the glory days at City when as assistant to Joe Mercer the club won six trophies in seven years in the 60s and 70s. Allison was a renowned coach, reputed to be way ahead of his time.

Tony Pulis tells a story of attending a course where he watched Allison coach a team to play a false nine system in the mid 70s.

When ‘Big Mal’ returned to Maine Road his love of the high life, the fedora, the cigar and the panache seemed to take things to a new level. By this time Peter Swales had taken over as chairman and the two rather erratic characters seemed to allow the sun to get to them.

SPEND, SPEND, SPEND

Things got off to an interesting start when they paid Wrexham, then a Second Division side, £300,000 for Bobby Shinton. Shinton had played a big part in the Welsh club’s FA Cup run a year earlier when they were a Third Division side. Swales claimed Shinton “could be another Mike Summerbee”. He wasn’t. In fact, he wasn’t another anyone at Maine Road. The 27-year old made just five starts for City before his final appearance came in the infamous FA Cup defeat to Fourth Division Halifax Town. He was loaned to Millwall before being sold to Newcastle United barely six months after he’d arrived.

Allison then plundered one of his old clubs, Crystal Palace and paid a record fee for a British teenager. He paid £250,000 for Steve MacKenzie. Yugoslav Dragoslav Stepanovic then joined for £140,000 before one of the most bizarre transfer deals was arranged.

ROBINSON’S LOLLY

Michael Robinson was a promising young striker at Second Division Preston North End, managed by World Cup winner Nobby Stiles. This could be a myth, but was a story told by a journalist and it went something like this.

Robinson was attracting interest from many top clubs but was a largely unproven talent. Given some of the fees which were being paid around the time, Preston and Stiles valued the player at around £200,000. Remember, just a few months earlier the British record transfer fee stood at just over £500,000.

Allison phones Stiles and says;
“Right then, Nobby. That Michael Robinson of yours. I wanna buy him”
“Ok”, says Stiles, “we really rate him, he’s gonna be a good player. It’ll need to be a good bid to give him up”
“Yeah he is a good player. £500,000”, offers Allison
Stiles nearly chokes.
“You’re joking Malc. £500,000? Come off it”
“No, straight up Nobby. Ok, £600,000 then”, replies Allison
“Oh stop it”, says Stiles by now doubled up with laughter. “Is this some kind of wind-up?”
“No, no wind up, Nobby. £750,000 and that’s my final offer”, offers Allison
Stiles waits for a second then says “ok done”.
“Well done Nobby. You drive a hard bargain but pleasure doing business with you, me old son”, and with that the deal is done and Robinson became a City player.

Robinson played 30 times that season for City before moving to Brighton for a lower fee than City paid for him. A measure of how big the fee was Allison paid Preston was in evidence when Joe Fagan brought him to Liverpool for £250,000 three years later. Robinson won three trophies in one season at Anfield.

But Allison wasn’t just spending the cash at City, he was bringing it in too. Out went Gary Owen (£500,000) to West Brom, Dave Watson (£150,000) to Werder Bremen, Asa Hartford (£500,000) to Nottingham Forest and then Peter Barnes to West Brom for £750,000. Watson, Hartford and Barnes were all established internationals, so the money was good but the loss of experience and talent really hit the team.

Then in September things hit ‘peak transfer’.

PEAK TRANSFER

Wolverhampton Wanderers were league champions three times in the fifties. Their last piece of silverware was the League Cup in 1974. By 1976 they were relegated to the Second Division. But manager John Barnwell got them back up at the first attempt in the same season Forest came up. They had a hard-working midfield and one of their runners was Steve Daley. Daley had only earned ‘B’ honours with England but was rated as a decent player. A few clubs had shown interest including Manchester United. In pre-season, The Daily Express ran a story about Daley going to United and Lou Macari going the other way. Richie Barker, Barnwell’s assistant, rubbished the report but hindsight suggests this was a way of flagging up they had a player to sell and clubs should come knocking before it was too late.

A month into the season and Daley did indeed move to Manchester but it was City who bid. Allison offered £1,437,500. It was an astonishing bid, almost 50% more than Forest paid for Francis just seven months earlier. Daley was nowhere near Francis standard. He’d spent eight seasons at Molineux playing almost 250 times. But no other club had come in for him and not even Don Revie, who seemed to pick almost any English-qualified First Division footballer, called him up for the national side.

Remember the Keegan transfer? Well, Liverpool paid Celtic £445,000 for Kenny Dalglish as Keegan’s replacement. Dalglish had won them a European Cup and then a league title, scoring 41 goals in two seasons. Now City were paying three times as much for Daley as Liverpool had for Kenny.

If the football world was shocked by the Daley transfer then what followed just added proof to the doom merchants who said football had lost all its mind.

BURNING A HOLE IN THE POCKET

Just four days after Wolves received their record cash sum, Barnwell couldn’t bear the money sitting around burning a hole in the pocket.

So they promptly turned up at Villa Park and paid Aston Villa £1,469,000 for Andy Gray.

Now to most people, Wolves had got the better of the whole deal. In 1977 he was joint top scorer in the First Division with Malcolm MacDonald. This earned him Young Player of the Year. He also became the youngest winner of the Player’s Player of the Year award. In doing so he was the first player to win more than one award in the same year.

The paths of the two players afterwards could not have been more different.

DALEY

Steve Daley struggled immediately. He clearly wasn’t prepared for the publicity or the size of the fee on his head. There was a story going around that Allison offered £400,000 and couldn’t believe it when Swales added a million onto that. Swales has always denied this and given Allison propensity for parting with cash it would seem out of character for Malcolm’s opening salvo to be so low.

He made his debut at home in a 0-1 defeat to Southampton. A week later they travelled to West Brom and were thumped 0-4 to go bottom of the table. They recovered slightly but in mid-December, they were also beaten 0-4 at Ipswich and back in the relegation zone.

Maine Road wasn’t a happy place. Too many experienced heads had been turfed out and the players who came in just weren’t up to the mark. Allison sold Mick Channon after he’d criticised his tactics. He moved Barry Silkman on for virtually the same reason.

Daley’s first goal for his new charges came in a 1-0 win at Bolton in November, and when he scored again it was just before Christmas when they won at Everton. It would be 18 more matches before they’d taste victory again when ironically Wolves were beaten in mid-April.

The nadir came on 5th January 1980. The Third Round of the FA Cup at Fourth Division Halifax Town. Paul Hendrie scored the only goal of the game and one of the biggest upsets in cup history occurred.

Daley made 33 appearances that season as the club finished in the bottom six. The following year after defeat at Leeds in early October Swales lost patience with Allison. City had yet to win and in fact, didn’t see victory till their 13th game of the season. Tony Book took charge of the next match when Daley scored in a defeat at West Brom. Then John Bond, former Norwich City boss, took charge of the team.

Daley started the first 14 games of the season and made his final appearance in a City shirt as a substitute in a 1-0 win at home to Norwich City at the start of November.

Bond clearly wasn’t as enamoured with him as Allison had been. 14 months after becoming the most expensive player in the country, Daley was shipped off to Seattle Sounders in the NASL for just £300,000. He returned to England a couple of years later to Second Division Burnley. But English football had long forgotten about any potential he might possess. He was a flop and stood no chance of ever proving otherwise.

MAN CITY

John Bond found there was little money to be frittered away. City lost fortunes on the likes of Daley and Robinson. But Bond recognised Allison’s work in bringing through some promising youngsters such as Nicky Reid, Ray Ranson, Tommy Caton and Dave Bennett. He set about bringing in some experienced hard-working players. Bobby McDonald and Tommy Hutchison joined from Coventry. Gerry Gow came from Bristol City and Phil Boyer was bought from Southampton. The fortunes improved markedly on the pitch. They finished mid-table in the league and reached the FA Cup Final only to lose in a replay to Tottenham.

GRAY

Where Daley visibly struggled under the weight of expectation at Maine Road, Gray was galvanised at Molineux. He scored on his debut in a 3-2 win at Everton. He scored four goals in his first three matches. He immediately formed a good partnership with Wolves legend, John Richards. The two scored 33 goals in all competitions between them. They won the League Cup, beating European Cup holders Nottingham Forest. It was Gray who scored the only goal of the game and with the club finishing in the top six, you could argue he paid back most of his fee.

He remained at the club until November 1983 when Everton paid £250,000 for him. With them he scored in another cup final, this time helping Everton win the FA Cup against Watford. A year later they won the league title and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup.

He was a crowd favourite at Goodison Park, but the arrival of Gary Lineker at Everton showed him his days were numbered. Summer 1985 saw him make the journey back to Villa.

WOLVES

To begin with Wolves couldn’t believe their luck. They received more than they really thought a club would pay for Daley. But it only took a few days before they couldn’t resist doing to another club what Manchester City had done to them. Offer a deal too good to turn down. They wanted a goalscorer to partner John Richards and believed Andy Gray was their man. Gray probably could’ve gone to Manchester United, so the money Wolves had in their back bin was an opportunity for them to play with the big boys. Gray undoubtedly made a difference. It could be argued he made THE difference. By the end of the season, they’d won the League Cup. Their first silverware for six years. This meant a European place for the next season. They beat reigning European Cup holders, Nottingham Forest. A Forest side who were just three months away from retaining their European crown. The atmosphere around the club was excellent. Some exciting young players alongside some seasoned pros.

But pretty soon it became obvious where the money arguably should’ve been spent. They’d been given the green light towards a multi-million rebuilding of the Molineux Street Stand. They went ahead with the improvements and to the brink of financial ruin. They had difficulties repaying loans and the inevitable relegation was followed by receivership. Gray was injured for much of the following season and his goal tally only just reached double figures.

They came straight back up, but then immediately went back down again. Only to find the drop this time was more severe. They slid from First Division to Fourth in successive seasons and the days of the big spenders, trophy lifters seemed a world away.

ASTON VILLA

Villa probably came out of all of this in the best position. They did what Wolves didn’t do, which was invest their money wisely. Although they benefited from having a decent young replacement sitting in the reserves, Gary Shaw. Gray had formed a good partnership with Brian Little and John Deehan in the previous couple of seasons. Villa accepted a bid from West Brom just before Gray went to Wolves. But in Gary Shaw, Villa had an ideal replacement and he ended his first full season as the club’s top scorer. Manager Ron Saunders then plumped for experience in a big centre-forward when he paid Newcastle United a club record £500,000 for Peter Withe. Withe and Shaw scored 41 goals between them as Villa won their first League Championship for 71 years.

To lose two players of importance as Deehan and Gray, both goalscorers, in the same month could well see the end for most clubs and managers. But Villa turned it to their advantage. Within two years they were League Champions and a year later they were the best team in Europe.

BRITISH TRANSFER RECORD

Gray’s record stood for two years before Manchester United breached the £1.5m mark when they bought Bryan Robson from West Brom. The record wouldn’t be beaten again until Manchester United accepted £2.3m from Barcelona for Mark Hughes.

But for many those four days in September were some of the craziest we’d seen during a time when football seemed to be losing all sense of perspective where money was concerned. And these were the days way before Sky and the Premier League.