The curse of the record fee

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

1 February 2005

What do these four players have in common?

John OsterJohn Oster

At the time of writing, John Oster has just had his Sunderland contract terminated, following two 'incidents' while on loan to Leeds. While at the age of 26 he still has time to fulfil his potential, there is no evidence that he is capable of learning from his mistakes.

Oster appeared just 21 times for a struggling Town side back in the 1996-97 season before Everton offered us £1.5 million for him - a fee that proved too good to turn down for the board and the returning Alan Buckley. He was an instant success in a young side... for about two months. Sent off on his Wales debut, the player's temper had always been a liability and his performances soon tailed off.

Peter Reid hoped to revive Oster's career, taking him to Sunderland in 1999 for £1m. Instead, Oster ended another player's career, shooting him in the eye with an air gun. His return to Blundell Park on loan, as Paul Groves struggled gamely to keep Town in the second flight, seemed to be just the fillip Oster needed as he enjoyed the most productive season and a half of his career for us and then for Sunderland.

But now, once more, his career is in jeopardy despite a short-term deal at Burnley. We probably got better service from the £1.5m - less than half of which brought Groves and Kevin Donovan over from the Hawthorns - than we would have had from Oster, who, you suspect, Buckley would have consigned to the reserves until he'd learnt to play for the team, not himself.

Gary CroftGary Croft

Sharing an agent with Brian Lara, it was a question of when, not if, Gary Croft became Town's first million pound player. The time turned out to be March 1996, when Blackburn obediently shelled out seven figures for his services. Quite why was a mystery, as he spent the next year in the reserves. Sold on to Ipswich for £540,000, it was still possible to imagine him establishing himself: he had scored a Match of the Day goal of the month and a few reporters identified him as a potential key player. Croft had seemed destined to make history, and he did, after a fashion, becoming the first professional player to play while electronically tagged, following a drink driving offence.

Croft, just turning 30, is now injured on Cardiff's books, unplayed since the first day of the current season. As for Town, his replacements were Tony Gallimore and Darren Barnard. We missed him.

Shaun Cunnington

A Bobby Roberts signing in 1988, Shaun Cunnington was made Town's captain by Alan Buckley. A hard-working, committed, box-to-box midfielder, he had a shot best described as erratic. In 1992, though, he became a man inspired as Town battled against an instant return to the third flight, and the most notable of a succession of man-of-the-match performances came against relegation rivals Sunderland. Both Town and the Rokerites survived, and in the close season Terry Butcher laid out £650,000 to take him to Roker Park.

His career at Sunderland is encapsulated by an index entry in Harry Pearson's book about football in the north-east, The Far Corner:

"Cunnington, Shaun unwittingly helps win swearing contest, p52"

Three seasons later, he joined the Hawthorns Rest Home for Twilight Mariners, where the fans were growing increasingly wary of Buckley's transfer policy, and Cunnington's career at West Bromwich was forestalled by the mere fact of his status as an ex-Grimsby player. His playing career ended at Notts County and Kidderminster. Out of a total of 452 league appearances, just 74 were made in the eight years after he left Grimsby. We hardly missed him; he was replaced by the equally hard-working but more skilful Paul Groves.

Andy TillsonAndy Tillson

Andy Tillson was at the heart of the mean defence that laid the basis for successive promotions under Alan Buckley. The Grimsby Telegraph's prophecy that he was "too good-looking for a central defender but is surely destined for the very top" seemed to be coming true when, in December 1990, he was signed by QPR, then a well-respected top division side.

It never quite happened. After 27 appearances and a return on loan to Grimsby, QPR recouped most of the £400,000 they paid for him, selling him on to Bristol Rovers where Malcolm Allison described him, optimistically, as half of the best central defensive partnership in the second flight. Rovers were relegated. Tillson had a respectable second division career, making 250 appearances for the Pirates and 50 for Walsall. But as his replacement at Blundell Park was Paul Futcher, again, we hardly missed him.

All four of these players attracted record fees for Town, and left apparently destined for better things. Those things have never materialised. Half of Oster's career goals have been scored in the 38 matches he has played for Town. Gary Croft was more famous as the most promising defender in the second flight than he ever was in the Premiership, until he achieved notoriety. Shaun Cunnington enjoyed some wonderful moments in his career, but nearly all while he was still at Blundell Park. Andy Tillson had a long career, in the second division.

So where did it all go wrong? Prosaically enough, injuries, especially for Cunnington and Croft, have played a major part in dampening their careers. But what else can we point to?

The first potential explanation is that we made them look good. Andy Tillson played his part in a very mean defence, but negligible goals-against columns are usually about good coaching as well as good players. An effective back four was well protected by a hard-working midfield. At GTFC Shaun Cunnington had a well-defined role in a settled side. At Sunderland, he was one of several new signings, failing to get used to each other. And even in relegation, the Town side that John Oster appeared for always looked like scoring goals.

Mark LawrensonA nobber

Then there is the too much, much too young theory. John Oster was just 18 when he became a high-profile signing at a high-profile club in a city where footballers have a high profile. It might have been better for him had he disappointed at first, but in fact his early appearances won adulation: Mark Lawrenson highlighted his ability on Match of the Day. John Oster is not the first young player for whom early success went to his head.

On the other hand there's the too little too late school of thought. Gary Croft spent three and a half years at Town making opposition forwards look silly. Andy Tillson learned the game at the grass roots: the Conference with Kettering, and the third and fourth divisions with us. If he made a mistake, there was a fair chance that the opposition wouldn't take full advantage. Like Oster, Tillson had a promising start at QPR and at first supporters forgave his occasional lapses in the expectation that he'd learn from them. Apparently, he didn't. Both ball-playing defenders, perhaps the indulgences Tillson and Croft could afford for Town were too ingrained to overcome when they came up against better opponents.

Don HoweDon Howe

What about bad management? Andy Tillson was signed by Don Howe as a sweeper. In the close season, Gerry Francis replaced Howe and decided he didn't need a sweeper - but Tillson had played in a back four often enough to compete for a place. When Blackburn signed Croft, Graeme le Saux had a broken leg. Still they didn't play him. He had a year to lose confidence and fitness and find some bad habits - but Liverpool at their best used to treat their lower-league signings in just the same way. Most bizarre is the treatment of Shaun Cunnington. Can you imagine him taking Gary Childs' place on the right wing? Terry Butcher obviously could, because that's where he played him.

Perhaps it's a case of unrealistic expectations. This cuts both ways. Perhaps we set our sights too high as our favourite sons departed. Perhaps everyone underestimated the jump between Football League and Premiership. Shaun Cunnington only joined another second-flight side, but with the burden of a hefty price tag. A Sing When We're Fishing contributor once likened Cunnington to contemporary England international Geoff Thomas (meaning Cunnington was that good, not Thomas was that bad, before you ask); Sunderland's assistant manager chose to heap on the pressure, saying he was better than David Platt.

Danny ButterfieldDanny Butterfield

This is as close as you can get to the one-size-fits-all explanation. Follow the career of any player closely and you suddenly realise how much luck, good or bad, is involved, but they all depend on individual judgements. Perhaps Croft would have made it if he'd been sold sooner, but Oster could have benefited from a season or two longer in the Football League. He might have been seduced by the bright lights of Merseyside; Peter Handyside stayed, seduced by the dim lights of Humberside, but he too never had the career his talents demanded, denied a Wembley man of the match award because the adjudicator was a Scot scared of showing bias.

One thing you can say is that if a player is to go, then they should avoid that record fee. Danny Butterfield slipped down to London almost unnoticed, and certainly unmourned, yet played a key role in Palace's rise to the Premiership. Clive Mendonca is perhaps the only Town player who might feature in the best ever XIs of both us and another club. At the very least, they prove that despite the experience of the players who went for big bucks, the gap can be bridged between starring for Town - or even being the scapegoat for Town - and playing in the Premiership.

Has Pat's hammer hit Oster's nail on the head, or do you reckon he's missed something? Use the Cod Almighty feedback page to share your thoughts.