The Spurs summer of 2018: Money’s too tight to mention
A shortened summer transfer window came and went, and whether by accident or design, Spurs have written themselves a place in Premier League history by failing to add a single player.
One question dominated the reaction to this unprecedented lack of signings: why?
Mauricio Pochettino has developed into a formidable front-man, and he was in top form in his press conference on Thursday, defending Tottenham’s approach and attempting to put the transfer window in perspective. Having asked for greater influence in transfers, he couldn’t really say anything else, but his tone and manner were reassuring. His broader point —that Spurs are never going to be able to outspend the likes of Manchester City in order to reach the top — makes sense.
No one expected major surgery this summer, or Joe Lewis to unleash his inner oligarch and start bankrolling the club, but surely there was at least one player Spurs could have identified, for a not totally extortionate fee, to improve the team?
Others have written far better than I can about the Spurs summer — Alan Fisher got to the heart of it in this excellent piece. James Yorke’s Spurs preview — an annual highlight — made an emphatic case for a world-class central midfielder. Instead, we’re left to squeeze one more year out of Mousa Dembele, or hope Harry Winks has finally recovered from injury and picks up where he left off at the Bernabeu.
Sell to buy vs ring-fenced
I spend a lot of time gazing at the stadium cameras on the Spurs website, and through the summer, as the rumours came and went, couldn’t help but contrast the lack of activity in the transfer market with the frantic effort to get the stadium finished.
Daniel Levy has spoken previously of a “ring-fenced” transfer budget. It conjures an image of a set amount — £30m or £40m, say — set aside each year for transfers. But I wonder if this has been misinterpreted.
I have previously charted Tottenham’s transfer activity under Pochettino, and the picture is clear — right now, this is a sell-before-you-buy transfer policy.
Only the signing of Lucas Moura has tipped Spurs into the red in the Pochettino era, and by comparison with any other top six club it is modest in the extreme. By “ring-fenced”, it is more likely this means Pochettino is free to spend all transfer income — for example, Pochettino was able to reinvest all the Kyle Walker proceeds.
Ultimately, this summer, the failure to secure any fees for unwanted players before the deadline means no money for Pochettino. The serious interest in Jack Grealish suggests a little more flexibility in play, particularly if selling clubs are willing to accept staggered payments, which Spurs hoped during the peak of Villa’s financial crisis.
This prudent policy is understandable in context of a stadium construction project that has increased significantly in cost through its various phases. Pochettino even blamed the impact of Brexit — a well-targeted comment for a fan base that stopped being working class a long time ago. Certainly, as I’ve previously mentioned, Spurs have been unlucky in timing with much of the purchasing taking place after the pound started to weaken, but planning (and financial modelling) taking place when pound was strong.
The missing name
In addition to increased costs due to the weaker pound, design and specification choices, and the pressures of having to complete the project on a strict timeline, there is also a black hole at the heart of the project — naming rights.
Naming rights income was one of the core components of the funding strategy. Chief executive Donna-Maria Cullen said naming rights income was not essential to completing the stadium, which is accurate, but the comments were a bit disingenuous as this missing money has an impact.
According to one source who I trust, the borrowing for the stadium has increased from £400m to £560m. This increase is pretty much the exact amount that Spurs might realistically have modeled in terms of naming rights income. The increased borrowing has not been announced by the club — if it were a new facility, it would be publicized, so it might be that the existing facility has been extended. This will mean higher financing costs, for starters. Also, I wonder — but will admit I do not fully understand — the impact this will have in pure cash terms, i.e. the ability of Spurs to finance large up-front payments for players. The flexibility to do deals beyond ring-fenced transfer income may have been comprimised: the money may simply not be there, right now.
ENIC created a £50m contingency, but aside from this Joe Lewis has put no money into the stadium. When Spurs bid for the Olympic Stadium, Tavistock Group backstopped the naming rights portion of the funding — for the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Tavistock Group provided a “letter of comfort” to guarantee funding for the project, in context of the legal battle with Archway Sheet Metal. Perhaps Uncle Joe has filled the gap, but I highly doubt it judging by his track record — throughout his tenure, he has sat back, done nothing, and watched his investment grow and grow. His next move, surely, is to sell, rather than start investing heavily in the club. The original finance was cheap, and it seems reasonable that Spurs could borrow more.
Part of the frustration fans have felt is the timing — transfer austerity won’t end until the stadium is finished, but fans are already shelling out for more expensive tickets. With a housing development still to build in an iffy market, this austerity may last a little longer — that “statement” signing will have to wait. The greater fear is that, key players like Dele and Christian Eriksen see a lack of ambition and decide to move on next summer. But this fear has existed for a number of years, yet core players are still there and apparently perfectly happy.
If there’s one thing that concerns me, it is the failure to secure highly rated English youngsters.
This has been a strength for Spurs throughout the ENIC era — identifying good young players and developing the hell out of them, as happened with Dele, Danny Rose, Michael Dawson and so forth. From the outside, it appeared that Spurs dithered over both Ryan Sessegnon and Jack Grealish, failing to move aggressively at the right time and then seeing circumstances at both clubs change.
Of course, Spurs want to develop their own players, but both Sessegnon and Grealish seemed good fits. Pochettino’s reputation for developing talent is a major selling point for Spurs, not replicated at other top six clubs — it’s the chance for Spurs to “do things differently” as Pochettino stressed on Thursday. If the stadium funding crunch is preventing Spurs from completing these sorts of deals, that’s a missed opportunity.
We’ll probably never know the full story of the summer of 2018, and it seems unlikely we’ll get a full accounting of the stadium. Spurs have long been a club that fears transparency.
Spurs are still well-positioned for the move into the new stadium, and as long as we’ve got the best striker in the world we’ll contend for the top four. But it still feels like we’re nudging up against the glass ceiling — if the stadium is the silver bullet to shatter it, it’s not been fired yet.
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