BY Vince Cooper

(Main photo. Alf Common)

The current British transfer record (the biggest amount involving a club from the UK) is jointly held by Romelu Lukaku and Virgil van Dijk both of whom cost their respective clubs, Manchester United and Liverpool, £75m. This is some way off the global record of course – Paris St Germain shelled out almost £200m for Neymar last year. But as you’re about to find out – we’ve come a long way!

Obviously the price of everything has risen over the years; for example, when Sunderland paid Burnley £6,500 for Bob Kelly in 1925 the average house price in the UK was £619.

But transfer fees in Football certainly stand out.

So let’s have a look at how it has risen, and at what happened to those record breakers. Starting with those who set the mark before the First World War.

The first move to rock football came in 1893 when Aston Villa paid fellow Midlanders West Bromwich Albion £100 for the services of Scotsman WILLIE GROVES.

An inside forward, Groves had been successful in his career from the outset. He broke into the Hibernian team as a 17-year-old and was part of their Scottish Cup winning side of 1886-87, although their was some controversy when semi-final victims Vale of Leven claimed he was being paid – the game was still amateur north of the border – and objected to the Scottish FA, an objection that was eventually denied, but not until after Hibs had won the final.

By his 20th birthday Groves was a Scotland international, scoring on his debut in a 5-1 win over Wales on his home ground. He would go on to play just three games for his country, scoring four goals with the other three coming in one match against Northern Ireland.

In August 1888 Groves, along with a number of Hibs teammates, moved to Glasgow, his city he was born in, to Irish parents, and joined newly-formed Celtic. He was a key member of his new team’s run to the 1889 Scottish Cup Final, scoring nine of their 36 goals. His team lost a twice-played final to Third Lanark. Thirds won the first match 3-0 but it was played in ankle-deep snow and with both sides playing under protest it was ordered that it should be replayed.

A week later the teams met again in front of an 18,000 crowd. Conditions were better, but not a whole lot with Third Lanark again playing under protest but they ran out 2-1 winners.

Groves can lay claim to being the first Celtic hero. He scored twice in their first-ever league match, a 5-0 win over Hearts and also got the club’s first-ever goal against Rangers in top-class football, another Scottish Cup match.

Within a year Groves was on the move again, this time venturing south to join the professional ranks and sign for West Bromwich Albion. Moving from his original position as a forward, he played at left-half for the Baggies and was again on the cup trail.

West Bromwich Albion 1892 FA Cup winners. Willie Groves third from right

In 1892 West Brom made it to the cup final for the fourth time, and won the trophy for the second, seeing off Aston Villa 3-0 at Kennington Oval in front of 32,000 fans.

Within a year he was playing for the team he helped beat when Villa successfully bid a transfer record £100 for his services.

Villa were forced to pay the fee after allegations that they had illegally approached Groves and another player, George Reynolds. He helped Villa to the 1893-94 title but then left the club after a disagreement over contract terms. By this time Scotland had lifted it’s ban on professionalism and he rejoined Hibernian where he was a member of the team that lost the 1896 Scottish Cup final to city rivals Hearts.

Soon after, Groves moved again, leaving the club where fans called him ‘Darlin Willie’ and rejoining Celtic. Sadly he was forced to retire soon after, aged just 28, as he was suffering from tuberculosis.

Groves died in 1908 aged just 39. After he passed away one newspaper described him as ‘A sort of Romeo in the sport’.

In the early days of football, transfer fees and the reporting of them could be somewhat sketchy (not much changed there then!) and it would be tough to come up with a definitive list of the rise of the transfer fee.

What is known is that in 1901 Sunderland received £325 from Sheffield United for the services of ALF COMMON.

The locally-born striker had been at Roker Park for a mere season at the time of the move and his goals had helped the team to runners-up spot in the league.

The move actually worked out for both sides; Sunderland finished the 1901-02 season as champions whilst Common opened the scoring for Sheffield United in their 1902 F.A. Cup final win over Southampton.

In fact Common wasn’t only the second record breaker, he was also the third – and later, the fifth. He spent three years at Bramall Lane and became an England international during that time. However in 1904 he refused to re-sign with the Yorkshire club stating that he wanted to return to the North East because of ‘business interests’. United reluctantly agreed to the sale, but not before negotiating a decent profit, with the forward and reserve goalkeeper Albert Lewis costing Sunderland £520.

The new record didn’t last long and Sunderland were again involved when they sold Scot, ANDY McCOMBIE to close rivals Newcastle United for £700.

McCombie, from Inverness, started his career with local club Inverness Thistle before moving south when fellow-Scot Robert Campbell snapped him up for Sunderland in 1898, aged 22.

A right back, he joined a team that had the current England international in that position in Phillip Bach.

It was while Bach was away on international duty that McCombie got his chance, at Sheffield Wednesday in 1899. He never looked back and the previous occupant of the position would play just twice more for the Roker Park club before leaving for Middlesbrough.

Sunderland’s all-Scots defence of McCombie, goalkeeper Ned Doig and left-back Jimmy Watson was the cornerstone of a fine team that finished league runners-up twice and third once before finally capturing the title in 1901-02. The trio also played together for their country, with whom McCombie made four appearances.

In 1903 McCombie fell out with Sunderland over money. The club gave him £100 to start up a business believing that the money would be repaid from proceeds from a benefit match. The player in the other hand, thought it was a gift.

The FA were asked to adjudicate and, in fact, launched a full enquiry into Sunderland’s business. The result was that the club were found guilty of financial irregularities and fined £250 whilst six directors and the manager were suspended. McCombie on the other hand, was exonerated.

The relationship between club and player was understandably soured by the dispute and it came as no surprise when he was sold to Newcastle in early 1904.

McCombie spent six years in the Newcastle side before retiring, at 34 years old, in 1910 having won two titles to go with the one won at Sunderland.

After hanging up his boots McCombie remained with the club, eventually rising to be first-team coach. He retired in 1950 having given United 46 years service. He passed away in 1952.

Just over a year after McCombie had taken his record away, COMMON was back as the most expensive player, and also the first to cost £1,000.

Common had been at Sunderland a mere six months when Middlesbrough, threatened by relegation offered the four-figure fee which the Rokerites simply couldn’t refuse.

In his first start for Boro, Common scored from the penalty spot to secure victory at former club Sheffield United. It was the club’s first away win for almost two years and the impetus gained from it helped the Ayresome Park-ers climb the table eventually finishing comfortably clear of the drop.

Common remained at Ayresome Park for six years scoring 58 goals in 168 games before moving to Woolwich Arsenal for £250 at the age of 30. After two years and 23 goals in London he moved again, this time to 2nd Division Preston North End who he helped gain promotion to the top flight.

He retired from football in 1914 and ran pubs in Darlington until passing away in 1946 aged 65.

Next up on our list of record breakers is JOHN (JOCK) SIMPSON, an Englishman sold by a Scottish club to an English one.

Simpson was born on Christmas Day 1885 in Salford, Manchester where his Scottish father was employed as an iron worker. They returned to Scotland when John was 3 but this made him, for international football purposes at least, an Englishman.

His early clubs were Grange Villa and Laurieston Juniors in his home town. After an unsuccessful trial with Rangers in 1906 the small, fast outside-right signed for Falkirk.

By the following season he was attracting the attention of clubs south of the border. Blackburn offered £1,000 for him which was rejected as was Chelsea’s bid of £1,500.

During his time at Brockville Park, Simpson made 269 league appearances, scoring 166 times and was part of the team that twice finished runners-up in the Scottish League. He also represented the Scottish League in a match against the Southern League in 1910.

In 1911 Blackburn finally got their man. It cost them £1,850 plus James Robertson who was playing for Vale of Leven at the time but whose registration Blackburn still held.

Robertson, a centre-forward, was no mere makeweight in the deal and finished top scorer in his first four years at Falkirk. Meanwhile Simpson went on to became a key member of the Rovers team led by the legendary Bob Crompton that won the Football League in both 1911-12 and 1913-14. He also earned eight England caps, never appearing on the losing side for his country. 

After war broke out Simpson returned to Scotland and was back at Falkirk where his former club tried to re-sign him. He briefly tried to resurrect his career at Blackburn after the war but was soon back in his home town and played for Falkirk Amateurs and Falkirk Orient in the Falkirk Wednesday Shopkeepers League.

Simpson would later be mine host at the Horseshoe Inn on Falkirk High Street, living in the centre of town until passing away in 1959. His ‘other’ claim to fame is that his great-nephew was Bobby Simpson, captain of the Australian cricket team during the 1960s

During 1912-13, the season between Blackburn’s two title wins, the team had started well but underwent a difficult period over Christmas and New Year. To remedy things manager Robert Middleton broke the transfer record again with the January £2,000 purchase of DANNY SHEA from West Ham United. Shea, who received a reported £550 of the fee, scored 12 times in the second half of the season but the goal spree wasn’t enough as Rovers finished 5th.

Shea, born in Wapping in 1887 and the son of a wharf labourer, was playing for the Builders Arms pub team in Stratford when he was spotted by West Ham coach Charlie Paynter.

In four seasons with The Hammers, Shea scored 103 goals in 166 games in the Southern League. He was described as; “an artful schemer and delicate dribbler who had the knack of wheeling suddenly when near goal and unleashing a thunderbolt shot”.

In his first full season with Rovers, Shea top-scored with 27 goals and the team comfortably regained their title, claiming the crown by seven points.

Towards the end of the 1913-14, Shea was chosen for two England matches, against Ireland and Wales (in the second of these he lined up alongside fellow transfer record-breaker Simpson).

During the War, Shea returned to West Ham, appearing in the London Combination whilst working as a docker and he also guested for Celtic, Nottingham Forest, Birmingham and Fulham.

When peace came he returned to Blackburn, spending two more seasons in Lancashire, and winning two more England caps in Victory Internationals against Scotland (surprisingly he failed to score in all of his international starts) before being transferred back to West Ham.

Beset by injuries, Shea wasn’t as successful during his second spell with West Ham, and was transferred to Fulham in 1923. He made a century of appearances for the Craven Cottage side before moving again, first to Coventry City and then Clapton Orient.

Outside-right Peter Gavigan who partnered Shea at both Fulham and Clapton Orient described him as; “the prince of partners”. After a short spell with non-league Sheppey United, Shea hung up his boots in 1927 at the age of 40.

Shea worked as a docker in London after retiring and also ran a pub with his sister before spending some time coaching Swiss club Winterthur. Returning to England, he coached Isthmian League club Woking and later ran a sub post office in West Ham.

Shea passed away in London in 1960 aged 73.

Possibly because of the amount of money going to the player some reports claim that the first £2,000 transfer wasn’t that of Shea, giving the honour to GEORGE UTLEY.

Utley was born in Barnsley and after initially starting out with local teams Elsecar and Wentworth he joined the Wednesday as an amateur. A knee injury prevented any further progress and he moved back to Elsecar before joining Barnsley in 1907 whilst still working as a joiner.

Converted from forward to left-half, Utley made it to two F.A. Cup finals with the Yorkshire club, winning the second in 1912 against West Bromwich Albion. Whilst still with Barnsley he made his solitary England appearance, starting at left-half in the 2-1 defeat to Ireland in Belfast in 1913.

Sheffield United had failed to adequately replace the legendary Nudger Needham who had retired in 1909, and the club decided that Utley would be the perfect fit both as wing-half and captain. They signed him for £2,000 in November 1913 and immediately installed him as their new skipper.

Utley led the Blades to victory in the 1915 F.A. Cup final – the famous Khaki Cup Final – where they overcame Chelsea 3-0 at Old Trafford.

In 1920 the United skipper caused unrest among his teammates when requesting, and being awarded, a testimonial despite not having spent the usual ten years at the club. The remainder of the team signed a letter of protest but the match went ahead with the Blades playing Sunderland in front of 36,000 fans and with Utley receiving £1,000.

Utley remained with United until 1922 when he moved to Manchester City. But he made a single start for City before he was on the move again, this time to Bristol City as a trainer. He also spent time coaching at Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham before leaving to devote all his time to working as a cricket coach and groundsman at Rossall School.

Rarely for a footballer, Utley was clever with his money and was able to live a comfortable life in retirement until he passed away in 1966 aged 78.

There was one more record-breaking move prior to the outbreak of World War One and, once again, it was Blackburn Rovers splashing out the cash.

PERCIVAL ‘PERCY’ DAWSON was another Englishman who made his mark in Scotland before arriving on the English scene. Born in 1890 in Cullercoats on the north east coast of England he spent his early years playing for local teams Whitley Athletic and North Shields before moving north to Edinburgh after being spotted by Hearts.

It was a relatively late start in top-class football for Dawson as he was already 21-years-old when making his professional debut.

Hearts were close to the top of the Scottish game and had some fine players just breaking into the team alongside Dawson who finished top scorer in every season he spent with the club. However, in 1914 the board decided to improve facilities at Tynecastle and when Blackburn Rovers, fuelled by wealthy club chairman Lawrence Cotton’s funds, made an offer of £2,500 for the Englishman they accepted.

Dawson had scored 103 goals in 119 starts for Hearts and upon his move to England he continued finding the net with regularity, and he played a part in Rovers clinching the 1913-14 crown two months after his arrival.

In the 1914-15 season, with Dawson, Shea and Simpson all in the forward-line, along with England international Edwin Latheron who would later be killed in action in WW1 at Passchendaele, Blackburn tore opposing defences apart, setting a new top flight record with 83 goals. Unfortunately their defence proved too accommodating conceding 61 goals which resulted in them finishing 3rd, three points behind champions Everton

Dawson scored 20 goals during that season and, still just 25, would have been expected to be just coming into his prime.

The war curtailed top-class league football and took Dawson’s prime years, although it also gave him his one international appearance. Somewhat surprisingly this came for Scotland rather than England as he lined up against his country of birth in a Military International at Goodison Park in 1916. Dawson’s Scotland were on the wrong end of a 4-3 scoreline.

He returned to Blackburn when hostilities ceased but both club and player could not attain their former heights and he played for Barrow briefly before retiring in 1923.

Sadly little is known about Dawson’s life after hanging up his boots.

The completes our look at the British transfer record prior to World War One. Next we’ll cover the Inter-War years which means tales of Falkirk and Syd Pueddefoot among others!