IT’S not that long ago that the January transfer window was pretty much a ‘dead duck’ in Irish League terms.
You could have counted the number of significant moves between clubs in this country during the first month of the calendar year on the fingers of one hand.
It seemed that the main factor which pressed clubs into making a move for another player was if they absolutely had to, for instance, in the event of a number of existing players in that position out with long-term injuries.
Even then, the age-old difficulty was in how to secure the services of a player who is already under contract at another club.
Unlike the money-spinning Premier League in England, where a club will think nothing of splashing £10 million for a player in January, the majority of transfer business between Irish League clubs has traditionally taken place in the summer months – indeed, as soon after the season as May or June – when players’ contracts expire and they are free to go where they choose.
The catalyst for change, in my opinion, has been the introduction of Salary Cost Protocol – wage-capping, to you and me – regulations.
I’ve always thought it was a damning indictment on how Irish League clubs conduct their affairs that the authorities had to introduce limits on clubs’ outgoing in an attempt to prevent clubs spending themselves into oblivion – a very clear nod from the governing body that they don’t believe they can trust clubs to keep their own individual houses in order.
Even though they are now bound by the same rules as everyone else, those regulations won’t have been felt as acutely at Ballymena United than they perhaps were at some other clubs – after a fairly bleak financial picture around the turn of the millennium, the Sky Blues have steadily worked their way onto a steadier financial footing.
Fast forward a few years and the demise of Omagh Town and Newry City, along with the ongoing financial problems at Glentoran, and you’ll see how the situation can quickly get out of hand as clubs attempt to compete with their rivals for the signature of a player.
Wage-capping has, in many ways, unblocked the January transfer window in this country. Knowing that they only have a certain parameter in which to work in terms of a wage budget, it’s why you’ll see clubs prepared to let a player go who has maybe six months left on his contract – or in the case of James Costello situation at Ballymena, 18 months left to run – if they know they have to free up funds for a replacement or to strengthen a different area of the team.
The days of simply signing a player and adding them to an already spiralling wage bill are over – for the most part, any new arrival will generally lead to one or more players being moved out to make way.
The January transfer window has proved pretty effective for Ballymena in recent years, with the loan signings of Neil McCafferty and, in particular, Johnny Taylor proving shrewd January acquisitions.
The only difficulty I can see with Salary Cost Protocol is that, over the course of a number of years, it will create a situation of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
The only way a club will increase its income and therefore its wage budget, is by finishing higher up the league – to do that, you need to sign better players who in turn cost more money.
The result is that those clubs who cannot compete for players on an even financial footing will find themselves languishing further behind.
In the short-term, Shane Dolan’s introduction in Ballymena’s 3-0 weekend win over Ballinamallard once again shows how the right player can make a difference in January. Let’s hope Glenn Ferguson has a few more aces up his sleeve in the remaining weeks of this month.
* Follow Ballymena Times Sports Editor Stephen Alexander on Twitter (@Stephen_Bmena).