May 25 1880: The birth of Alf Common, twice the world’s most expensive footballer.
Alf Common was born in Millfield, Tyne and Wear and played locally for South Hylton and then Jarrow in the Northern Alliance league before signing for Sunderland in 1900. In his first season Common, who was a powerful player at 5 foot 8 inches tall and weighing 13 stones, only scored 6 goals in 18 appearances but he developed enough of a reputation to be considered one of the best young forwards in England. This reputation was enough for Sheffield United to be willing to pay £325 for him in October 1901, a substantial amount on a relatively untried youngster.
He continued to impress at his new club and scored in the 1902 FA Cup final against Southampton, which Sheffield United then won after a replay. By 1904 his form was good enough to see him called up to play for England. He won the first of his three England caps and scored the first of his two goals for England in a 2-2 draw against Wales on 29 February 1904. The next month he scored again in a 3-1 win over Ireland.
In May 1904, after scoring 23 goals in 63 league matches for Sheffield United, he rocked the Yorkshire club when he expressed a wish to return to his native North East, citing “business interests” as the reason for the request. While players often did have legitimate business interests outside of football to supplement their income that was capped by a maximum wage level imposed by the FA, sometimes these interests were in fact a share in a business owned by a football club and which paid a regular dividend. These would be gifted to the player and in this way a player and a club would get around the limits of the maximum wage. Its not known if this was the case with Common, but a record breaking transfer saw him return to Sunderland for £520 in 1904.
After just 21 appearances and just over six months later Common was on the move again, in a transfer that was to smash the transfer record a second time. Middlesbrough saw fit to ensure Common’s name would be forever in the record books as the first four figure transfer when they paid £1000 for him. Just over ten years earlier Willie Groves transfer from West Brom to Aston Villa for £100 had set a new record and this had been viewed at the time with some concern, but the escalation to the £1000 that Middlesbrough paid was a sensation and caused no end of consternation amongst journalists and the FA. While the writers were left expressing their concerns over players being bought and sold like racehorses and the players themselves becoming mercenaries with no loyalties to clubs, the FA felt driven to launch an investigation into Middlesbrough’s financial affairs. A careful study of the books found no irregularities with the transfer, but they did uncover illegal bonus payments to the players, and 11 of the 12 of the club’s directors were suspended. The FA also acted to place a limit on transfer fees of £350. This was bought into effect from January 1908 but was so routinely ignored by the clubs that it was scrapped after just three months
Not everyone felt so negatively about Common’s transfer though. The North Eastern Daily Gazette looked forward to him proving to be a valuable acquisition to Middlesbrough in their fight against relegation, which the paper reckoned required the club winning at least five out of their remaining ten matches to stand any chance of escaping relegation. Common proved an instant success and The Sheffield Sunday Telegraph reported that Common “earned his enormous transfer fee” when he made his debut on 25 February, away to his old club Sheffield United. He scored the only goal of the game in the 50th minute from the penalty spot. It was Middlesbrough’s first away win for over two years since beating Sheffield United 3-1 at Bramall lane in 1903, and it was enough of an impetus to see them begin to climb the table, and get the five wins called for by the Gazette. The victory must have added insult to injury for the Blades who had been complaining loudly about the seeming injustice of such a large profit being made by Sunderland on a player who was on their books just a few months ago.
The next season Common was top scorer with 24 goals and was to stay at Middlesbrough for five years playing 168 league games and scoring 58 goals and developing a deadly partnership with another legendary forward, Steve Bloomer. He next went to Arsenal where he made his debut on 1 September 1910. He would play for the London side 80 times scoring 23 goals, being top scorer in the 1911-12 season when he scored 17 times. However over the rest of 1912 he did not manage a single goal in a season that finally saw Arsenal relegated. He was sold to Preston in December 1912 for £250 and helped them win the Division Two title that season with 7 goals. Despite scoring on the opening day of the next season against his old club Sunderland he was now 33 years of age and time was catching up with him. He only played 13 times that season and when Preston were relegated Common retired and opened a pub in Darlington.
Alf Common died in 1946 aged 65. His record fee lasted until 1913 when Bolton paid Barnsley £1,300 for George Lillycrop but, as the first four figure transfer, it is Common’s name in the record books as a reminder that no matter how much time passes, and how much the game changes, some things remain the same – and complaints about the size of transfer fees is one of them.