Skip to main content

55 shocking football transfers that shook the world: 20-11

Words: Gary Parkinson, Seb Stafford-Bloor, Jon Spurling, Andrew Murray, Alex Hess.

20. Clive Allen (Arsenal to Crystal Palace, 1980)

Fee: Swap deal
If breaking the bank to buy a teenage striker wasn’t very Arsenal, swapping him for a left-back two months later was even less believable. But it happened.

In summer 1980, barely a year after Trevor Francis broke the £1m barrier, the Gunners splurged £1.25m on Clive Allen, the 19-year-old who’d bagged 32 in 49 for QPR.

Three pre-season games later, he was bundled off to Crystal Palace (with reserve keeper Paul Barron) in exchange for Kenny Sansom. Sansom racked up nearly 400 Gunners games; Allen may be the only man to play for Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, West Ham, Millwall, QPR and Palace. GP

19. Fernando Torres (Liverpool to Chelsea, 2011)

Fee: £50m
For Andriy Shevchenko in 2006, read Fernando Torres in 2011: for a while, Chelsea seemed to be the last club in the world to know when a player's legs were gone.

Had his Stamford Bridge malaise (20 goals in 110 league games) arrived unexpectedly, the British transfer record-breaking £50m that Roman Abramovich agreed to pay would have been easy enough to justify: Torres had been an outstanding forward and Liverpool considered Chelsea a rival. As it was, though, they paid through the nose in the hope that the six-month decline he was suffering through was a blip rather than the new normal.

It wasn't. Torres's Chelsea career was frequently excruciating to watch, and over the next seven seasons – spent between south-west London, Milan and back in Madrid – he would reach double figures just once in league competitions. SSB

18. Tommy Lawton (Chelsea to Notts County, 1947)

Fee: £20,000
It was Notts County manager Arthur Stollery, once physio at Stamford Bridge, who convinced England striker Tommy Lawton to leave First Division Chelsea and try his luck at County, two divisions below.

After learning that the player was unsettled in west London, a British record £20,000 outlay lured Lawton – still at the height of his powers – to Meadow Lane in 1947, and his arrival had crowds swelling to around 30,000 a game.

Doubters suggested that Lawton's spell there would be brief, but he stayed for five seasons, netting 103 goals in 166 appearances. During that time, he helped guide the team to Division Two thanks to his fearless displays up front for the Magpies. JS

17. Robin van Persie (Arsenal to Man United, 2012)

Fee: £24m
Beware, beware the expiring contract. "I always listen to the little boy inside of me in these situations – when you have to make the harder decisions in life. What does he want? That boy was screaming for Man United."

The bittersweet irony for Arsene Wenger was that Van Persie's best season for Arsenal occurred at a time when the club was least protected against his departure. Before 2011/12, the Dutch forward had never returned even 20 Premier League goals in a season – that year, however, he not only appeared in all 38 games and dispelled perceptions about his fragility, he also managed to score 30 times in the process.

In July 2012, a year away from being a free agent, Van Persie announced that he wouldn't be extending his contract. Arsenal had been boxed into a corner and the club agreed to sell their talisman for an initial £22m, which rose when – like night following day – Manchester United won the Premier League with Van Persie's goals a year later. SSB

16. Alfredo Di Stefano (Millonarios to Real Madrid, 1953)

There had always been niggle between Real Madrid and Barcelona – the Spanish Civil War and subsequent political executions from the Franco dictatorship saw to that – but the tug-of-war between La Liga’s big two for the Blond Arrow ensured on-field hostilities for years to come.

When Di Stefano left River Plate for Colombian side Millonarios in 1951 because of a players’ strike in Argentina, there was confusion as to which club the silky centre-forward actually belonged. Two years later, Barcelona agreed terms with River (who still owned his rights), while Madrid did a deal with Millonarios (for whom he played).

Cue much bickering, only settled when the Spanish FA said they had to share him one season at a time. Eventually, the Catalans announced (very loudly) that they couldn’t be bothered with the hassle. Di Stefano went on to win 15 major honours with los Blancos, including five European Cups. AM

15. Allan Simonsen (Barcelona to Charlton, 1982)

Sidelined at Barcelona following the arrival of Diego Maradona in 1982, former European Footballer of the Year Simonsen decided that a move to struggling Second Division side Charlton Athletic would be just the ticket for a quiet life.

Outbidding Real Madrid, Addicks chairman Mark Hulyer offered a whopping £324,000 for the great Dane, reckoning that the Barça man's star quality would once again fill the crumbling Valley.  

But the whole scheme was pie in the sky. Simonsen turned in some fine performances, but his colleagues were a cut below their illustrious new team-mate. Hulyer's foolhardy PR stunt failed, and Simonsen hot-footed it back to Denmark after five months, with Charlton mired in debt. JS

14. Trevor Francis (Birmingham to Nott’m Forest, 1979)

Fee: £1m
Although a typically bombastic Brian Clough claimed that Francis's transfer fee in February 1979 was actually £999,999 (he allegedly didn't want the tag of being Britain's first million pound footballer going to the former Birmingham forward's head), the gargantuan fee – which triggered a glut of largely unsuccessful £1m transfers – sent shockwaves around football.

At the end of his first season, Francis duly scored the winner against Malmo in the European Cup final, but not before Clough insisted that he make the half-time tea for his new team-mates in order to ensure that his player’s pricey feet remained firmly on the ground. JS

13. Robinho (Real Madrid to Man City, 2008)

Fee: £32.5m
In the twilight hours of September 1, 2008, a lottery winner bounded down Bond Street. Finding most of the shops already shut, he crashed through the doors of the only low-grade boutique still open and spilt his bulging wallet over the counter.

Manchester City had to have someone. By the time the Abu Dhabi Group had settled on Robinho, David Villa and Kaka had already rebuffed them with a quizzical Que? Nevertheless, at the 11th hour a giggling Real Madrid accepted a £32.5m bid for their out-of-favour Brazilian and, in the morning, the rest of the world was spitting out its coffee.

The deal is generally assessed as a failure. That's not unreasonable: Robinho was incontestably disappointing after all, but it did put the rest of England on notice – from being clumsy billionaires, City would rise to become one of the most feared transfer vultures in world football. SSB

12. Andy Cole (Newcastle to Man United, 1995)

Fee: £7m
Kevin Keegan once said he’d “put the phone down on Fergie if he ever called about Andy”. But some simmering tensions between player and manager in the winter of 1994 – Keegan didn’t think Cole was taking training seriously – had convinced the Newcastle boss he had a problem that even a remarkable goalscoring record (34 in 40 in his first top-flight season) couldn’t mitigate.

A £7m fee did little to soften the blow among Newcastle fans and, hard as it is to imagine today, the sale resulted in Keegan taking to the steps outside St James’ Park to provide a face-to-face explanation for a small army of mutinous fans.

Astonishingly, Cole elected not to play in his first match against his old club, for no other reason than sheer goodwill. "Emotion is running high on Tyneside and my playing would just add fuel to the fire,” he said. The eight trophies he went on to win at United gave him a tangible kind of victory to go alongside his moral one. AH

11. Ricky Villa and Ossie Ardiles (Racing Club/Huracan to Tottenham, 1978)

In 1978, the Sheffield United manager Harry Haslam travelled to the World Cup in Argentina for a better look at a 17-year-old called Diego Maradona who, rumour had it, was half-decent.

On something of a whim, his good friend – the Tottenham manager Keith Burkinshaw – decided to come along for the ride. Maradona never did end up at Bramall Lane, but his Argentina team-mate Ossie Ardiles caught Burkinshaw’s eye. Once he and his pals had wrapped up a victorious World Cup campaign, Ardiles wasted little time in signing on for the club he called 'Tottingham'.

“After it was all signed, Ossie said to me ‘my friend, he’s also available’,” Burkinshaw recalled. And so it came that, in an age when England’s football clubs were far more likely to do their shopping in Bognor Regis than Buenos Aires, a pair of World Cup winners showed up in north London to line up alongside the likes of Gerry Armstrong and Steve Perryman.

Both earned themselves club legend status: Ardiles stayed for a decade (and returned as manager in 1993), while Villa scored what might just be the most famous FA Cup final goal of all-time in 1981. All in all, a trip worth taking for Burkinshaw. AH

55-4140-3130-21 • 20-11 • 10-1

New features every day on