By Mike Pavasovic
You could buy 85,300 Alf Commons for the price paid by Real Madrid for Tottenham Hotspur winger Gareth Bale in 2013, but when Middlesbrough gave Sunderland £1,000 for the stocky striker in 1905, the world of football was shaken to its core.
Desperate to avoid relegation to the second division, the Ayresome Park club had smashed the previous transfer record, which was set when Newcastle United signed Sunderland defender Andy McCombie for £700.
At the time the average transfer fee was only £400, and that applied to England players. Where would such profligacy end? Where had modest Middlesbrough found so much money?
Football League chairman Charles Clegg denounced the move, although that may have been because his own club, Sheffield United, had only received £375 for Common when they sold him to Sunderland.
Common, described as a 13 stone, 5ft 8ins goalscoring machine, was unmoved. His goals saved Middlesbrough from the drop and in five years at Ayresome Park he scored 58 times in 168 appearances. He could argue that he had repaid his fee in full.
Before retiring to become a publican in 1914, at the age of 34, Common played for Woolwich Arsenal and Preston. He also won three England caps, scoring twice.
By that time, however, he was no longer the world’s most expensive player. In 1913, two men were sold for £2,000. Daniel Shea went from West Ham to Blackburn, and Tommy Barber from Bolton to Aston Villa.
Twelve months later, striker Percy Dawson went from Hearts to Blackburn for £2,500. And in 1922 West Ham striker Syd Puddefoot was sold to Falkirk for £5,000.
The transfer machine was unstoppable.