Clubs now want to try them before they buy them

Occasionally reality makes an unwanted appearance in the frequently surreal world of the Premier League.

Occasionally reality makes an unwanted appearance in the frequently surreal world of the Premier League. Last month proved to be one such rarity. There was a time when the unofficial motto of the January transfer window was "spend, spend, spend". Now it is "try before you buy". Last January, the 20 Premier League clubs' combined transfer expenditure was around £170 million (Dh996m). This year it was nearer to £30m.

The phrase "credit crunch" entered the vocabulary of the majority long before it reached the football clubs. Now recession and relegation are twin threats. Loan deals far outnumbered big-money signings, accounting for 70 per cent of moves. Factor in free transfers and short-term contracts and managers have resembled bargain hunters, rather than the last of the big spenders. Headlines were created with lashings of nostalgia in the recent window. The returns of Patrick Vieira and Sol Campbell to the Premier League, from Serie A and League Two respectively, generated plenty of comment and column inches. However, the Frenchman is yet to play for Manchester City while the Englishman has acquitted himself reasonably at Arsenal, but they are essentially squad players.

So was the man who provided the eventual surprise. Robbie Keane's move to Scottish Premier League club Celtic is one of the many loans and, after his switch from Liverpool to Tottenham at a similarly late stage 12 months ago, suggests the Irishman is one of the few who enjoys the window's artificially generated drama. It is, however, a direct consequence of the form of Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe. By bringing in Eidur Gudjohnsen (on loan, inevitably) and letting Keane leave, Harry Redknapp has merely traded substitutes.

The ultimate wheeler-dealer also continued the twinning programme between his former and current club as Younes Kaboul left Pompey for Spurs. He was one of the costliest purchases in a window where more than half the clubs did not pay a transfer fee (although, as the Wolves manager Mick McCarthy pointed out, many of the loans did command a fee). Two of the three biggest buys were signings for the future: indeed, while Adam Johnson is available for Manchester City, Chris Smalling's arrival at Manchester United will be delayed until the summer. Neither has been signed for his immediate impact although, with Robinho leaving Eastlands for a short-term stint with the Brazilian club Santos, there may be an opportunity for Johnson to shine.

The quest for fourth place could be influenced by a new recruit, whether Johnson, Kaboul or Liverpool's Maxi Rodriguez, but the Premier League title is less likely to be. With Smalling still at Fulham, Campbell is the only addition any of the top three sides have made, which reinforces the view that January is a market for the desperate. Needless to say, the relegation-threatened sides have been active. Portsmouth have sold three players as both the fire-sale and the quest to stave off administration continues. All of the sides immediately above them have been casting around for a saviour, whether proven Premier League goalscorers like Amr Zaki (Hull) and Benni McCarthy (West Ham), emerging talents like Jack Wilshere (Bolton) and Victor Moses (Wigan) or more exotic additions such as Geoffrey Mujangi Bia (Wolves).

But the common denominator in all this is cost. For once, the Premier League did not break the bank.