At 11pm on Thursday football’s transfer window closes with a bang. Across Britain – and worldwide – fans will be glued to televisions and desperately checking social media updates to see whether their club has managed to purchase a player who can win a title or save their team from relegation, or just brighten another mediocre season.
Since the beginning of the year when the window opened, fans have been working themselves into a frenzy of excitement. The right man can change the course of a season. Not everyone is lucky enough to support a side that can win trophies or challenge in Europe but everyone can dream. The window is a time for dreamers. It’s even better than football. This is bigger than the game.
It is a time of year when the rumour mill goes into overdrive. Players are linked with clubs and agents scurry to secure the best deal for their clients. Chief executives and managers haggle to get their targets.
The summer window effectively opens at the end of the season. It closes in England on the Thursday before the new campaign starts and continues in Europe until August 31.
Clubs have another opportunity to buy players in January. The mid-season dealing period opens on New Year’s Day and closes on the last day of the month; in this case, Thursday. The final 24 hours of trading usually ends with a flurry of deals and the sort of twists and turns that a soap opera writer would envy, all covered in minute-by-minute detail on live television.
“The transfer window has taken on a life of its own,” said Daniel Geey, the author of Done Deal: An Insider’s Guide to Football Contracts, Multi-Million Pound Transfers and Premier League Big Business. Geey, a partner in the Sport Group at the law firm, Sheridans, has worked on some of the game’s biggest moves. “How difficult is it to get deals over the line? The short answer is ‘very’. Especially in January. Teams don’t want to let go of their better players.”
For weeks now, newspapers and media outlets have been crammed with stories of potential moves. Each transfer rumour excites or infuriates supporters of the clubs involved. Not all, or even many, of the proposed transactions reach completion: the BBC has worked out that more than two thirds of the stories featured in its Football Gossip column never reached fruition. Geey is not surprised. “A lot of deals are contingent on other deals happening,” he said. “Bigger clubs usually have three options ready to go. If one deal goes wrong, they move on to the next.
“Agents are waiting for the best possible deal for their clients. It’s a chain reaction with multiple options and multiple clubs.”
The transfer window was introduced by Uefa in 2002 to create “contractual stability”. There was some opposition from the bigger clubs who had traditionally been able to buy players throughout the season. The only previous restriction was a cutoff date in March that prevented teams vying for trophies or fighting relegation from using their spending power to give them an advantage in the final weeks of the season.
Although European football’s governing body was the driving force behind the initiative, the Premier League had been toying with something similar since the organisation’s inception 27 years ago. “Terry Venables came to us with the idea in 1992,” Rick Parry, the first chief executive of the Premier League, said. “The idea was to put a premium on coaching and skill rather than trading.
“Working with the same group of players allowed you to see how good a manager is. You can judge the ability of coaches. They can’t just go out and spend money to paper over the cracks.”
Increasingly, the window – and deadline day in particular – has captured the imagination of the public. Sky Sports News created a yellow news bar at the bottom of the screen to highlight potential moves and began to use the colour to brand its transfer coverage. Jim White, who fronts the deadline day show wearing a yellow tie, said the reaction of viewers stunned him. “Taxi drivers hang out of their cabs asking me when I’ll be putting on the tie,” he said. “People tweet me with pictures of themselves in work wearing yellow. Deadline day should be a national holiday.”
Social media explodes during the window. Football is the strongest driver of traffic on Twitter, according to Theo Luke, the platform’s sports partnership director. Leicester City winning the Premier League and England getting knocked out of the Euros were the biggest topics on the platform in 2016, beating out the Brexit vote and the US elections.
The window causes a surge on social media. When Arsenal signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on January 31 last year, tweets mentioning the forward’s surname peaked at 1,639 per minute and totalled more than 280,000 overall. The club announcement carrying the hashtag #YoPierre was retweeted more than 77,000 times.
Activity on social media is not just confined to commenting or sharing views. Fans have turned themselves into detectives to try and break the ring of secrecy around potential deals. The most remarkable example occurred in the closing hours of the summer window in 2017. Liverpool had been linked with Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk but the transfer hit a number of snags. Then, as the minutes ticked towards the 11pm deadline, a rumour went round that the centre half was flying from Bournemouth airport to Merseyside in a private jet. Liverpool fans crashed a flight-tracking website attempting to follow the plane’s route. Then, another supporter tweeted a live webcam link from John Lennon Airport and claimed to have spotted a people-carrier that had been used in other Anfield transfers waiting for arrivals. A number of cars intercepted the van when it left the airport, drivers and passengers tweeting the vehicle’s movements to their eager followers. Alas for Liverpool’s amateur sleuths, Van Dijk was still on the south coast. He would not sign for Liverpool until the winter window opened.
Twitter performed a different kind of function last week, giving supporters a chance to express their shock and horror when Emiliano Sala’s plane went missing as Cardiff City’s £15 million record signing travelled to Wales from France. Sala’s loss was a tragic counterpoint to the Van Dijk saga.
Premier League clubs completed 235 transactions last January, spending £419.5 million overall with a net outlay of £148 million. That comprised 3.11 per cent of the 20 clubs’ revenue but so far this year business has been slow, with fewer than half as many deals completed going into the final week. A last-minute splurge is unlikely but cannot be discounted.
“The biggest, most successful clubs do their business early,” said Parry, who experienced the window first-hand when chief executive of Liverpool. “There’s no real excuse for messing around on the final day. The winter window should only be about fine tuning or emergencies.”
This was illustrated by Chelsea’s loan signing of Gonzalo Higuain last week. The London club were desperate for a striker and brought in the 31-year-old to provide the goals that had been lacking in the first half of the season. The deal also showed how complex these transactions can be. Higuain is registered to Juventus but was on loan to AC Milan. Chelsea needed to untangle the contracts in Italy. At the same time they were attempting to offload their unwanted forward Alvaro Morata to Atletico Madrid. Each of these negotiations could have tripped up at any point.
“The main employment contract is standard and was negotiated by the Professional Footballers’ Association but the Schedule 2 contains all the extra clauses,” Geey said. “For some clubs, the Schedule 2 can be two pages long; for the bigger clubs, it can be 30 pages.
“It will deal with image rights, international clearances, what happens when a player has a boot deal with a rival company to the club’s kit sponsor. The more commercially savvy the club, the more complicated the contracts. They understand the player’s value off the pitch as well as on it.”
Even an organised club can get sucked into the madness of the final 24 hours of the window. “One of the paradoxes is that because there’s a deadline there’s a huge temptation to do something at the last minute,” Parry said. “Agents come calling offering players and it’s easy to be tempted.”
The pitfalls in late wheeling and dealing are obvious. Tottenham Hotspur have a reputation for dipping into the market as the clock ticks down. It means that Mauricio Pochettino, the manager, has rarely been sure who will be in his squad on the first day of September or February. Daniel Levy, the Spurs chairman, prides himself on driving a hard bargain but many people within the game believe that it is no coincidence, given Levy’s modus operandi, that Tottenham struggle to win trophies. Late outgoings weaken the squad. Late arrivals take time to settle.
Panic buys can leave clubs looking silly. In 2011, Fernando Torres forced his way out of Anfield to join Chelsea for £50 million. Liverpool immediately reinvested the cash by paying £35 million for Andy Carroll, a remarkable feat because Newcastle United had resolved to sell the big striker for £25 million. Neither Liverpool nor Chelsea came out of that window well. Both Torres and Carroll were busts at their new clubs. The rest of the Premier League sniggered at their rivals’ expense.
There are bargains to be had. Sir Alex Ferguson probably did the best bit of January business in 2006 when he signed Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra for Manchester United. The pair anchored the United defence for eight years and were vital components in Ferguson’s last great team.
Brexit may be putting the brakes on spending this month as the clubs try to work out whether the UK’s exit from the EU will have a negative impact on the transfer market but if it is a reason for caution Geey does not think the wariness will last. “If freedom of movement comes to an end, then UK and home-grown players will become more expensive,” he said. “The side-effect of this is clubs are putting more resources into academy players. They will become significantly more valuable.”
Parry is more cynical. “Clubs will think about Brexit after it happens. That’s the way football works.”
Will the game’s spending spree continue indefinitely? Geey thinks the bubble is a long way from bursting. “Broadcasting and commercial revenue are growing but spending has to be sustainable because of Uefa’s Financial Fair Play rules,” he said. “The Premier League accounts for 2016-17 showed that only two top-flight teams made a loss. That suggests the boom is not over.”
Transfer windows will continue to provide plenty of drama and excitement. They have taken on a life of their own and, like the game itself, are only likely to get bigger.