Once mere space-filler, the tabloid transfer story is now huge for players, fans and clubs alike. But who dances to whose tune? FourFourTwo asks the protagonists...
Rupert Murdoch had a problem. The year was 1969 and, having acquired a failing newspaper in The Sun and resolved to turn it tabloid, the Australian got the bad news: a limited number of suitable printing presses meant the first editions of each paper would have to be finished and en route to newsagents across the UK long before the final whistle of evening football matches had blown.
This was potentially disastrous news for a title targeting football fans as its core audience. Yet not only did Murdoch and his first editor, Larry Lamb, overcome it to create what would soon become Britain's most popular paper, they inadvertently created something bigger.
Not only did Murdoch and his first editor, Larry Lamb, create what would soon become Britain's most popular paper, they inadvertently created something bigger
Their solution was to fill the first edition, on pages which would be replaced by match reports later, with transfer gossip stories. "Eventually Murdoch got another printing press in the north so they could get the football in first time," says a Fleet Street veteran. "Then people complained that they missed the transfer stories! So they got back in and have been getting in ever since." A monster was born.
Told by key participants who prefer to remain anonymous for reasons which will become clear, here is the story of how the transfer rumour mill grinds up its heady swirl of information and disinformation - and how players, agents and clubs use it for their own ends...
The Agent: I think part of the fascination with the transfer rumour mill is this: in football, you have so few chances to actually win anything. So seeing your club pursue and eventually complete a massive transfer is as near as some supporters will come to actually winning something.
The Tabloid Journalist: The demand now is insatiable. When you look at the numbers of readers online, transfer stories come out on top for sport stories. Even a tenuous transfer story involving one of the big clubs can top the charts.
The Premier League Player: How do they start? Let's say I wanted a move... well, if you're Premier League quality you can get one, but it isn't as simple as going into the manager's office and putting a letter on his desk.
Seeing your club pursue and eventually complete a massive transfer is as near as some supporters will come to actually winning something
The Chief Exec: A written request is the worst thing for a player or an agent. Every contract has an annual loyalty bonus built in and even if a player is sold in the most acrimonious circumstances, as long as he didn't hand in a transfer request the club has to pay that for the remainder of his contract. Players and agents don't want to lose that so you end up doing this dance.
The Tabloid Journalist: Half of what I do with transfer stories is stay on top of things. Who is coming to the end of his contract at a big club, or what positions does that club need to strengthen? Then you target those players' agents and their clubs and make the calls. An example is Tottenham. The minute they weren't in the Champions League, some of us would be hitting the phones to see what that meant for Luka Modric and Gareth Bale. Those kind of stories are 50% of the rumour mill; the rest will be tips that come from agents, players, clubs...
The Premier League Player: I had a couple of moves where I just wanted to leave and a couple of other moves where I heard another club were interested but were getting no encouragement. It makes sense to get the ball rolling. The most direct way would be to talk to your agent and say: "Put it out there for me." Or you can talk to your mates, and they might talk to their agents. Sometimes you'd talk to people inside your club; the scouts or someone you trust and who you know has got a relationship with a journalist. But you never know in football. One time, when I wasn't getting picked, I mentioned to someone I trusted that I knew a team were interested in me. I thought he'd tell one of his contacts. The next morning I was straight in the boss's office and he told me: "Look, you can forget all about going to them."
The Chief Exec: The transfer market is a nefarious world where things are not always what they seem. Players, agents and clubs do things to further their own ends.
It makes sense to get the ball rolling. Sometimes you'd talk to people inside your club; the scouts or someone you trust and who you know has got a relationship with a journalist
The Premier League Player: On one occasion, a team-mate of mine wanted a move. He picked a day when we had a day off, then tipped off a local journalist that he'd been made to train away from the first-team squad, with the kids. They made sure there was a photographer there in the bushes. He wasn't even supposed to be in training at all but he came in specially, just for the photos! That story alerted a couple of people and a few days later he was beaming in the changing room, saying: "It worked: [top Premier League side] have been in for me."
The Sunday Journalist: Sometimes it's blatant. One of my contacts is mates with a player who's an international and a regular Premier League goalscorer. A few weeks ago, my contact tells me his mate has told him Manchester City are after him. Now, he's good, but he's not that good. So you wonder why he's saying this - to get City to talk to his agent, to get someone else to get in touch? A lot of it is wish fulfilment. But if you can successfully plant the seed that City might be interested, and it gets in the paper somehow, then I suppose it only takes one person to read it...
The Tabloid Journalist: It's almost unheard of that a player will call with a tip about himself, and very rare that an agent will ring up out of the blue and say: "Liverpool want my player." There is a small group of agents I talk to all the time. The best tips are from them when one of their players isn't involved and they're repeating something they have heard. They have no agenda in the story and it's come purely because people in football like to gossip as much as the rest of us do.
The Sunday Journalist: Football is a village. I have a list of 15-20 managers I can call, and in most cases they're just as aware of what is going on elsewhere as they are with events at their own club. If you do a favour for a manager, he will give you something in exchange. A manager phoned me this morning and said: "I want this goalkeeper but I hear he's going elsewhere. Can you find out?" I was able to help, and he gave me a tip about another big story, which is definitely happening, at a neighbouring club.
I have a list of 15-20 managers I can call, and in most cases they're just as aware of what is going on elsewhere as they are with events at their own club
The Tabloid Journalist: There are so many people involved in any transfer - the manager, the chairman, the director of football, the player's representative, the player himself - and each of them are likely to speak to another four or five people about it. It's like six degrees of separation; only in football it's more like two degrees of separation.
The Chief Exec: Of course it works both ways. It's an agent's modus operandi to use contacts in the press, so clubs will do it too if they want a player out or in. During the process of a big transfer saga, a club can brief journalists on what's going on if it suits them.
Read on for more insight...