As integral to the game as the net and goalposts, or a wheezing relic that needs putting out its misery? Sam Rowe finds out…
The back page of a newspaper – it’s the football fan’s Heat magazine during the transfer window.
While those obsessed with celebrity have the Daily Mail 'sidebar of shame', football fans will relentlessly refresh their Twitter feed in blind hope of an update on the whereabouts of Gareth Bale’s short shorts, or the identity of the latest club to put Willian through a medical.
But, amongst this summer’s silly season – rife with Chinese whispers, cloak and dagger negotiations and oil-rich oligarchs gazumping teams just for the hell of it - spare a thought for the humble transfer request.
As although the window’s been plagued by reports of stars like Wayne Rooney, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale all being desperate to leave their respective clubs, not one of them thought to do what some may see as logical, and signal their intent with a transfer request (Rooney was alleged to have done so towards the end of last season, but is now said to be reluctant to repeat the trick). The question is, why?
“Probably the single biggest reason is the impact it has on their relationship they have with the fans and fellow players,” says Clifford Bloxham, vice president of Octagon sports agency, who has acted for the likes of Frank Lampard, Gareth Southgate and most recently, Daniel Sturridge.
“It’s a real public statement of intent, and I would say one of the attractions of football is the intrigue. When you categorically say ‘I want to leave this club’ there’s no more speculation, it’s purely factual and it definitely damages the relationship with the fans, and also with their colleagues.
“Think about it. If you’re in a job and you know that the guy you’re working with day in day out doesn’t really want to be there, it changes how you feel about them.”
Barry Silkman, however, disagrees. Once a midfielder for Man City and Leyton Orient, these days the 61-year-old cockney is a no-nonsense agent, who has presided over a truckload of moves, including Demba Ba’s arrival in England with West Ham. His views on the sanctity of transfer requests are a touch more pragmatic.
“It’s a waste of time,” he tells FFT, bluntly. “Those days have gone, years and years ago, because clubs know when you’re not happy. You go and see the manager, you might go and see the chairman, you tell them you’re not happy and you want to leave for whatever reason. To hand in a transfer request doesn’t put you any closer to leaving – we’ve moved on from those old fashioned days.”
The man’s got a point. A cursory look at the official transfer list on to the PFA website shows that, at the time of writing, there are just four players listed for transfer of all the hundreds in the Premier and Football Leagues.
Given the vast amount of dressing room upheaval this summer, the wasteland of the transfer list almost seems an oversight. But, according to PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor, who oversaw Luis Suarez’ recent release clause debacle, such a sparse list of ‘available’ players is commonplace nowadays.
“It’s because clubs are reluctant to particularly say players are on the list,” says Taylor, “as more often than not it can be an indication that if a club comes in for them, they’ll be offering less than what they think the real value is.” A valid point, as a club explicitly hawking a player to rivals can effectively slice their value in half – transfer list or not. Look no further for examples than West Ham’s cut-price purchases of Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing, both made very available by Liverpool this summer.
Loyalty and legality
There’s also little mystery to why perennial penny-pincher David Moyes urged Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini to submit transfer requests to Everton, in the hope of a sneaking a ‘derisory and insulting’ bid through the back door. But, on the subject of footballers seeing a transfer request as the last port of call, Taylor is surprisingly candid.
“Sometimes it’s because of the structure of the contract being such that a lump sum’s paid to players, providing they’re not asking to leave the club,” he explains. “That’s why so many players often leave it as a very last resort, in order to avoid losing that amount of money.”
Players often leave [transfer requests] as a very last resort, in order to avoid losing money"
So, despite the claims of loyalty to the club, respect for the fans, and forthrightness with the manager, it could be said that the biggest cause of modern footballers’ shyness for transfer requests is the lucrative contractual bonuses they forego by submitting one. In short, a loyalty bonus tends to be spread incrementally over a player’s contract – i.e. 20 per cent each year on a five-year deal. The same goes for a signing on fee, but if a player does not directly ask to leave the club, they’re usually still in line for the rest, or at least a fair portion of the sign-on fee, which let’s just say tends to be a tad more profitable than Jobseeker’s allowance.
But, on the rare occasions where transfer requests have been administered in recent years, they’ve seemingly been used as a ploy by player and agent to snare a bumper new contract, such as with Wayne Rooney in 2010 and Christian Benteke this summer. And although in the case of those players such high stake posturing appeared to pay off, Silkman is adamant a top player needn’t bother being quite so indirect.
“When players sign a contract, they don’t sign it with a gun to their head,” he says, “so they’re obviously happy when they sign it. But if circumstances do change and the player feels he’s not getting what he should financially, they don’t hand in transfer requests. They just go to the club, or their agent will, and say we need to do a new deal.
“You do get those situations [like Benteke], and sometimes it will force the club into giving the player the deal he wants, because they know that if they lose him, they might struggle to replace him with a player of the same ability. But that becomes secondary – the first thing you do is actually ask for a new deal.”
Amid all the talk of super agents being the puppet masters of modern football, with the phrase ‘player power’ wheeled out whenever a football club’s adjudged to not be not pulling the strings, this summer has in fact given way for unprecedented stubbornness by clubs.
Both Liverpool and Manchester United have dug their heels in over the respective sales of Suarez and Rooney, and even though Gareth Bale will more than likely be paraded around the Bernabeu like a prize fish by Tuesday tea time, Daniel Levy made sure Real Madrid and the rest of the planet knew a deal would only be done on his terms. The estimated £85m Spurs will receive in the process probably won’t hurt either.
If you want to leave, you have to go in and drag your feet [...] that’s the harsh reality"
Admittedly though, the power dynamic usually hinges on how long the player has on their contract. It’s no coincidence that Liverpool and United’s steadfast attitude was toward players with several years left on their contracts.
Had Luis Suarez been entering the final 12 months of his deal, Brendan Rodgers may have driven the divisive striker to Arsenal himself, rather than suffer the ignominy of losing the Uruguayan on a free the following summer. So, when top players are hamstrung by long-term, multi-million pound deals and want to break free, what’s the answer?
“There are so many tactics,” says 30-year-old midfielder, Rohan Ricketts. “You don’t turn up for training, or you turn up late a few times and don’t look interested. If you want to leave, you have to go in and drag your feet. You can’t affect the group directly, but you have to be seen as miserable and not happy around the place – that’s the harsh reality.”
Currently a free agent following a recent spell in Ecuador, former England U21 star Ricketts is a player in footballing purgatory. On Arsenal’s books as a youth player, Ricketts then signed for Spurs, making 63 appearances before a spate of domestic loans and eventually leaving for Barnsley. A successful stint in the MLS with Toronto FC followed, as did spells in India, Moldova and Hungary. Yet, despite his wide repertoire of clubs, insight into football culture around the globe and an awful lot of air miles, it was in his early days at Arsenal that Ricketts himself aggravated for a move – taking matters into his own hands rather than submit a transfer request.
“A guy who was a friend of the vice chairman of Tottenham saw me play and said, ‘You could play for Spurs in the morning, I’d put my mortgage on it’, I’ll never forget it,” Ricketts recalls. “But I couldn’t get out of Arsenal as I was on a contract.
“What I had to do – something happened at the training ground and a player’s phone went missing. I said that I was the one that done it, but the phone was at the club. They didn’t actually believe me, so I had to say I did it, to the point that they said ‘We have to release you’. It had a slight negative effect, but Spurs signed me straight after.”
The future of window shopping
If players would sooner be sacked than hand in a transfer request, perhaps the system is crying out for a reboot. But does it need it? At the time of writing £432,410,000 has been spent by Premier League clubs this summer, with the figure edging closer to 2008’s record of £500m once Spurs spend their Gareth Bale windfall.
So, Messrs Rooney and Suarez aside, it’s clear footballers can still navigate their way out of clubs. And though it’s frowned upon and technically ‘illegal’ under football law, the wheels of any transfer deal are invariably set in motion by, whisper it, tapping up.
Premier League Summer Spending: Window-By-Window
- 2013 – £430 million*
- 2012 – £475 million
- 2011 – £485 million
- 2010 – £365 million
- 2009 – £450 million
- 2008 – £500 million
- 2007 – £470 million
- 2006 – £260 million
- 2005 – £235 million
- 2004 – £215 million
- 2003 – £215 million
*at the time of writing
“It happens every day,” concedes Ricketts. “Say I’m playing for Spurs; if Man United want to buy me, how are they gonna let me know that? They’re going to tap me up indirectly through my agent – that’s what he’s there for. It’s simple. I don’t know why they brought out some of these rules, they make no sense.”In terms of reform, it’s unlikely a Bosman-esque overhaul is imminent: even if transfer requests are seldom used and somewhat irrelevant, they’re not really causing any harm. That is, of course, unless the transfer window is redrawn, as is oft suggested by managers – most recently Roberto Martinez. The Everton boss suggests the window should close on the eve of the new season, a suggestion applauded by the PFA’s Gordon Taylor.
“I do see problems with the transfer window being open when a season’s started,” he says. “Managers are not certain whether they’re going to get players, keep players or even replace players.”
It’s a popular viewpoint among managers, who can have an entire pre-season thrown off kilter by an ill-timed transfer offer. Ask Alan Pardew, currently struggling to keep Yohan Cabaye amid interest from Arsenal.
Mind you, the stance is far from universal, and player-cum-agent Barry Silkman believes it’d cause far more problems than it would solve. “You would get clubs completely held to ransom for players,” he says, “and clubs that can’t get rid of players in time would end up going bankrupt.
“Why make the transfer window shorter? It only goes on for about eight weeks, now. It used to be you could do a transfer before the first Saturday in March, and I don’t understand why it ever changed. Whoever invented these transfer windows wants hanging, it’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard of in my life.”
Taylor disagrees, and the intense media interest around the transfer window might back up his case – as does the amount of money it generates.
“They said the death of the game when the maximum wage was removed,” says Taylor, “same with the right to move, same with Bosman. But transfer fees have continued to increase, particularly with the very best players. To some extent it reflects the interest in the game and the fact that, against all the odds, the game continues to do extremely well commercially.”
The transfer request is dead. Long live transfers.