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.
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.
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. A recent 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 per cent of the rumour mill; the rest will be tips that come from agents, players, clubs...