I’ve been thinking about writing something on this for a while, the way transfers work today – or don’t in many cases, the seemingly infinite variables and how they differ from those those of yesteryear, and the carefree days of yore – if you believe in all that. There was however an obvious snag, in that although I’m middle-aged, well educated, well versed in all kinds of funding bidding, project management and acquisitions in the arts and education sector, I’m neither a football club executive, a player, agent, adviser or representative or any of the other myriad of people that are involved in a football transfer at the higher levels from start to finish. Ergo, logic, common sense and verisimilitude would only get me so far. I sought advice from others closely involved in the game and who don’t necessarily hold a fans’ perspective and was lucky enough to get a positive response to my questions and entreaties, so here goes.
When I was a kid and even up until my early twenties, the first thing you knew about a transfer to yours or any other club would most likely be an announcement in the local and national papers (if it was deemed newsworthy enough) and possibly a picture of the be-suited new player sat between manager and chairman with a pen in his hand, signing a contract. Sometimes a fee was mentioned, sometimes not – but on the whole, no-one much cared. Occasionally the fee, if known, would be the subject of a bit of debate on whether a team had got a bargain or not – but until Nottingham Forest paid £975,000 for Trevor Francis (though he was regarded as the first million pound player in the UK), the fees were not all that much of an issue. In those days, a transfer would go a bit like this: manager or member of the coaching staff talks to their chairman, either after a discussion and/or having read a scouting report (many managers did their own scouting), says ‘we want so-and-so’, if the chairman okay’s it (they often didn’t), the next step would be to contact the prospective player’s club.
If the player’s club said no, you walked away most times, if they said yes, discussions began and a meeting would be arranged. Usually both chairmen and managers would attend, if the player was under 21, often his father would come along to safeguard his interests and in the interests of propriety. Discussions may last from a couple of hours to a few days and an agreement was reached or not as the case may be. The player was then informed and personal terms would be offered usually on a flat level, but more than they were currently on depending on the status of the club (one former Liverpool player of the early 70s once told a friend of mine how he was on £110pw at his previous club, and at Liverpool he was offered £125pw – untold riches, and more than a whole week’s high-end shopping in those days) – back then, the players were often treated like chattel and went where they were told. They were not on big wages, they didn’t have agents and were looked upon as workers like anyone else – individual player marketing was in its infancy and reserved for the very few. The club medic – often just a trainer with a physiotherapy qualification or a friendly GP affiliated to the club would have a look at the player’s medical records, do a bit of chest tapping and get them to do a few callisthenics and usually that was it, player changed club, money changed hands in one lump sum, job done. Time for the photo signing the contract – holding up a numbered shirt or scarf hadn’t really caught on yet. Of course, there was no transfer ‘windows’ back then either – just a deadline.
Fast forward to the present day. First thing to note is that since those more ‘innocent’ days, the game has become awash with money – often mishandled, often used to pay off an owners bad debts elsewhere or interest on loans taken out against the club, but in any event, the landscape has changed. The game is now a multi-billion dollar industry with clubs themselves often valued at over a billion each and all wrapped up with 24/7 rolling sports coverage, the internet, club and fan websites and of course, Twitter – all of which helps generate a sense of ‘entitlement’ with fans’ regards to news and updates and the value of their still largely ill-informed opinions.
Soon a player will change clubs, not for a million pounds, but for £100m. Some believe that the transfer of Luis Suarez to Barcelona could, with various add-ons and sell-ons eventually net Liverpool close to £100m – I suspect only careful scrutiny of the books in a few years’ time will tell us if this is true or not – but if not, it almost certainly soon it shall happen somewhere else. Money keeps pouring into the game and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon – even under FFP – if a club earns enough and it’s overall wage costs don’t pass the excepted percentage level of turnover, they could afford a £100m player – but of course, the more you pay, the bigger the risk if your megabucks star fails to perform, has a serious injury or of course, bites someone.
So how does a present day transfer between two higher-end clubs work? Well, it should be understood that each transfer comes with its own issues and no two are exactly the same. First of all, even on a relatively ‘cheap’ player, at the higher end of the game you can expect to pay between £10-20m, as you usually want someone who not only has the potential to do a job at a higher level, but has already done a job elsewhere, is known across a continent or two and is likely already an international or a respected under 21 international. This means you probably want to do your homework with some rigour. Most such high-end clubs will have a team of scouts nowadays, full-time, professional, badged and trained – rarely are they a an ex-player or a failed one with ‘an eye for a player’ anymore. A player may be scouted many times before a decision to proceed is made, his metrics and other stats looked into, even his psychological state, background and lifestyle away from the pitch. If all this is done and a buying club wishes to proceed, they will do a bit more homework and contact the player’s club.
However…now, all higher and mid-ranking players have agents – even agencies and an adviser or two – sometimes it’s a bespoke outfit – sometimes it’s a family member. They take a good slice of their client’s income – and expect a bigger one and a pay-off if they negotiate a move upward for them – so much so, they will often instigate the move themselves – with or without the client’s consent – there is after all, a few million to be made if they get lucky. As a result, such an agent may contact a club offering their client’s services and even promising to help keep the price down, sort out all personal and business details – for a fat fee. Usually they contact the manager of a prospective club directly, but not always so – they may go through another client already at that club and persuade them to put in a ‘good word’. Technically, this is all contrary to the rules and illegal – but it’s also bloody difficult to prove as it happens so often and especially where such a transfer comes off, few involved are going to complain. One former manager said that his phone would start ringing with this kind of offer over a month before a transfer window opened and not stop until a few days after it had closed.
These are two ways a transfer can start – so where do we go next…well, the wanted player’s club is finally contacted either way. After that, if the club is open to selling, much of it initially goes as before – a meeting is arranged so negotiations can begin. Where there were once maybe one or two meetings, now there may be many – manager and manager, CEO and CEO, commercial directors, agents and representatives, commercial partners (either of the club(s) or the players, image rights talks, lawyers, and possibly more riders than a 70s supergroup. Some players want everything arranged for them, where they will live, which schools their kids will go to – can you find a job for my wife? The list can be endless. One player I was told about wanted a Maserati waiting for him (this was not an LFC player!).
The wrangling in closing a deal of this nature – even if all parties want it, can take weeks as there are very large amounts of money to be haggled over and any number of areas or details it can stall upon – then there is the schedule of payments, add-ons, sell-on percentages, buy-back and first option clauses, disciplinary clauses, agreements for TV channel appearances, syndicated columns in the media, book rights, personal sponsorship and boot deals (often part of a greater image rights package) wages over the course of a contract, win bonuses, and eventually, a medical. Medicals are now carried out by bespoke specialists – with all the highest end facilities at their disposal. Broke a toe when you were seven? We can see the calcification…had bronchitis in your teens? We noticed the alveoli distortion…did you know you have a very high T-Cell count and a very lax cruciate ligament…little gets past the medical teams these days and a few moves fail at this juncture, though apparently as medicals are often done before the full negotiations are concluded – especially on mainland Europe, failures may disappear before we even know they’ve happened, thus protecting in theory the value of the ‘asset’. If all of these events are in time successfully concluded – and in the case of one recent LFC case, the club President does not want paying in a way which contradicts UEFA and FIFA rules, sometime thereafter you may see the player holding the shirt, the scarf or indeed, ‘leaning’…this is of course all predicated on the notion that the player involved wants to actually join your club in the first place and no other club tries to gazump you via an unscrupulous agent, or that his wife and family want to live where your club is or even move at all – especially away from their own families to a foreign country, wetter and colder than their own.
All of the above is of course, not definitive – just an example of the issues that can be involved that many fans may not even realise are part of the bundle. Sometimes, as with Ricky Lambert’s move to Liverpool, it can be sweet and easy – but those transfers are much rarer these days at the higher end of the game, and almost impossible for younger players still to peak but already noted on the wider stage.
The point I hope to illustrate with all this is that buying a modern, higher-end player for a higher-end club is not as easy and as straightforward as it may appear in a computer game and not as easy as turning up and throwing money at a prospective selling club. You can’t simply just ‘buy’ a player because you want him – there is so much more involved.
My grateful thanks to those who helped me with ‘the bigger picture’.