The Anatomy of a Protracted Transfer Saga

   Despite some weary protestations, the media absolutely adore a protracted transfer saga. The newspapers chart a player's on-off move, Twitter provides up-to-the-minute updates, and the increasingly bloodthirsty Sky Sports News plonk a poor reporter in front of either clubs' training ground at 11pm, hoping for a scoop. The advent of the January transfer window should mean that a protracted transfer saga (henceforth referred to as a PTS) can now only really take place in the summer months. Several clubs and players are then unwittingly forced to do battle for the dubious and unofficial honour of PTS of the Summer. Of course, the Bosman ruling has ensured a theoretical exception - moves can now have a lengthy prologue that involves the thrashing out of personal terms between player and prospective new employers, without the need for a pesky transfer fee. Now, while these negotiations can go on a bit, a PTS without drawn-out haggling over the transfer fee is simply not a PTS at all.
Gareth Bale, star of the Protracted Transfer Saga of the Year, sits proudly in the centre of this Venn diagram of the transfer window.

   Years of study into the annual phenomenon of the PTS can now be concluded definitively, in The Ten Chapters of a Protracted Transfer Saga:

Chapter I - The Honeytrap

   A player reportedly begins to attract interest from several clubs and it emerges that there's no shortage of suitors. If the target is considered good enough in these early stages, this elite group of clubs will automatically include Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United, all of whom will supposedly be mulling over a bid. This, I'm sure you will agree, is a very cunning way for the as-yet relatively uninformed media to hedge their bets for the outcome of an embryonic PTS.

Chapter II - The Montage Magnifier

   Once a player's marketability has been established, the football industry has an unspoken and unwritten agreement with its broadcasters. The terms of this deal mean that, when appropriate, the player in question will be the subject of a post-highlights video montage on Match of the Day. Alan Hansen, or whoever his co-pundit may be that night, will analyse fairly unspectacular footage of the player's performance, concluding with the claim that the player has "a bright future". If the player is a defender, for example, several clips of him making routine interceptions will be interpreted as early signs of a superstar in the making.

   A similar pact exists with Sky Sports. In this case, the player will receive the full attention of the ever-eager Jamie Redknapp (who has emerged as a useful marketing tool in these early stages of the PTS) during the course of the pre-match warm-up. Complete with helpful stats at the bottom of the screen, it is a spectacle that PTS experts describe as akin to watching kitchenware being hawked on QVC.

Chapter III - The "Hands-Off" Warning

   Never be fooled by its dismissive nature - the "hands-off" warning signals a gear-change for the PTS which, in hindsight, proves to be the beginning of the (albeit distant) end. A stalwart of the football vernacular, the "hands-off" warning is invariably issued by the player's manager. Unequivocal in his defiance, the naive boss tells the media:
"We've had no bids for [Player X] and, to be honest, we wouldn't welcome any. We're not in a position where we need to sell players and it would take silly money for him to leave this football club."
The manager is careful not to specify an exact hypothetical figure for this "silly money", because to do so would constitute slapping a price tag on the player, hastening his departure considerably.

   Unfortunately, the "hands-off" warning is inevitably subject to Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal - but opposite - reaction, which in this case can be found lurking in Chapter VI.

Chapter IV - The Loyalty Pledge

Having obtained the manager's inadvertent assurance that the player will be leaving, the media then hunt down a statement from the player themselves. Influenced no doubt by their agent and, more heavily, by thousands of similar player statements in the past, the in-demand ace will, very probably, utter the following:
"I'm happy to stay at the club. I'm flattered by the interest, but it's all speculation. I'm a [Club X] player until told otherwise."
A sigh of relief for the fans, then, but this statement still leaves open all possibilities. Again, a PTS veteran should interpret this as a warning sign for the acceleration of the eventual deal - all pledges of loyalty are at risk of dramatic U-turns.

Chapter V - The Bid

   Finally, contact is made and a bid lodged. At this stage, it is not uncommon for the bidding club to remain officially anonymous, but not essential. One near-guarantee is the reaction of the manager (and often the chairman) of the player's club - the bid will almost always be dismissed as "derisory". One of those words that you strongly sense those involved in football only know because of its use by those involved in football, "derisory" is the put-down of choice when it comes to opening bids. It also serves as a minor ego-boost for the smaller clubs, as a rare opportunity to look down their noses at the big boys.

Chapter VI - The "Come-And-Get-Me" Plea

   As outlined in Chapter III, the "hands-off" warning has an evil twin. It arrives in the form of the "come-and-get-me" plea. An even more awkardly-named cliché, the "come-and-get-me" plea is the clear declaration from the player that, after the derisory opening bid, he now wants to leave the club, despite his earlier pledge of loyalty. Perhaps rather a tabloid device, it's often a precursor for slapping in a written transfer request - verbal, emailed, texted, tweeted or carrier-pigeoned transfer requests are, regrettably, few and far between. While the bid rejection succeeds in at least stalling the inevitable, the club's reaction to their player's request to leave matters not a jot. For the record, though, the written transfer request is turned down.

   In extreme cases, the selling club (for that is what they will surely be) banishes the player to train with the reserves or the youth team, an fate universally known as being "frozen out". After this spectacular act of face-spite-induced nose removal, the club then prepares itself for the player's departure. Such a decision may indicate that the chairman/manager is a learned student of the PTS, and recognises that resistance is futile. 

   As a side note, it must be added that this is a precarious, pivotal stage for the player. If they get injured and the deal collapses, the already frozen-out player will find themselves in the terrifying-sounding transfer limbo. The only viable way of escaping transfer limbo is to humbly withdraw the written transfer request request and knuckle down once more. 

Chapter VII - The Negotiation

   Now the two clubs are finally in dialogue over a possible deal (this may involve one or two further bids, which would be immune from the label derisory), the PTS would appear to be in full swing. 

Charting the progress of transfer talks
The two clubs must progress from low-level talks to advanced talks, at which point they become locked in talks. It may then emerge that both parties are miles apart over the size of the fee, which constitutes a delay formally known as an impasseAs with any true saga, a potential twist is always on the horizon. It is at the impasse stage that the media begin to meddle. Reports of bid hijacks are rife, as other clubs are drawn in to the melee. Whether such interventions materialise is an unpredictable matter, but Sky Sports News remain on red alert anyway.

Chapter VIII - Personal Terms

    With the fee agreed, the player is then liberated to discuss personal terms. Sky Sports News' persistence pays off, and a video of the player leaving the training ground in his car is looped endlessly. Despite this modern era of the greedy footballer, personal terms are still widely regarded as a formality, unless they prove to be a stumbling block. The same also usually applies to the medical that the player must undergo. At this stage, the deal can be sealed - pending any unexpected, miscellaneous snag.

Chapter IX - The Parade

   At a press conference, the player is at last unveiled (although unveiling is more often associated with new managers) and subsequently paraded. The absence of any veils or marching bands does little to take away from these events, and the new signing's ability to juggle a ball or hold up a replica shirt the right way round are given a severe test.

   It is usually the first opportunity for the player to break his silence about the transfer, and the tried-and-tested statement is always worth the wait:

"I'm delighted to be here. As soon as I heard of [Club X's] interest, there was only one place I wanted to go. This is a massive club."

More brazen new signings go one step further and shamelessly try to profess boyhood support for their new club. Other variations include a player who has signed for a Championship club (particularly if he has left the top-flight to do so) describing his new employers as having "everything geared towards Premier League football". This is a curious statement which seems to ignore the fact that the reason that the club looks like it is geared towards Premier League football is because it once was in the Premier League, but got relegated in pitiful fashion, crippled by debt and lumbered with a half-empty, albeit pristine, Lego stadium.

Chapter X - "It Was Always In the Script, Wasn't It?"

   The PTS reaches its conclusion (for strikers at least) with the player's return for a match against his previous club. Depending on how acrimonious his departure was, the player will be sought out pre-match to comment on the reception he may face on the day. In the history of the PTS, however, no player has ever expressed slight concern at the reception he may face on the day.

Anyway, egged on by script-wielding commentators, the player inevitably will get on the scoresheet on his return to his old stomping ground. This is, of course, followed by the melodramatic, look-at-me-aren't-I-honourable übercliché that is the muted celebration, a nice touch designed to impress the sort of emotional knife-edge fans that bring A4-size banners to football matches.

   Finally, the whole dreadful story draws to a close but at what point during its evolution does a PTS become recognised as such? A protracted transfer arguably emerges at Chapter V, when the stand-off over a rejected bid threatens to hold up the process. It's not enough to warrant being called a "saga", however;  that requires Chapter VI - the point at which everyone genuinely starts to get a bit fed up.

Epic stuff indeed, but don't get too comfortable - the managerial sack race now begins in earnest.

1 comment:

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