Nothing quite excites a football fan more than the start of the transfer window. The anticipation and unpredictability of this period of time cannot be compared to anything on offer in the beautiful game. Oftentimes, more than the actual 90 minutes of football itself, the transfer window months make for the most thrilling viewing.
And this is for good reason. Over the years, the drama surrounding the major transfer window deals have left fans wanting more and more, to the point where entire industries and livelihoods now depend on the happenings of this spell of time.
The way sports journalists view the transfer window though, is far from the way fans look at it. Especially in the digital age, where social media rules the roost, it is increasingly difficult to get away with hearsay comments about player transfers by simply citing a source “close to” the player without getting quizzed on its gory details by armchair strategists and cynics on Twitter. That being said, this level of accountability has given rise to a wealth of information for the general public to consume every step of the way – to the point where fans now know about confirmed transfers even before clubs have officially announced them.
Speaking with Manchester Evening News’ Chief Manchester United writer, Samuel Luckhurst, made it abundantly clear that an honest sports journalist needs to go to great lengths in the social media age to make sure the information being put out to the world is true to the best of their knowledge.
“Few journalists would describe the transfer window as ‘special’, maybe in a different context,” he said.
“There is a lot to dread about it and that is solely because of social media. Every cough and spit of a deal has to be covered now and that can become tedious, in most cases. If a player is baselessly linked with a club you are covering you still feel duty bound to check it with the club, so you become conscious of your own perception in the club’s eyes. Fortunately, I’ve got a decent gauge of what might be a goer and what isn’t.”
Keeping the above in mind, it should come as no surprise that journalists themselves have now become celebrities in the eyes of football fans. After all, they seem to be doing god’s work and bringing the public closer to their favourite football stars and teams. It seems like the dream job on paper, but also brings with it a ton of responsibility and a reputation on the line.
“Online fans seem to rate journalists on transfer reporting even though it is essentially four months of the year,” Luckhurst continued.
“One appreciates the window’s significance and its demands, but it is not the be-all and end-all. Particularly covering (Manchester) United this season, the rumblings in the dressing room are more fascinating and juicier than a signing. That said, if you have a good window, journalistically, it is about as satisfying as it gets.”
The transfer window’s significance weighs heavily on club managers, both for their personal journeys and that of the players they plan to buy or sell. Managers know they want their teams in order much before the start of the season, but seldom lay out their plans to journalists to avoid a public relations nightmare knowing the dynamic nature of the window.
That being said, Ralf Rangnick’s pre-match press conference ahead of Manchester United’s trip to Brighton in the Premier League featured the German mentioning how the club needed a new striker in the January transfer window and that there were three top strikers who were available at the time.
Following a 4-0 defeat to the Seagulls however, Rangnick refrained from giving too much away when asked about potential transfer activity and whether his team needed a boost in defence after a poor performance.
“Please accept that I don’t want to speak about that (recruitment) right now after a performance like today. It doesn’t make sense to speak about recruitment now,” Rangnick said following the game.
“We should still be good enough with the team we had available today in the first and second half and played better than we did today. Again, full responsibility on my side for the performance but again it’s difficult, really difficult to understand why we played like we played against Brentford on Monday and like we played today.”
Manchester United’s transfer woes are well documented. Recruitment hasn’t been the club’s greatest strength and it became apparent when one of their transfer targets, Moises Caicedo, ended up scoring against the English giants in the game at the Amex Stadium.
Speaking to Graham Potter after the match, it became clear that there were indeed clubs keen to bring in the Ecuadorian, and while it may not have been overly visible, Potter was pleased as punch to have won this particular transfer battle.
“He’s a good young player that I’m sure has got a lot of people looking at him so we’re delighted that we’ve got him,” Potter said when asked about the potential of United signing Caicedo.
“He must think the Premier League is easy because his results have been fantastic since he’s been there. We’re so happy for him.”
Graham Potter has himself been one of the prime targets for so-called “bigger” Premier League clubs, but maintained that he was happy at Brighton and isn’t concerned about leaving just yet.
“I never said I wanted to leave at all,” Potter remarked.
“It wasn’t so long back that I was probably getting criticism and if you had probably gone to some local fan sites I bet I wasn’t the flavour of the month some weeks ago. So things change pretty quickly. Let’s not forget that. I enjoy it here.”
Perhaps a club like Brighton’s biggest issue is competing with the league’s big boys. When quizzed about potential transfer window departures, Potter was transparent about how difficult it can be in the current circumstances.
“Well we’ve sold £65million worth of players in the last two windows and we’ve managed to improve so it can be done,” the Brighton boss said.
“Again it’s about aligning everything, coordinating recruitment, creating a good environment. It’s about understanding that signing players is relatively easy.
“Anybody can sign players, selling players is difficult especially for the right price and at the right time. But as a club we and I can’t sit here and say we’ll keep all our players for the next three years because it’s impossible, we’re not going to improve like that.
“We have to be brave and again we’re not desperate to do anything but if people want to come and pay over the odds or big prices for our players then that’s life, we understand where we are.”
While managers do have their ceilings when discussing transfer activity of their clubs, journalists seldom do. Case in point, Manchester United’s impromptu signing of Cristiano Ronaldo last summer. The Portuguese superstar was heavily linked with a move away from Juventus during what may be called the dying embers of the summer transfer window, but few journalists and even ardent football fans could have predicted this story to pan out the way that it eventually did.
Ronaldo was suddenly being rumoured to be on the move to Manchester City, one of his former employers Manchester United’s fiercest rivals. Just as news of this potential transfer was filtering through to the public via journalists in the know, a press conference from then Man Utd manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appeared to suggest the Red Devils were confident of finalising a move for one of their original prodigies.
As social media blew up, it became clear that the homecoming was indeed going to materialise, and it turned out to be a diamond mine of sorts for the sports journalists who were covering this story on the ground.
“At the risk of tooting my own horn, last year’s (transfer window) could not have gone much better,” Samuel Luckhurst recalls.
“One strives to have a standout, significant exclusive each summer window. Waking up on the last Friday of August, I didn’t expect to go to bed having filed four world exclusives on United re-signing (Cristiano) Ronaldo.”
Reporting exclusively on a news story like Ronaldo returning to the club that essentially made him is perhaps the peak of what football writers and journalists dream of. Being the eyes and ears on the ground for millions if not billions of people worldwide would be the kind of pressure that can make or break careers, and in many cases, this kind of transfer news story is why sports journalists are now social media celebrities of their own.
But the whole picture can never be rosy. The Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United story is a transfer one-off in many ways, and in a generation where the numbers matter more than anything else, journalists can be tempted into believing that a winning formula should not be messed with at any cost.
“Social media has changed the way transfer news is presented to the world, and not for the better. Certain journalists with a following stick their oar in as far and wide as possible as they know they get more impressions from weighing in on a particular club,” Luckhurst added.
“For example, there are some overseas journalists who have cultivated a brand and know they are expanding it if they tweet about United. I would surmise neither have ever set foot in Manchester and, if they have, it has not been to cover a game or a press conference in my time.
“The fans are taken for a ride by certain ‘journalists’. Someone in the media department at United told me an overseas journalist admitted to him he had increased his United output because he gets more impressions on social media. That is not true journalism.”
And then there’s the concept of “fake news”. An umbrella term made famous by former United States of America President Donald Trump that has almost become general parlance when discussing football transfers. Fans eagerly await any information about players making a move to their favourite clubs, and often, journalists see potential in fabricating stories that may not be true. As mentioned before, the importance of accuracy is paramount in this day and age, and applying half-baked knowledge about a particular transfer with the hope that it would translate into something concrete can be highly dangerous.
“I dislike the term ‘fake news’ chiefly because it was coined by Trump, who was the greatest proponent of fake news on the planet when he was in office,” Luckhurst remarked.
“It goes without saying accuracy is essential in all stories, never mind transfer stories. One should not lower their standards for a story if it is not transfer-related. Ultimately, when it comes to writing a transfer story and publishing it, you have to be certain the information is credible and genuine. Phraseology is always vital as well, as the majority of transfer tips come from agency sources and individuals, rather than football clubs.”
The world of transfer rumours can often be frustrating for clubs, perhaps more than fans would imagine it to be. Knowing the world we live in, agents and public relation teams of certain eminent footballers can use the window to get their clients better deals from their current employers, and may even go to the extent of befriending journalists simply to make sure their desired narrative is presented to the world on the big stage. This nexus hurts the trust that fans put in the transfer window as a whole, since it can become difficult to trust any information that is out in the public domain.
“We are all going to make mistakes in this industry but you have to learn from them and some (journalists) don’t,” Samuel Luckhurst continued.
“Others are puppets, such as one who fabricated (Manchester) United’s interest in a German player to strengthen his agent’s bargaining position during contract talks. The player got a new contract.”
The topsy-turvy nature of the transfer window means that journalists need to keep their eye on the ball at all times. Deals that are seemingly done and dusted can fall through due to unforeseen circumstances, while buried transfer rumours can be brought back to life due to similar reasons. Clubs often secure their financial futures by having their marquee players sign long-term contracts simply to drive their value up when the transfer windows roll in, and big clubs oblige with huge sums of money to make sure they have the best in class before the season goes into overdrive.
The transfer window brings with it a special connection between sports journalists and football fans, and with the help of a star cast full of players, clubs and agents, the beautiful game’s arguably most beautiful period is only going to become more exciting as the years go by.