Friday 22 September 2017

Stephen Hunt: Do you stick or twist as the uncertain winds of change blow through the window?

The January transfer deadlines can fill you with excitement . . . or a smothering sense of dread

'The clubs are the ones with control. If the players had control West Ham's Dimitri Payet would have already played for Marseille.' Photo: Daniel Hambury/PA Wire
'The clubs are the ones with control. If the players had control West Ham's Dimitri Payet would have already played for Marseille.' Photo: Daniel Hambury/PA Wire
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

As the January window comes to a close, much of the hype is about deadline day, but it's not actually like that for those at the centre of it. If you're a footballer, it's the day before that's the bigger event. That's why tomorrow will be more tense for a lot of players. That is when things will start stirring, when you'll really know whether a move might be on.

That, in short, is when the whole thing starts to turn into a raucous night in Las Vegas. It's a case of stick or twist for everyone at the table.

For both clubs and players, the situation is like playing a particularly tight hand of Blackjack. The prevailing feeling at the time is always that you've been dealt a 14, and the dealer has a five. You're just hoping to get that little push, to improve your hand even slightly to tip it in your favour.

Either way, though, the whole thing at that point is a gamble.

That's because of the time of year we're at. When it's summer, most clubs are looking at younger players for the future, while most players have a clean slate going into the new season. It's amazing how drastically those mindsets change a few months later.

Players will by then know what the situation is with their team that season, how much football they're getting or whether the manager likes them, while the clubs are now after experience rather than youth. They're interested in the short term, and what can either secure the key positions at the top of the table, or keep them safe from relegation.

That's also why most of the clubs doing business at this point are those at the bottom end, and why it's so much more tense than summer.

From the clubs' perspective, they're just looking for that little bit extra. A lot of the time, because of the nature of the window, they're not even able to bring in players that are better than what they've got. What they are banking on in those situations, though, is that the signing often needs a fresh start - while they just need a fresh face - and that the will to prove something will bring the improvement of 15 per cent or so that makes a difference.

From the player's point of view, you are weighing up whether you want to gamble on another club, because things are not always rosier on the other side. Much, of course, will depend on how much you're going to play at your current club.

I've been in a few different situations myself going into deadline day, where I did feel that tension, where you're at the Blackjack table.

One manager made it known to intermediaries that he wanted me and, true to his word, came in with a bid. That is important because some managers can be very 'yes, no, yes, no' and never actually make the decision.

They are weighing up a lot, to be fair. They're almost torn apart thinking about the whole deal, the player's actual quality, his age, his previous history, whether he's low or high maintenance, whether he's hard work - and all this in such a short space of time. Any players who have a reputation of trouble will, at that point, only go to clubs in trouble.

There's naturally a lot to think about for players, too, and even beyond the football side. Most of all, there's your family, especially if you've got kids. When you're a young lad with no kids, for example, you'll go anywhere. You just want to play at the best level you can. When you have children, though, you are thinking when they are going to start school; whether they're changing school too much. My wife, for example, wanted my girls to move schools as little as possible so we would have tried to stay in the midlands.

Anyway, all of this is why it is important for people to stay true to their word in the transfer window, why people shouldn't mess players around. I think, if it's purposefully made known to a player that a club are interested, a manager has a duty to at least bid. It should be done cleanly.

The player will then understand if his club aren't willing to sell him, or if the bid just isn't big enough - except, of course, if the club really don't want to sell him then they won't even want the player to know.

It's those mind games that really frustrate a player. I've also had another situation when a bid came in, and my club denied one was ever made.

Then there was the time it looked like Wigan Athletic were going to activate my release clause, at a point when they were going well in the Premier League and Reading were back in the Championship. I had my suit ready to go, laid out on the bed, was sure it was going to happen . . . only for the communication to suddenly dry up.

It was when I saw Charles N'Zogbia roll up to Wigan on the news at 5pm on deadline day that I knew what the situation was!

A lot of emotion goes through your mind at the time. Even then with Reading, I was devastated that season that I wasn't in the Premier League any more, and just wanted to be back in it, but then I was also thinking that the club had given me the opportunity to get there in the first place and maybe I should repay the faith and try and get back with them. There was also the fact I was playing with my brother. So it's difficult. All of that is on your mind.

Some players go through the whole window with that uncertainty, but there are those who only get an inkling a move is on the day before, and when they might have been settled.

You don't even have time to think about it. You're told by the club on deadline day, 'We're accepting a bid'. Now, you might be wondering, what if you just didn't want to go?

You could refuse, but look at it this way: the club are making it clear they don't want you. You can say you're not going but the hint is there, so you're better off. It just happens so quick, too.

There can be an excitement to that, naturally. I've never been in the situation, but some team-mates I've known have loved it. Others have immediately been reticent and, when they start at the new club, you get texts saying: 'Had I known it was like this, I wouldn't have come'.

The thing about all this, though, is that it's the clubs that have all the power. Make no mistake. The clubs are the ones with control. The players don't have control. If they did, Dimitri Payet would have already played for Marseille. The players are just assets to them.

That's how Hull City looked at it with Robert Snodgrass, and why I think they did good business to take £10.2m for a 29-year-old who's probably never going to have as good a season as this - certainly in terms of goalscoring. They've employed a Portuguese manager in Marco Silva, and you would also think he'll be know some players from abroad whose prices aren't as inflated as those in England.

Again, it's just weighing up the assets.

From another angle, I've known of managers who were about to sign a player, only for them to have a quick chat that can totally ruin their chances. The players might say the wrong thing, or there might just be the wrong vibe, and the manager will be straight on the phone: 'Make sure he doesn't pass his medical.'

It can still be an exciting day even if you're not involved in a move.

The thing is, the players often don't have a clue what's happening with transfers. They might get wind of something through friends of friends at other clubs, or if the manager suddenly asks you an opinion on a lad you might know, but that would only be to players he trusts.

All of a sudden, then, a player who was having a relaxed window could suddenly see his own future under threat because his club have signed someone in his position with two hours to go.

It's then the hand would have changed. That's the draw. That's the day that's in it, and why so much of it has the tension of a raucous evening in a casino.

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