Tuesday 27 September 2016

Agents, leaks, denials and spoofers - The evolution of the football transfer process

Published 23/08/2015 | 09:19

Barcelona's Neymar has been linked with a move to Manchester United
Barcelona's Neymar has been linked with a move to Manchester United

The howls of ridicule were echoing around the social media world as one leading tabloid newspaper devoted their Saturday morning back page to an unlikely claim.

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'Manchester United are in secret talks to sign Barcelona superstar Neymar' was the back page headline and quickly got tongues wagging.

A week after United announced that they had 'decided' to pull out of a deal to sign Pedro shortly after news broke that the Spanish forward has agreed to a deal to join Chelsea, it was another implausible twist in the this summer’s frenzied transfer window.

Throw in claims from United ‘insiders’ that they had made an unsuccessful bid for Southampton forward Sadio Mane and you have a chain of events that helped to ensure Old Trafford transfer guru Ed Woodward was enemy in chief on social media sites and in truth, some of the criticism coming his way may have been self-inflicted.

Manchester United ‘sources’ are, it appears, more eager than most to leak information than most, with stories suggesting Toni Kroos, Thiago Alcantara, Cesc Fabregas, Mats Hummels and Pedro have all been close to moving to Old Trafford over the last couple of years proving to be unreliable.

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Links with top players helped to fuel the perception that United were showing ambition in the transfer market and when the deals failed to materialise, the journalists who signed up to write those stories were castigated for serving up false information. Such is the game of transfer roulette some reporters sign up for.

While the Neymar to Old Trafford fantasy appears to have originated from the player’s advisers and not from anyone associated with United, some reporters have been too willing to cozy up to United in the last couple of years by reporting transfer tales that have dented their own reputations. Lessons learnt and painful ones at that.

Ilkay Gundogan and Sergio Ramos have recently joined a growing list of players who have used transfer links with Manchester United to pave the way for lucrative new contracts with their current employers, so journalists need to judge whether the danger of damaging their own credibility is justifiable as they look to join the frenetic scramble for a transfer exclusive.

Amid the rumour, counter rumours and unadulterated nonsense that will be peddled in the run up to the end of the transfer window, here is your Independent.ie guide to the evolution of a transfer.

THE MEDIA BRIEFINGS

“What is written in the newspapers is not true. You cannot know it. Only the players know, the clubs know. The media cannot know.” (Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, August 21st 2015)

Van Gaal’s condemnation of the assembled media his press briefing last Friday did little to bolster the tarnished track records of some who were sharing the room with him, yet many of those present are among the chosen few who are given access to the inner circle at Old Trafford.

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A select handful of journalists can find themselves in a position where they gain the confidence to a club to a point that they will be given nuggets of information regarding possible transfer targets.

If a journalist is given a briefing from a credible source at a club about a possible big-name arrival, he has every right to believe a deal is imminent. However, as the four names above confirm, a misleading briefing could also set you up for a fall if the transfer comes to nothing. 

Sadio Mane's links with United in recent days may also prove to be a case of unreliable leads from a source close to the club as Southampton are insisting no bid has been lodged for he player, but reports of an offer have been printed as fact on the back on prompts from an Old Trafford insider.

Reporters who have been stung by what they considered to be trusted sources tend to be more reluctant to put their name to stories from that same channel of information in the future, but there will always be another journalist ready to step into their place to claim an exclusive.

THE AGENTS

A majority of football agents tend to keep a low profile and have limited contact with journalists fishing for stories, but there are others who like to use the media to leak stories that may benefit their clients in either contract negotiations or a possible move to a rival club.

A classic example of how a transfer story can develop was seen with agent Aidy Ward’s handling of his client Raheem Sterling’s £49m move from Liverpool to Manchester City this summer.

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Well-positioned stories in newspapers or websites linking Sterling with moves to Real Madrid or Chelsea were part of a game plan that ended with Sterling becoming an asset that City simply had to have.

It is impossible to prove that Ward was aware of City's interest in his player until City's first offers were submitted, but many assumed he was aware that there was a greener and more lucrative field for the England younger to move to.

Speaking to agents is a tried a tested route for any credible journalist to get transfer gossip, but there is always a danger that a reporter will be used to promote an agenda that will only benefit of the player and his adviser.

THE DENIALS

Most of Premier League clubs have a policy of not offering official comment on transfer rumours – but that can be tweaked when the time is right.

Journalists who develop good relationships with press officers will regularly receive text massages, often providing off the record clarification of a story that has appeared in a newspaper linking one of their club’s players with a big money move elsewhere.

Keen to extinguish a transfer inferno before it gathers momentum, the reporter is then encouraged to write a favourable story to place on a website or in a newspaper that is designed to douse the flames at source.

It’s a policy that has some impact and it often the most effective way for press officers to manage what for them could be a negative agenda around one of their players.

MANAGER/PLAYER LEAKS

Many respected journalists develop relationships with players that can give them advance warning on an imminent transfer.

Imagine if you have a long-standing acquaintance in the Southampton dressing room and he sends you a text to state that Morgan Schneiderlin has said his goodbyes, left the club’s pre-season training camp and is on his way for a medical at Manchester United.

There cannot be a more reliable source than a player who has shaken hands with a departing team-mate and wished him well for the future.

Of course, a player is unlikely to have any inside knowledge on the finer details of a transfer and there is always a chance that a move can collapse and a ‘source’ can then look unreliable, but this is the chance you take when you put your byline on a transfer story.

Some managers will also have friends in the media who are willing to give their colleagues a steer on a transfer story, though managers are often reluctant to give too much away for fear of undermining any potential deals.

THE SPOOFERS

"So many websites and social media accounts are not just chasing hits and they will write any story to get what they want. It is sad to see serious journalism being replaced by the nonsense." (Crystal Palace owner Steve Parish)

Having been fortunate to work at the top end of the journalism business for the last two decades, the transformation that has taken place in the business over last handful of years has been remarkable and somewhat alarming.

This is the era when everyone and anyone is claiming  to have a ‘source’ at top clubs, with wannabe story breakers using twitter as a platform to promote their exclusives. Bizarrely, these spoofers attract hordes of willing believers in nonsense, with their popularity serving to fuel their hourly transfer world exclusives.

A whole raft of charlatans have signed up to join the ‘In the Know’ camp (or ITK’s to use a twitter expression) when it comes to transfer gossip, with their so called insider knowledge attracting huge numbers of followers on social media sites.

So a kid with ambitions to be a reporter and who boasts an expanded Twitter fan club – which can be boosted by purchasing fake followers - is now considered to be credible enough to be hired by reputable companies on paid contracts.

Strange, but true.

Of course, when stories like the transfer of Pedro to Chelsea explode in the manner they did this week, those ITK’s are exposed for what they are.

Many of these Twitter warriors find their way onto to websites and they were keen to write stories last Monday claiming Pedro had signed for United and would wear the club's No.9 shirt.

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Two days later, Pedro joined Chelsea and while those who wrote the #WelcomePedro to Man Utd stories were bombarded with Twitter abuse, these novices tend to just shrug it off and move on to the next world exclusive.

They know they are making these stories up and guesswork is not a reliable career path.

Even though many well supported Twitter accounts claiming to offer transfer exclusives only tend to post tweets after 4pm, when the kids running them come home from school,  people continue to believe their nonsense and their Twitter following will continue to increase ahead of next Monday’s September 1st transfer deadline.

Keep in touch with all the breaking transfer news in the final week of this summer’s window on Independent.ie.

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