“Get me a murder a day!” went the cry of Lord Northcliffe, the founder of the Daily Mail as he sought to boost sales at the turn of the 19th century; murder, sex and scandal were regular bedfellows for the front-page copy-fillers. Years later, over on the other side of the paper there was an equally sizeable void that required filling with something not quite so squalid but equally salacious.
While the Mail chased headlines of mass distraction it was the Sun and Rupert Murdoch who, some 70 years later, would fully popularise the transfer rumour mill as we know it today – although in the age of Twitter and the internet it has exploded to become a different animal altogether compared to the days of red tops seeking to fill football space but needing to go to print before the full-time whistle.
Fast forward to the present day and the cult of the transfer story dominates every facet of football news coverage. In the last 24 hours seven of the top 10 stories on the Daily Mirror’s football website were transfer gossip articles while two of the top five on the Guardian’s immensely popular sport site were stories reporting potential moves. This very website dedicates a large chunk of its time to transfer stories.
From the prospecting of the Sun, now everybody is in on the act; speculation and guesswork are not the preserve of the red rags as they may have been in the past; now the broadsheets and Berliners are on board, such is the appetite for ‘news’ of the latest acquisition.
Even club’s official websites have gossip columns linking their own players with moves away from themselves to greedily gobble up as much traffic as they can; a desperate indictment of just how far some are willing to go in order to get in on the act.
Over 200 deals have been struck so far with 24 hours remaining, costing a total of £372 million since the summer transfer window opened.
If every story printed was believed, billions of pounds would have spent and thousands of players would be on the move, so what is going on behind the scenes? And why has the transfer market taken on a life of it’s own - what is it that drives this monster we have all helped create?
To understand the nature of the rumour mill, it is first important to understand why it exists in the first place. When the Sun created the notion of the transfer gossip story in 1969, they could hardly have known they had inadvertently created something a lot bigger.
In order to fill first edition copies that needed to be sent to print before the full-time whistle of Saturday's 3 'o'clock kick-offs, the Sun, under Rupert Murdoch, would fill space with rumour and gossip. Far from missing the match reports and full-time scores, the newspaper’s readers demanded more stories of the next big deal. And so, the rumour mill began.
“I think part of the fascination with the transfer rumour is this: in football, you have so few chances to actually win anything,” said one agent in Four Four Two magazine last month.“So seeing your club pursue and eventually complete a massive transfer is as near as some supporters will come to actually winning anything.”
The statistics seem to back that theory up. In a recent poll of around 8,000 people almost 80% said they have a desire to seek out transfer news not because they want to get to the bottom of a rumour and determine the truth, but because they want to see their club linked with a big name player. Music to the ears of newspapers and websites desperate for sales and clicks to drive revenue skyward - everyone is happy.
Only around 10% said they were interested in getting to the bottom of a story. Manchester United fans, say, would prefer to read an entirely false story linking them with Lionel Messi than a true one suggesting they may snap up Jermaine Jenas – a desire which has certainly helped foster and develop the massive proliferation of transfer stories in recent years.
“Every transfer website is full of gossip and the website is no different from a newspaper,” says Kevin Garside, sports writer for the Independent.
“The success of the Daily Mail website [which generated a gargantuan 45.3 million visits in December 2011, making it the most popular in the world] is that it’s tittle tattle on the women’s page which just goes mad because people like looking at pictures and reading the gossip – the transfer story is sports gossip essentially and people love it.
“When the transfer window is open and you are a football fan there is a thirst and a hunger to land that special player. That is the issue that everyone wants to know about and it drive the business.”
Of course it is the gap between what is fact and what is fiction that newspapers and websites operate in and exploit, something which isn’t exactly helped by the clubs themselves.
Desperate to maintain their bargaining position in what has become a huge game of cat and mouse - largely thanks to the media’s involvement - by not letting anything slip (or more pertinently, letting misinformation slip), clubs, each with dedicated press offices, steadfastly refuse to discuss transfer dealings.
A reasonable stance, some might say. But it doesn't exactly help quell rumours when Arsene Wenger, for example, denies knowing who Santi Cazorla is just weeks before signing him. Fertile ground for rumour indeed. Ironically, the less they say, the more they are asked and the more stories are created; Wenger in particular always seems to roll his eyes when transfers are mentioned.
The dynamic of journalists trying to glean information for a big story and clubs or agents either keeping quiet or trying to manipulate media for their own ends is set in stone – the push to the fans pull for transfer tales. Cloaked in secrecy, there is plenty of room for shadowy forces to cast their spells behind the scenes.
“When big players are in the spotlight and up for a move, agents will talk,” says one national journalist.
“They will feed any line they want, knowing that it will either get the back page or a page lead the next day. It's what they do and it's what journalists rely on, because Press Offices will seldom help.
“Press offices seem desperate to throw the press off on the wrong scent. One journalist in the north west told me he was laughed off the line when he dared to ask Arsenal whether Robin Van Persie was being sent on tour [before he was sold]. Simple question, yet was met with nothing but scorn.
“So agents, off the record briefings with clubs which are getting rarer, and other such roundabout ways are the only real means of getting substance. And this, meanwhile, is amid a backdrop of a screaming editor demanding the inside track.”
The power of the media in helping to move a player from one club to another should not be underestimated – a classic example came just this week with news of Theo Walcott’s contract negotiations stalling said to have been leaked in order to flush out any suitors and potentially a big money offer. More often than not, when something like that happens, the infamous 'sources' come out of the wodwork.
"Very often 'sources' are agents but it can also be press officers or club personnel. Sometimes certain aspects of a transfer can be sensitive i.e.a star player wants to leave his boyhood club to go abroad, so therefore there can often be a race between player/agent and also the club to get their side of the story over to the public via the media," says Neil Sang, a former footballer with Everton turned agent.
"Certain agents get a bad rap and quite rightly so. The vast majority who get a bad rap bring it on themselves and if you do a dodgy deal you deserve some stick. Many years ago I used to try and defend the industry but nowadays I just try and uphold my own reputation and keep integrity about every aspect of my role as an agent. My belief is that we are not only representing the player, but their families too."
Neil, one of the good guys in a pool of sharks, isn’t your stereotypical agent who operates in the transfer market. Of course, with every move there is something in it for the agent. Ten percent to be precise.
During the 2011/12 season, £71.87 million was spent on agents fees in the Premier League alone, up from £67.14 million the previous year. Pini Zahavi, the notorious super agent, reportedly earned over $10 million in moving Gonzalo Higuain from River Plate to Real Madrid.
“From the agent’s point of view they want the big clubs associated with their players so they will circulate information,” Kevin Garside says. “The media can easily be manipulated with stories about players going here there and everywhere.”
But are writers that willing to take what an agent says at face value in order to get the scoop?
“You’re either in the business or you’re not, and if you’re not, then arrivederci. If you are, then get busy” he insists. “It’s not the content that drives this process but the desire for this content, so in that regard almost anything will do.
“If an agent rings you up and tells you a club is interested in a player then that might well be true. Now that doesn't mean that the player will end up at a new club, and that’s fair enough isn’t it?” he adds.
The crux of the discrepency between what is reported and what eventually happens comes down to the ever evolving nature of stories and nuances involved. While some readers react angrily to a report that appears untrue, journalists will point to the fact that at the time the story was written, the information was correct. Rarely is a deal ever black and white.
The Mirror copped some flak for their coverage of the Robin van Persie saga, forcing them to print an explanation of their (seemingly honest) motivation behind the numerous stories printed around the Dutchman before his move to Manchester United.
The reams of stories and developments in the build-up to his switch from London to Manchester was criticised because there appeared to be a new, different story each day. According to Garside, that’s just the nature of the beast.
“It’s like a football match. You could be winning 2-0 and end up losing 5-3 . You were winning but you didn’t. At the time of reporting the scores, One team were leading 2-0 and it was true but they ended up losing, which was also true.
“The mistake, I think, that the punter makes, is looking for absolute truths. It’s more complicated than that, it’s like international relations buying a footballer these days and that’s what you are talking about, you know, players won’t sell in five seconds flat - these things are protracted."
“I only write what I believe to be true, it’s as simple as that. From a personal point of view I always try and contextualise information. But if you get a piece of information saying a player has been offered then you have to go with it.
Few would doubt the integrity of most national journalists, but the frantic nature of the transfer window and the demand to generate traffic and profit and therefore stories, means that sometimes reports are entirely fabricated in some of the less trustworthy media outlets.
“I was once at the Daily Star and it had got to around 7pm,” says a national journalist.
“First editions are printed at 8pm, sometimes earlier. There was a big white space on the back page. The Editor screamed at me to fill it. I had nothing. Not a bean.
"Any old crap to do with Player A will do," was the message. I declined and someone else did it. All complete fiction. Three weeks later the Star wrote one of those apologies that are roughly the same size as a stamp. This happens often with them."
Unfortunately for the more discerning fan not willing to take what he reads as a given, it isn’t as straight forward as merely watching out for what a player’s agent might say or separating the wheat from the chaff; multiple are the noses in the trough, muddying the water even further.
"Sometimes agents can purport to represent certain players when speaking to managers and club personnel in the hope they can get a “bite” on a player," says Sang.
"It is a way of trying to manufacture business without actually representing the player. Through a general conversation with a manager he may get the manager to “bite” on a certain player. He would then go directly to the player and/or his agent and try to insert himself in the deal or order to make a commission."
Just recently a man purporting to be the agent of wantaway Athletic Bilbao forward Fernando Llorente was quoted by numerous national media outlets as saying that the striker had received offers from Premier League clubs based in ‘London and Manchester’.
Hours after the story broke, a journalist from the Times took to Twitter to reveal the man in question was in fact not Llorente’s agent, or indeed anything to do with the player himself. More often than not, it is almost impossible to decipher the absolute truth.
The crux of the balance between players, their agents and the media, and in turn the public, lies within the relationship between a journalist and the club themselves, and it is from that relationship that mistruths are sometimes printed in order to benefit the paper or website in the long-term.
“A club will ask a journalist they are friendly with to put something out, whatever it is, be it a star striker back in training after nine months out or a player's contract talks going well. However, sometimes the club will tell the journalist they could expect some flak if it doesn't happen,” one journalist reveals.
“They wanted positive PR so they get it. In return, the journalist often asks for the correct steer on the next big story at that club (something like a phone call to say Player X is signing in 30 minutes and it will be on the website shortly, enabling the journalist to tweet it/put it on the website and be first) or a sit-down interview with a star player later down the line.” That explains why there are few genuine shock transfers these days, then.
Lost among all this are the players themselves. They are at the heart of the chaos but are often the most out of the loop of all parties involved. Tottenham striker Jermain Defoe, when asked about reports linking him with a move to Sunderland a few years ago, once said: "We’re the last to know. Sometimes people I’ve played with get a call that just says ‘Congratulations – you are going here.’"
And for all the hubbub and burble of activity that whirls throughout the transfer window it can be a lonely place at the eye of the storm for the players themselves.
Power may rest with employee rather than employer for the very best in the business, but lower down the food chain the roles are reversed. The window becomes a time of nerves and anxiety for those who are unsure of their future and are forced to read what might be on a daily basis.
"It is different from our side,” Sebastien Bassong said after his recent move from Tottenham to Norwich.
“The transfer window, for players, is really uncertain. Maybe, if you’ve had a really good season, it’s different. Maybe you know where you will be playing. But on the other side, it is really uncertain.
“The clubs will go to your agent and try to get a feeling whether you are interested in moving. The agent relays it to you, and then maybe there’s an official offer, and then there’s all the talks. It takes a long time. It is really stressful not knowing what will happen”
It’s not just Bassong who felt the effect of being shipped out by Spurs. “It is hard for your family. That is another side you don’t see. You need their support,” he added.
At least nowdays however, players can have a voice. Social Media has done many things to help football out in recent years. In a game which is often accused of being out of touch with the man on the street who fuels its existence with his Saturday cash, sites such as Twitter and Facebook have worked to bring these two symbiotic parties closer together thanks to their open communication channels. Joey Barton has used Twitter to keep fans up to date over his move to Marseille, something previously unheard of.
However take the Social out of the equation and its role as a new type of media source is just the same as the traditional print and online media, except this time everybody is allowed in on the action.
Alongside traditional media outlets, the rise of the rumour mill has never been more apparent than on Twitter, which exposes a global view of the water cooler gossip taking place up and down the land. Rumours quickly gather pace and soon enough an elaborate game of Chinese whispers has taken hold and what was once unfounded has now become fact. The appetite for new, instant information is ferocious.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of social media’s role in the rumour mill is the anonymous “Agent In the Know' Accounts – people claiming to have the inside line on many deals.
In the last week, two high profile accounts claiming to be player agents, with a combined total of 80,000 followers including journalists and TV presenters have come clean and admitted they were bored school kids.
One even claimed to have started the rumour linking Real Madrid’s Kaka to Manchester United, a story that was then covered on at least one national newspaper website.
So, is there such thing as a super agent on the inside of multi-million pound deals sharing all the info on Twitter?
"No," says one journalist. "Some are very good at it, some aren't. Some can genuinely appear as if they have the inside track but ultimately, it's a mixture of excellent timing, good guessing and retweeting people who praise you for getting the scoop. It all adds up.”
Recently, one high-profile Arsenal blogger with around 10,000 followers who had been insisting that Rennes midfielder Yann M’Vila had already signed for the Gunners was outed as working for an agent who had asked him to get the word out in order for him to get a commission. It stands to reason he would then be in line for a slice of the pie himself. Twitter in particular is fertile ground for those with an agenda to drive rumours and speculation for their own ends, straight to the people who will carry it far and wide for them.
In the world of modern football it is no surprise that the rumour mill has spilled over into a new frontier that delivers news and gossip quicker than ever.
With the end of the summer transfer window on the horizon and deadline day approaching, Twitter, newspapers and websites are bracing themselves for the storm. A breathless flurry of activity, meant to play out across a month will develop in a day.
Sky Sports will send reporters to most of the big Premier League grounds around the country, rolling blogs will cover the reports of a taxi driver spotting Cristiano Ronaldo outside of Craven Cottage.
Deals will be done, dusted then broken. Others will charge up the rails at the last minute and cause a stir, while some will be pure fabrication.
But for all the riches and the carnage set to take place in the next 24 hours or so as those trying to get the inside line are duped into reporting a half-truth, the thrill of transfer market ultimately comes from something more innocent.
"There is no formula and there are too many factors that would influence transfer fees, wages and certain deals for me to be able to explain in few words, says Sang. "Suffice is to say, if there were no mad deals, we’d have less to talk about as fans."
And, surely, for most football fans out there who take what they read with a pinch of salt, that is the bottom line. Ultimately, life would be a little more boring without the rumour mill, so sit back and enjoy the deadline day chaos. By the way, have you heard about Iniesta going to Chelsea? My sources tell me he’s been spotted checking out houses in Kensington…..