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Transfer Deadline Day: The human impact behind football's big moves

I was chatting to a former international footballer this week about the human side of transfers.

He told me how in his early twenties he finished training and got a call (club landline) from Newcastle United. They wanted him. It was a big deal as this was the Kevin Keegan era when the team was bedazzling the young Premier League with its attacking verve.

They told him to wait around the training ground for a few hours and they’d sort it. The plan was then for him to drive 200 miles north and start a new life. He waited at the training ground all day. Nothing happened. It worked out though - he wound up at Liverpool.

On that afternoon though, the possibility of a totally new lifestyle, a dream opportunity appeared from the ether… and then disappeared.

It made me wonder how us regular non-footballing humans would process the uncertainty and massive change of being a player on deadline week - both the wanted and perhaps, more painfully, the unwanted, those players the clubs have deemed surplus to requirements? 

Making the Move

Huddersfield’s Danny Williams was on holiday in Las Vegas in 2013 when his agent called. The German-American was 24 and hadn’t lived outside of Germany. But when his agent said, “Reading want you,” he immediately said yes to leaving his family and friends and moving abroad.

He hadn’t heard of Reading. He momentarily reconsidered when he was alone in a hotel room in Berkshire without a bank account, car and no signs of a social life anytime soon.

But when he figured out he could live in west London and commute down the M4, it cemented his sense he made the right call. Thanks to his American dad he spoke fluent (albeit, accented) English and loved London life.

Williams’ daily drive from Brentford was modest by some standards. I was told this week about a northern-ish club that kicked training back to a noon start to accommodate veteran players who were making three-hour journeys from the south. From the club’s perspective, is that an ideal lifestyle for a professional athlete?

From the players’ perspective though, can they move their whole family for a year or two? Would we move our families for 18 months or live away from them five nights a week? What would we do if we were Thibaut Courtois - in London while our young kids grew up in Madrid? Maybe we’d move them. What if they don’t want to go? Big calls.

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Yep, the transfer window slams shut this week. An adrenaline-fuelled time for journalists as we strain to detect the next move in the offing.

A time of excitement, hope, frustration and possibly disappointment for football fans - and maybe managers share in those same emotions as the 5pm Thursday deadline looms large.

The Humans Behind The Transfer Fees

Fans and managers want to complete the jigsaw, want to add that special part. But often the casual calculations over whether a player will be a success or not are made based on stats and highlight reels.

Calls not often made with human considerations - a Brazilian may have been prolific in Portugal, but that’s in a situation where he can speak his native tongue and live in a relatively similar climate.

Do the goals and assists carry over when he’s relocated to an industrial town in northern England with very few opportunities to speak Portuguese or eat Portuguese food? How’s his mood when a 4pm winter nightfall taints his lifelong practice of going out for dinner with friends and family? Can he function when the sun hides for three months?

Watford v Brighton and Hove Albion - Premier League

Is it any coincidence that Marco Silva attracts Brazilian players - to have a boss who speaks the same language is surely a huge human factor?

Usually and understandably, these observations are shrugged off by football fans - ‘they’re getting paid millions, so get on with it.’ And to an extent it’s true there’s not much deep jeopardy in top-level football. Players can afford to fail and still live well.

But money doesn’t solve the problems necessarily of trying to help your wife and kids adapt to a whole new culture.

Perhaps that is why Premier League clubs prefer now to sign South Americans who have proved adaptable to northern European winters rather than Real Madrid’s cultural confidence in blowing big bucks on unproven teenagers like Vinicius Jnr. Importing a player isn’t like importing a car - the same numbers aren’t guaranteed.

Still the human side of transfers - or the related summer process of releasing players - is more acutely felt at the lower end. A world where parents and agents’ support can make or break players careers and have a lasting influence on their lives - good or bad. I met up recently with Kiko Rodriguez - Jay’s dad.

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He’d set up a football agency after his son had experienced morally questionable practices at the hands of agents early in his career. He doesn’t represent Jay or other Premier League stars though. His focus tends to be players ‘let go’ at 18, those looking to rebuild.

Unethical Agents

He looked tired when we met because he’d been up at 5am to ferry a young Croatian goalkeeper to the airport. The keeper had a budding career in Germany when his agent suggested he moved to Albania for a lucrative contract.

The player moved, presumably the agent collected, and then stopped taking the player’s calls. The young keeper then stopped getting paid. Kiko’s been trying to get him a chance to rebuild in England. He’d later get a call to say a football club had agreed to a trial, so the player was in the process of sorting a ticket to fly back to rejoin Kiko.

Kiko also talks about a 17-year-old boy he’s working with who’s 150 miles from where his agency is based. But Kiko and his team have been visiting the lad regularly because he’s homesick, struggling to live in a new city away from his family.

But everyone involved knows, if he quits, that could be it. Finished as a pro before he’s begun. He’s found somewhere he’s wanted, huge for a young footballer.

FFA Cup Rd of 32 - Rockdale City Suns v Sydney FC

Kiko says he knows of unethical agents who pay parent’s mortgages off to get the boy signed, but then ultimately misguide the player’s career financially and professionally. When the career is significantly curtailed, they vanish. A lot of players get released from clubs at 18.

Not uncommon for agents to leave them then. Kiko says he often picks up players at this stage, but sometimes the material motives spoil the union - players “just want a pair of boots,” rather than tactical career advice and so go with the wrong advisor.

Often players have to rebuild by dropping into non-league with the hope of climbing back up the pyramid. Often they don’t. Kiko says he’d just helped a player who ultimately never made it, rebuild with a career in physiotherapy.

A Helping Hand

It appears ethical agency is on the rise. I spoke to a young man who works for a company that doesn’t take a penny off their players until their second pro contract. They offer psychological, technical and physical training to their players - in addition to their football schooling at academies.

But while he acknowledged that money makes the world go round, he said they try to “set goals that aren’t material, like playing at the highest level and playing internationally.”

Reading v Fulham - Sky Bet Championship

Psychologists will say extrinsic goals can destroy intrinsic goals like the joy of playing, which can’t be good for performance. 

Big money. Big stakes. Life, lifestyle, language, money, families, friends. Lots to consider in lots of decisions to be made this week by players.

Decisions that differ from the grizzled veteran with three kids seeking one last move to the teenager ‘looking to make it.’ I’ll be talking a lot about money as a journalist - fees, salaries, gross and net spends etc.

But two players from different stages of their careers offered counsel that players should never disconnect from where it began - the joy of booting a ball.

USA international Danny Williams says he still visualises the sensation of being a kid and playing for fun and reminds himself “it’s not life and death.”

While Ajibola Alese, an England U17 defender told me, “sometimes it’s difficult, but you try to remember why you started playing.”

So, at work Wednesday as the names and numbers of transfers rattle through, I’ll try to spare a moment to think about the lives that are changing this week.

Hope it works out for all - players, clubs and fans. Notting’s guaranteed though - maybe outside of Cristiano Ronaldo.

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