New year, new club. That's a distinct possibility for a host of top stars across the Premier League and beyond in January and it's all thanks to one seismic change made to the game 12 years ago.
FIFA, in their infinite wisdom, decreed that transfers during the season should be limited to a one-month period and from that the January window was born in 2003.
A nerdy younger brother to the summer transfer period or a last-chance saloon to wheel and deal away from the drop zone and the relative financial oblivion that is the Championship, the winter window is a bone of contention for some including the likes of Arsene Wenger and Harry Redknapp, who famously labelled it 'gang warfare'.
Indeed, just a year after the window was introduced, calls were already being made for it to be dropped amidst fears it gave power to those with money the opportunity to spend their way out of trouble - a point perhaps proved by the fact that between them Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea spent £40 million in 2004 - more than the rest of the league put together.
Professional Footballers' Association chief executive Gordon Taylor said at the time: "We don't feel transfer windows should be applied domestically. They should be applied only internationally. There is a bit of limitation for Football League clubs in selling players to a Premiership side."
Arsene Wenger reflected soon after: "You pay because you want to be in the Champions League and it's the Champions League which gives you the money to buy the players, so it is a vicious circle."
In that first window 12 years ago, Premier League clubs spent £35 million all in, attempting to bolster their fortunes for the second half of the campaign. A certain Roberto Martinez made the move from Walsall to Swansea on a free transfer while Jonathan Woodgate commanded a £9 million fee when he switched from Leeds to Newcastle.
Demand from both ends of the scale
From the start of the first January window up until the 2013 edition clubs in the top flight spent more than £1.1 billion - including the biggest winter deal of them all, Fernando Torres' £50 million move to Chelsea in 2011 - but that pales in significance to the summer window where £3.9 billion has been spent since 2003.
"You pay because you want to be in the Champions League and it's the Champions League which gives you the money to buy the players, so it is a vicious circle" - Arsene Wenger
Four clubs - Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool - account for just over £441 million - or roughly 40% - of the winter spending; perhaps an indication that the January window skeptics may well be right.
Regardless of how the January window is viewed in the game there's no doubting that it is here to stay - and now it's time to take a peek behind the curtain to see what's really going on.
Of course there cannot be the transfer window without the ubiquitous transfer rumour story, and often it's near impossible to tell fact from fiction.
The proliferation of transfer rumours which dominate the back pages during the window can in fact be traced back to none other than the Sun newspaper. In 1969 the publication was faced with a problem - the paper had to be sent off to be printed before the final scores were in, meaning there was space to fill. New owner Rupert Murdoch's solution? Fill in the gap with gossip and rumours of impending transfers.
Creating a monster
The bar, and tone, had been set and inadvertently a monster had been created, and in 2015 the transfer rumour mill spins as fast as ever, powered by the big national newspapers and chancers lurking in the dark corners of Twitter.
According to statistics from the Football Transfer League, seven of the biggest national newspapers in the UK have created more than 22,000 transfer rumours since the 2006 transfer window - and have called just under 42% correct in that time. Any journalist worth their salt will tell you that's because the transfer market is always in a state of flux and just like any deal, a transfer can be made or broken at the last minute.
“You’re either in the business or you’re not, and if you’re not, then arrivederci, If you are, then get busy” Kevin Garside, sports reporter at the Independent, told GiveMeSport last year. “It’s not the content that drives this process but the desire for this content, so in that regard almost anything will do."
Of course the upshot of that is that the media is vulnerable to being used by individuals for personal gain. Agents use the media to manoeuvre themselves into a more favourable position - either by letting it slip to a journalist that his client wants a move or by suggesting that a bid for a client could be incoming to flush out other potential suitors.
"They will probably have three targets in position for each position they want to fill to go and bid for, so if one fails then can go for the other" - Jake Mallen, New Era Global Sports
“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?” Garside added.
However, far from a clandestine world of dodgy dealings and cutthroat negotiations over multi-million pound deals, behind the scenes it all seems relatively sedate.
"There’s normally stuff in the pipeline and clubs will have their list of players and targets," says Jake Mallen, a player consultant for New Era Global Sports, who, amongst others, look after the interests of Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Williams. "They will probably have three targets in position for each position they want to fill to go and bid for, so if one fails then can go for the other.
"You know which one of your players could be on the move - because he’s not playing or is looking to leave, or because there is interest - on deadline day, and in a company like ours there could be a handful on the move so everyone is prepared and ready to move if it does happen last minute.
"In the summer 2013 window, our client, Adlène Guedioura, who joined Crystal Palace from Nottingham Forest happened at the final stages of the window, the bid was accepted late on, so sometimes things can happen quickly."
Tapping up and getting deals done
According to new figures released in November last year, Premier League clubs paid a record £115 million to agents in commissions and fees in the 12 months leading up to September 2014; so it's unsurprising to learn then that not everything in the transfer market is above board when it comes to getting deals done given the cash on the line.
In an interview with the Telegraph last year "The Secret Agent" - an anonymous Premier League football agent - claimed that "almost every approach to a player is “illegal” because the FA rules are so ridiculously drafted". In fact it is the Premier League's T.1.2 rule that deems that approaches directly to players must be made "with the prior written consent of the Club to which he is contracted."
"Of course clubs get agents to speak to players under contract to another club," the Secret Agent continued. "Of course agents try and poach players by promising the earth even when they are contracted to another agent....this is the world of football, not the world of Walt Disney.”
Indeed, the rise of 'Super Agents' like Jorge Mendes - the man behind Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao's move to Manchester United and Cristiano Ronaldo's switch to Real Madrid in 2009 - has done little to help the reputation of agents operating in the game. Mendes in particular has positioned himself as the main man, and images of his grinning face and sharp suits in the directors box at Old Trafford don't exactly dispel the image of agents as blood-thirsty predators.
Tarred with the same brush
Jake Mallen says: "We know the market and what our players deserve. It is unfair the stick agents get, the majority work in a professional manner but there’s always one or two that give the rest a bad name.
"It is the same in any other industry, whether you are a solicitor or a salesman. We listen to the player and if the player is happy we’re not going to push him anywhere. There are some scenarios where the agent is pushing the player but that doesn’t happen here at New Era"
"It is really stressful not knowing what will happen, It is hard for your family. That is another side you don’t see. You need their support” - Sebastien Bassong
Stuck in the middle of all the speculation is the player. While the whirlwind of speculation surrounds him, he can be the last in the know; he could be on the hitlist of a club who make their move on deadline day, forcing a big decision to be made at short notice. Just that happened to Sebastien Bassong when he swapped Tottenham for Norwich back in 2012.
The defender said at the time: “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.
"It is really stressful not knowing what will happen, It is hard for your family. That is another side you don’t see. You need their support.”
Winter window fun & games
It's been a quiet start to the 2015 winter window, perhaps as a result of the limitations of UEFA's Financial Fair Play directive - although, much to Jose Mourinho's annoyance, Wilfried Bony's £28 million move to Manchester City is the only transfer of note. The January window presents its own unique challenges, with clubs more likely to chase loan deals rather than permanent transfers, although inevitably there will be the rush to sign players on deadline day.
That day falls on February 2 this year. Fans tuning into watch the action will be greeted with images of Sky Sports presenters tightly wrapped up in hats and scarves shivering outside Premier League stadiums, as well as Jim White's famous yellow tie and his inflated sense of self-importance.
And they'll do so in their millions because for them, this is more than news reporting, it's a source of entertainment. A poll of around 8,000 people in 2012 found that 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.
Behind the scenes
However behind the scenes there will be frantic agents up and down the country with mobile phones glued to their ears and increasingly hoarse voices trying to make something happen - and on the other end there will be clubs desperately trying to land the one player they need to help fulfil their season's objectives.
"Things can happen quickly, however majority of the time you know whether there will be movement with certain players you look after, says Jake. "Sometimes with it being last minute, the club allow you to agree terms with the other club before a fee is officially agreed, so it can happen fairly quickly.
"At the end of the day, clubs use agents just as much as players use agents. If a club is looking to raise funds for them to strengthen then they will ask an agent to help move their squad members on, so they can’t have all the cake and eat it when talking about agents".
So while you sit back and stare at the television early next month, spare a thought for those desperately trying to make transfers happen just before the clock strikes midnight. Actually, don't bother, it's impossible to have sympathy for an agent, right?
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