Inside Transfer Reporting
Transfer coverage is a major part of the football media industry. Steven Chicken takes us behind the curtain of the Transfer Window from the perspective of a football journalist.
Happy New Year, everyone! Ali here, wishing you all a fulfilling 2024. We are incredibly grateful for your support on NTT20.COM and the wider Not The Top 20 world — we want to keep expanding our offering this year, keep covering every league, and keep covering every member of the 72 better than ever before.
And so, welcome to Transfer Month. Throughout January, starting with this debut piece from the excellent Steven Chicken, we are going to provide the best EFL Transfer Window coverage that’s ever existed.
Each day, NTT20.COM subscribers will also have the DONE DEALS DAILY bulletin sent to their inbox, with a list of the confirmed transfers from the previous 24 hours, including a few lines of information, player detail, team context and opinion.
And, over the course of the month, we’ll also dust off the Transfers We Love series, where we’ll be able to expand further on the best pieces of EFL transfer business.
Join us for the ride by subscribing to NTT20.COM.
Inside Transfer Reporting
Before we go any further talking about what it’s like to be a football journalist in a transfer window, everybody needs to understand just what big business gossip and rumours can be.
How big? Put it this way: every football website I have ever written for, without exception, has enjoyed a bigger readership during the summer months than during the season, when there’s actual football being actually played by actual footballers.
You could write a whole thesis about why that should be the case, but I’ve always held that it’s appealing for the same reason people buy lottery tickets: you know there’s a fair chance you’re going to be let down, but you invest yourself in it anyway because if you do hit the jackpot, it can be an instant fix.
It’s also universal: coaching and gradual development may be fascinating to football nerds, drinking on the train may fill the needs of the more laddish element, some families just love a nice day out at the match. But everyone can get excited about transfers.
That means that unless you’re lucky enough to fill a particular niche – covering all 72 EFL clubs, for instance, or being Michael Cox – transfer coverage is a genuine commercial imperative for any newspaper, website, editor and journalist. If you have a slow day or a page view target to hit (and more often than not, you have both), throwing transfer content at the problem is the closest you can get to a sure thing.
Naturally, if a link gets reported in one place, it will quickly be replicated everywhere. These leads tend to come from a surprisingly small pool of familiar names – your Fabrizio Romanos if a big club in involved, your Alan Nixons in the EFL – and that’s because there’s a clutch of journalists for whom talking to agents and chasing down leads is pretty much all they do all day, every day.
That means that a lot of the work we do as local journalists is reactive: keeping a close eye on what rumours are coming out and following up on them. You may not be first to a story, but the locals are usually the best-placed people to put a bit more meat on the bones.
It can be frustrating sometimes – everyone wants to be the one to break the story – but it’s a division of labour that more or less works, and there’s a few reasons things work this way.
First is that a local journalist invariably has to spread their resources in multiple different directions: a press conference one day, a few quotes lines out of that, then a match that needs covering the following day, and so on. It’s hard to compete with a colleague who can dedicate themselves solely to getting on the phone to agents.
Which takes us to the second reason: although a local journalist can and probably will speak to agents, your primary relationship is usually with the club – and naturally, all three parties want different things.
An agent’s job, after all, is to drum up interest and publicity for their clients; they have a vested interest in making it appear that there is competition for their player’s signature.
A trained eye can usually spot an agent-led line a mile off: multiple clubs being named, at least one of whom will have been linked with that player 12-18 months ago, is the usual dead giveaway. Conversely, vague claims of ‘Premier League interest’ are often a barely-disguised red rag to the clubs, effectively saying ‘get this lad on a new deal or I’ll be looking to move him on, and not quietly either’.
That would be bad news for the clubs, because they are generally better advised to keep their cards close to their chests. Unless they’re absolutely desperate to offload somebody and it behoves them to pull from the agent playbook, they would usually prefer to keep their business quiet until the paperwork is complete.
We’ve all seen our clubs connected with making one big-name signing or other only for it to fall apart at the last moment, and know how embarrassing that can be. Why subject yourself to that by shouting about everything you’re doing?
There’s also practical considerations on top of public relations, because clubs don’t want to hurt their negotiation position by being seen to be recklessly spending and willing to agree to anything.
There’s often a fine line for clubs to tread there, because a club won’t want the other clubs and agents they’re negotiating with to think they need to look after a budget, but also want the fans to know that they’re willing to invest. Many a cake will be both had and eaten this month.
I’ve spoken to dozens of journalists over the past few years about what their relationships with their local clubs are like, and it can range from outright hostile to basically fine to extremely trusting. The reasons for that can vary: some clubs are just very aloof, and some journalists just can’t be trusted.
As a general rule, the smaller the club, the closer that relationship will be, for much the same reasons that your local takeaway will drop flyers in your letterbox while McDonald’s put adverts on TV: the benefit gets lost when you have a reach that wide.
I think most hacks will have at least some relationship with the club(s) they cover, though, and can often get at least some kind of off-record steer as to which transfer rumours are definitely valid, which are maybes and which are outright nonsense.
In reality, clubs are constantly looking at multiple players at once, with A, B, C, D, E, F and G targets identified and kept warm as possibilities. So while it may be fair to say the club is interested in someone, that might just mean they are one of ten names on a longlist, rather than a top target. Again, it depends on the club, but there are some that will give the local hacks a nudge in the right direction there: ‘I wouldn’t go big on that one’, kind of thing.
There is a constant mutual understanding that such information is only shared on a need-to-know basis; if the local hack sprinted to put that information on tomorrow’s back page against the club’s wishes, they probably wouldn’t be kept in the loop for very long and their job would get a lot more difficult.
However, you can still nudge and suggest things into more or less the right direction, and a savvy press officer will understand the benefits of keeping the local press briefed so they can help steer the narrative towards something at least vaguely representative of reality. It’s no good to anybody, least of all the club, if some dodgy report or spurious rumour means the fans expect them to go out and sign Aleksandar Mitrovic – despite there being absolutely no chance of that happening.
The clubs’ general preference to keep quiet about things means that fans of literally every club in the country will be convinced that they’re not doing anything, and that the club must be told on social media what kinds of players they have to sign. But of course, most clubs are constantly and painfully aware of what their own needs are. Every club is willing to do business, every club wants to upgrade on what they have – and that’s exactly the problem.
That means there’s usually a legitimate element of uncertainty until a deal is done; most attempted moves will break down at some point in the chain, which is exactly why they have multiple targets.
Unfortunately, it’s in a newspaper’s interests to swing towards a black-and-white presentation of things, and not just because it saves on expensive coloured ink. Strong headlines get clicks, prevarication doesn’t.
I don’t like it, but it is in a writer’s interests to be as cheeky as you possibly can with a headline without actively aggravating your readership and driving them away from returning to your site next time. In the short term, though, even that is better than being boring. The biggest sin you can commit, however, is known in the trade as ‘story in a headline’: i.e. you’ve given everyone the entire thing without them even needing to click.
It’s a tricky balance to strike. I once worked with one extremely successful editor, in particular, who has made a career out of having a next-level genius mind for coming up with headlines that people would click but wouldn’t get angry about having clicked. I think we can all attest as readers what a rare gift that is.
I also know of lots of journalists who will laugh at their own gall if they come up with a particularly silly and nakedly clickbaity headline that they know will get those very clicks despite being absolute filth.
It’s not something you want to make a habit of, but I think we all have a begrudging acceptance that it’s part of the game you have to play to a certain extent, and if you don’t laugh then it can honestly get a bit tedious after a while. Even those of us who try to stay as credible as possible end up having to write up a lot of second-hand information, which is not exactly the glamorous side of the job that you dream of when you embark on this career path.
That’s what audiences want, though, and for most of us, it is what keeps us in work. None of this is really a modern phenomenon, either: it was the same 30 years ago and will be the same in 30 years’ time. Whatever the transfer window and whatever the club, hope will always find a buyer.
The funny thing with that is that the moment a deal actually gets done, the readers usually lose interest pretty well immediately. It’s the same with managerial appointments: the anticipation and speculation are nearly always far more interesting to people than the reality of the thing.
That short shelf-life means that once a signing gets done, you have to get as much content out as quickly as possible; if you wait until the next day, people just won’t be interested.
I will also add here that I have never once been to a press conference for a new signing. I don’t think they’ve really been a thing for years at most clubs, yet you will still occasionally see someone kicking off on social media about how some club or other has supposedly been disrespectful for not having had one for a particular player.
My perennial favourite is people insisting to me that a press conference has definitely been called for a certain time to announce a new signing, to which the obvious retort is to ask what use a press conference is if the press have not been informed it is happening. That’s not a press conference, is it? It’s just a lad sitting alone at a desk, like me on my school lunch breaks aged 9-13, or me on my lunch break at the office aged 20-27, or me on my lunch break every day since the pandemic.
Instead, clubs will usually do some silly video for social media traction. Personally, I prefer for there to be some relationship between subject and form: if you’ve signed a player called Garth Vader, then yes, by all means, do a Star Wars-themed video, but what’s the connection to having signed John Boring from Fleetwood?
However, I appear to be alone in this, and the act of merely having referenced a pop culture commodity seems to be enough to make most people doling out the cry-laughing emoji. Am I so out of touch? No… it’s the children who are wrong.
Yeah, Simpsons that, isn’t it? Cry-laughing emoji.
One final thought for the transfer window: those unveiling videos and the player’s first interview for the club YouTube are usually filmed on the day they come in for their medical, while they wait for test results to come back or their agent thrashes out the final bits of the deal.
As a result, every EFL club in the country will have a cloud storage folder full of useless footage of players who failed their medicals or ended up moving elsewhere at the last second. Some of those will be players you didn’t even know had been linked. Wouldn’t you love to know what’s in your club’s Dropbox?
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