However, despite mixed fortunes on the pitch, Manchester United are still the biggest club in the world in terms of shirt sales. They sold an average of 1.85m shirts a season over the last five seasons, keeping them ahead of Real Madrid, reports the Daily Mail.
For the bigwigs of the football world, it is go-time. As spring turns to summer, the campaign comes to a close but off the field, it is open season.
In the space of twelve weeks, a hyper-ventilating global football industry exchanges billions of pounds as a coterie of chairmen, agents, footballers and their families enter a high-stakes poker bonanza to outwit one another and grasp their cut of the winnings.
This is where money meets machismo and behind the scenes the results are explosive. On television screens, the airwaves and the Twittersphere, frenzied rumours and speculation abound. In news conferences, managers offer nudges to their superiors and rebukes to agents. And then, there is you, the supporter, eagerly consuming every tidbit of information.
This is when sport becomes a footnote to the frenzied business of trading. The thirst for knowledge is relentless. Over the past year, the term "Arsenal transfers" has been searched 4.4 million times on Google while "Manchester United transfers" comes in at 3.6 million searches. The interest is breathless and global. Google Trends' popularity rankings show that the fiercest online browsing over Premier League transfers takes place in Uganda, South Sudan and Kenya. This is a domestic gameshow gone global and it is only getting bigger.
We have all been there on Football Manager, trading stars and transfer-listing outcasts at the click of the button, but the reality is far more pain-staking. Over the past fortnight, The Athletic has spoken to chairmen, executives, sporting directors, agents and players to reveal the dark arts that take place behind the scenes. To secure the information so often concealed, those who did speak were granted anonymity. This is how the transfer window really works.
In the closing days of May, the pinging and beeping of iPhones becomes relentless. Football transfers require communication and manipulation. WhatsApp, bought out by Facebook for £11.4 billion in 2014, provides the perfect platform with more than 1.5bn users and 60bn messages exchanged daily. It allows users to organise group chats and most football clubs now have a WhatsApp "Transfer Chat" for the owner, chairman, chief executive, head of recruitment and manager.
All group chats have several sub-chats. One Football League chairman grins and says: "There are breakouts from the main chat. What are they for? Bitching and sniping. But the real reason we use WhatsApp are the blue ticks. These tell you whether a message has been read and whether an agent, a player or a club has seen our interest or our offer."
The blue ticks work both ways, as agents bombard clubs with proposals. A sporting director at a major English club says: "The end of May is red hot on WhatsApp. The best ones are the copy and paste agents. They don't even bother typing your name in or showing why the player would suit your team or your club. It just reads "Hi there…We have "X" player available." We see through it. They are sending the same message to every club at the same time."
The chairman continues: "It is not only on WhatsApp. I had messages from 125 agents in three weeks last year. Every form of communication: phone calls, emails, LinkedIn. I hadn't heard of most of these people. Are they even real? I had five agents all claiming to represent one French player. The other anxiety is screenshots. I was worried about being scammed if I replied to people. Would they take a screenshot and post it onto Twitter or give it to the tabloids? Then I would look really silly."
One sporting director in Scandinavia believes WhatsApp screenshots are used to stage hikes in salaries and transfer fees. He explains: "'Bids are now made on WhatsApp between clubs. Only the final offer, once everything is thrashed out, will be made on paper via email. An agent will send me a screenshot from his player to say I must have £10,000 thrown onto this as a signing fee.' Then it makes it look like the player is driving the negotiations, rather than the agent. But we know it is collusion; led by the agent to get more money out of us. And then there are the benefits they throw in…"
As television rights' deals petro-fuel the industry, the demands of footballers and their agents become bolder and wackier. One agent tells a story of how he organised a multi-million-pound transfer for his client to a top-six Premier League club, only for the player to pull the plug when the chairman refused to include unlimited business travel flights for his family. Within contracts, many Premier League clubs now include a handful of flights for family, particularly for those from South America or Africa, to ensure a player can see his nearest and dearest. It is seen as a small-scale investment to maintain morale.
At one Championship side, the club's policy is to provide every player with four complimentary tickets for a game. Their sporting director says: "You will get family members asking for sixteen tickets. If we said yes, it would destroy the dressing room by treating people differently. These are requests that often come in right at the end of the deal."
This is not the case at Newcastle United, where notoriously thrifty owner Mike Ashley insists players must pay in excess of £20,000 to use the executive boxes at the club's stadium. Curiously, Chinese clubs, despite their huge outlays on salaries, are said to be more resistant to demands at the twelfth hour and have, on occasion, pulled out of transfers due to the extortionate benefits requested by players.
An English club chairman adds: "Players make weird demands. They do not just want flights for their families, they want apartments or five-star hotels for them in the contracts. Or they want a job for their wife. One player wanted us to pay the legal bill for his recent divorce. I just screamed ‘**** off' down the phone."
It is not only at the highest level where the benefits roll in. Fourth-tier Exeter are sponsored by the airline Flybe and one recent transfer included air mile vouchers for a new signing.
On the field, clauses and requests are becoming more peculiar. Traditionally, centre forwards would benefit from generous goal bonuses but, increasingly, players in different positions have sensed opportunity. Clubs in the top four divisions of English football now frequently include assist bonuses for playmakers and wingers.
"It does not stop there," says one agent. "We got set-piece bonuses added into a contract recently, which means the entire team get a bonus when someone scores from a corner, because so many players are involved in making decoy runs and finding space for team-mates. Why should only a striker get the bonus?
"There's more. A lot of clubs do big early seasons bonuses. They will triple individual bonuses for the first six weeks of the season. This will be for winning games, scoring goals, creating goals, clean sheets, the works. Clubs know that a fast start defines the season so it makes sense to further inspire the players."
The brinkmanship between clubs is becoming more savvy, too, and particularly when it comes to the loan market. Lower-tier clubs often sign promising young talents from the biggest clubs but the leading sides are becoming concerned by a lack of opportunities after terms were agreed. As such, they are implementing safety nets. A Football League club last season attempted to loan a player from Liverpool but cancelled the deal when it emerged the Merseyside club insisted he must play a certain percentage of minutes. Should the manager not fulfil those requirements, a six-figure penalty clause must be paid to Liverpool.
The club's chairman said: "It was wrong. If we agreed it and it then became public, there would have been dressing room issues as he could only have been playing due to the clause, rather than merit. Then it is wrong for me as a chairman to insist a player must play. It is also part of a young player's development to learn how to be dropped from the team."
This is not limited to Liverpool. Most Premier League clubs now insert the same measures and fourth-tier clubs do the same when they lend players to non-League sides. For example, if a player is on £250 per week at his League Two club, a loan agreement would see the non-League team cover £100 of his wages. Yet should the player not be picked, the non-League club are compelled to pay his entire £250 salary for that week.
Other clauses are more mischievous, particularly between rival clubs. When Manchester City sold teenage sensation Brahim Diaz to Real Madrid in January, they inserted a clause in the deal that ensures they receive 15% of any future transfer fee. Yet should Real Madrid sell to Manchester United, an additional clause insists City must receive 40% of the transfer. This practice is common in Portugal, between rivals such as Benfica, Porto and Sporting Lisbon. "It is all about mischief and in case you end up with egg on your face when a player signs for your fiercest rival down the line," one director concludes.
When it comes to signing players, the groundwork often precedes the start of the transfer window. Clubs trawl the market months in advance, in tandem with numerous agents and their network of scouts, to nail down their prime targets through video analysis and flying visits.
The background work can be exhaustive. One Spanish club made a preliminary enquiry with an English club this summer to sign a Scandinavian player. A week later, the Spaniards had gone quiet, so the English club's sporting director chased up. "The Spanish guy said he had spoken to three different people from the player's country and that the player would be a nightmare in the dressing room. So we cannot touch him."
The checks are varied. A Championship chairman says: "We study the player's entire social media history, checking for any possible controversies that could arise, whether they be racist comments when he was a teenager or silly Instagram posts. We also read the past five years of press clippings. Then we will call his previous manager, his previous physios and sport scientists. We want to know he takes his profession seriously."
Other sides go to more dramatic lengths. One Premier League club, for example, have been known to find ways to watch potential targets training for their current clubs. This lets them know whether a player embraces the more mundane elements of everyday football life. Sometimes, a player's potential outweighs the known negatives. One Premier League side has signed a player released from his club as a teenager due to internal suspicions he had been stealing money from the dressing room.
Sometimes, targets are not decided through video analysis but instead through networking. In 2017, Danish businessman Jonas Ankersen launched an online tool called TransferRoom.com. It is an online marketplace, available only to clubs, where executives can outline the specific positions they are chasing and declare players that are available for loan or transfer. While this transparency may weaken the potential scale of transfer fees, it removes the angst and cost of agents and intermediaries.
The Transfer Room, Ankersen says, does not claim any commission from transfers but instead asks clubs to pay around £1,000 per month in subscription fees to the product. There are now 500 clubs involved across 53 leagues in 25 countries, including Manchester City and Juventus. Earlier this summer, more than 100 club executives met for a speed-dating style event at Stamford Bridge, where they informed counterparts of their needs. This summer, Ankersen expects transfers worth in excess of £15 million to take place through introductions on the platform.
Ankersen tells The Athletic: "We have helped clubs facilitate more than 200 transfers, so it is hard to pick a favourite. But we get extra excited when we see clubs who really understand how to use TransferRoom to their benefit such as Leeds United, who managed to make five transfers in just five weeks last summer.
‘TransferRoom gives clubs more control and they now have a way to communicate their expectations to the market, whether they want to buy or sell players. It is about more market access and more transparency. In today's market, there is usually no direct line of contact between key stakeholders. There is a lot of urgency in football and it can save you a lot of money being able to get in touch with short notice. When clubs communicate directly, they can get straight down to business."
One sporting director grins: "This kills the agents and it is long overdue. It is reducing their role as middle men. They needed taming."
Despite Ankersen's venture, agents are still very much alive and kicking. To some chairmen, they are the parasites sucking the sport of its ethics and money. Yet in their own minds, they are the clinical deal-makers transporting the biggest names between the world's most famous sporting institutions. In the Punch and Judy pantomime of football clubs and agents, the two forces compete for moral superiority.
The truth lies somewhere in between but it is not only the agents who stun and appal club directors. Take this anecdote from a prominent sporting director. He says: "The worst situations are when families become involved as agents. I had a situation in England. A father of a player was in my office. He was going on and on, saying how he'd driven his son all round the country as a kid and now his moment had come for payback as a fee for the transfer we were working on. I looked at this guy and just thought ‘You ****er'.
"It's your job as a parent to help them follow their dreams. You don't get to cash in on their dreams at the expense of their progress. I kicked him out of the office and pulled the plug on it all. Too many think like that. A lot of family members who are agents do not understand how to read a contract, what a signing-on fee is. It is a real mess."
A chairman says: "There are a lot of dads involved. They see their children as a way of helping their own lives and they put them under a lot of pressure. We've had incidents where the agent's a family friend and the player's giving 75% of his money to his dad."
Other chairmen disagree. Some prefer to deal with families, firstly because they "can have their son's best interests at heart" but more brutally, as they have "no ****ing clue how to do a deal, so the club saves more money".
There are reservations, too, over conventional agents. Some agencies appoint family members as sweeteners. Another agent recently bought a client an expensive mattress to keep him onside. Others secure costly concert tickets or do supermarket runs to please their players.
One chairman says: "There are some good agents, some bad ones, some really horrific ones. A good agent is one who wants the player to go to the right place, not for money but for his career. Jonathan Barnett's son Josh (at the Stellar Group) is like that. He's a good guy who understands that placing a young player in the right place will benefit the player and him in the long term. I remember his white Rolls Royce pulling into our car park and thinking ‘Oh no, who is this?' but he was great.
"Then you've got another agent who was a ****ing nightmare, it was all about what he was getting. And he was quite clear on the phone – if you don't pay me a £100k then the player won't come to you. Years later, I was speaking to the player at the EFL Awards and he never knew we were in for him. The agent hadn't told him and he said if he had known, he would have moved heaven and earth to come."
The distrust, increasingly, comes from players towards their own agents. A Championship director recently received a phone call from a distressed player. "He was going behind the back of his agent to call me up and ask me if it is really true that I want to sign him. This is sad. If I tell them the truth, that the agent has used the club's name to impress the player and we don't really want him, then it kills that relationship for the agent. But I refuse to lie to players."
And yet, despite it all, every club in England's top four divisions continues to depend on agents. In time, Ankersen's tool may alter this but for now, it remains reality. In "Section T" of the Premier League handbook, it is made abundantly clear that clubs may not make any approach to a player or an intermediary before terms are agreed with his club. This is the most futile piece of legislation in sport.
A chairman says: "Do clubs ever approach the clubs first? No, do they ****! What's the point? You need to know the player wants to join. So what's the point in going to the club and trying to do a deal?"
A sporting director adds: "Ninety-five per cent of transfers involve tapping. You contact the agent, all but agree personal terms. Then you do a deal with the club."
Sometimes, greater co-ordination is required to do a deal. It may not be enough for the buying club and the player to want the move to happen. This summer, for example, we know Real Madrid want Paul Pogba and the French midfielder craves Real Madrid. Yet his club, Manchester United, stand in his way. This is a case where an agent, a player and a potential buyer could concoct a strategy to force the transfer.
A chairman says: "We'll say to an agent, we've been trying, we've made five offers. Now you need to get the player to hand in a transfer request. Then we need you to leak the story about how this player wants to leave. Sometimes, the agents use us instead. We had a player recently who wanted to come, was desperate to come. But the agent was using us to get a new contract. We made five offers, the club didn't want to sell and then they doubled his contract. We were used…like pimps and whores!"
Mino Raiola, the Italian agent who represents Pogba and manages stars such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mario Balotelli and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, exasperates many clubs yet they still depend on his services. One director says: "I actually like Mino. He does not ******** you. He prioritises the bank accounts of himself and his players but he does not pretend to be anything else.
"I know people at Manchester United. Even after they signed Zlatan, Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Lukaku – all Mino clients at the time – Raiola never pretended to be the club's friend. He will always make clear his priority is Mino and now all those players are either gone or trying to go."
In the most disturbing cases, agents take players where they would not wish to go. One chairman says: "Agents can dictate to players. The player can have a better salary offer from one club but the agent chooses the club that has a higher agency fee. I heard last year one player was on the brink of joining Leicester but instead was told to go to a club abroad. He didn't enjoy it at all, found out the truth and was absolutely furious. We can't live with agents but we certainly cannot live without them."
When the buyers, the sellers, the middle men and the players are all on board, another obstacle emerges. The wives and girlfriends. What is it like when a 27-year-old man returns to his home in Oldham and tells his other half and their two young children they must uproot to Plymouth?
One sporting director in the Championship now insists that wives are provided with a tour of the club's city and he even invites them into the negotiations. He says: "I was fed up of hearing ‘My wife is not keen' as an excuse. It is better to get to know the families and speak to them than have it used as a fake excuse right at the end."
For managers, wives provide a further problem. A Football League coach explains: "I was managing a club in the south last season but wives can absolutely rule the roost. I had one player who was a footballer in the morning and Mary Poppins and a house-husband by the afternoon. His wife flat-out refused to leave Liverpool, so he was driving 250 miles every day to get to training. Obviously, it badly affected his performance."
Little surprise, therefore, that agents and clubs now bring wives and girlfriends into the room. A chairman says: "The manager, agent, chairman and player meet to finalise a deal. The manager talks to the player in one (room), the wife talks with the player liaison manager in another and the chairman and agent get the deal done."
For all involved, it is a breathless few months. "You arrive home psychologically empty every night," sighs a sporting director. "You are fighting with the chief executive, because you want more money. You fight with the agents, because you want their players and have to cope with their demands. You fight with the head coach, because you offer five players and they want the one you cannot get."
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