Has the transfer market become self aware?
It began, as so many things do, with an unexpected phone call. Clam Shuttleworth, who represents a number of high-profile Premier League and Championship footballers, was relaxing at home when a number he didn’t recognise popped up on the screen.
“It was just at the beginning of January, so I’d been busy, obviously. Had a couple of kids that I was trying to place near the bottom of the Premier League, so I assumed it was something to do with one of them. But this voice that I didn’t know said he was calling from Tottenham, and could I help them find a right-back? Now, I know all the Tottenham boys, and didn’t think they were shopping, so I rang Joe Jordan. He didn’t know anything about it. He spoke to Harry Redknapp, rang me back, and said Harry didn’t know anything either. Turns out none of them knew who it had been. And besides, they didn’t really want a full-back.”
Shuttleworth wrote it off as either a curious prank or a misunderstanding. But one man thinks that calls like this are part of something more elaborate and sinister. Steve — not his real name — is a student of the transfer market. From a basement in London he tracks every rumour, every move, and every collapsed negotiation. Part hacker, part gambler, part market analyst, he has been described (by himself, at any rate) as the country’s leading expert on how and why football clubs buy and sell.
“I used to be a football fan. But over the last ten years, it’s become more and more obvious that it’s not a game of training or skill, but purchase and sales. If you want to understand the game, that’s what you need to follow. So I started looking at the money.”
He does so with a dizzying array of screens, monitors, laptops, and with the help of a bank of telephones; the basement looks like something William Gibson might have imagined if he’d worked for Match. Cables bloom in clumps and weave in and out of discarded football magazines, while books on systems analysis and mathematical modelling jostle for space with players’ autobiographies and the curling backs of Panini stickers. In a nod to football’s luddite tendencies, an ancient fax machine blinks in a dusty corner. I tell Steve about Shuttleworth’s phone calls, and he nods in recognition.
“It’s happening more and more. I call them ‘shadow trades’: moves that seem to come from nowhere, that acquire a momentum all of their own, and then just happen.” He takes a large file from an overstuffed shelf.
“Take Carroll to Liverpool. Publicly, of course, the club haven’t acknowledged that there was anything wrong. In private, though, they actually carried out a full investigation into where the move came from. Dalglish thought it was Comolli. Comolli thought it was Dalglish. John Henry doesn’t know who he heard it from, but thought it was both of them. They’ve never found out how, or why, it happened, but the deal was done before anybody noticed. Of course, the report was never published.” Steve declines to explain how he acquired it.
Over the next three fascinating hours, Steve takes me through, in forensic and often startling detail, fourteen other top-flight transfers from the last two windows that he claim are at least in part inexplicable. For each one, the purchasing club have been unable to identify where and when the move began. The deal was in motion, as if from nowhere, and then it was done.
“At first I thought this was down to agents. That somehow they were getting the moves going, knowing that for the clubs to then pull out would make them look weak, indecisive and rudderless. But then I started hearing from agents” — like Shuttleworth — “who were saying that they had no idea where these moves were coming from either. So that meant … well, that meant things were getting really weird.”
My attempts to speak to the players involved were largely fruitless. Most were either unaware of anything strange in the background or simply refused to discuss the matter. One, though, was happy to speak on condition of anonymity; we’ll call him David. I asked him when he first knew he was being sold. “Only two days before. My agent rang me and said that an offer had come in. I was surprised, and I think my manager was. But the money was good, so the club didn’t really have a choice.”
So far, so normal. It was what happened next that struck David as unusual.
“I arrived at my new club, and it quickly became obvious that the manager had no idea why I’d been bought. And this wasn’t a club that works like some of the continental teams do, with one man coaching and another taking care of all the business stuff. This was a man with input everywhere, and he didn’t know why I’d suddenly turned up in his dressing room.” A freak run of injuries meant that David turned out to be a decent buy, and the manager who’d had no idea about the transfer has still be happy to take the subsequent credit. But the mystery remained.
“A few months later my agent happened to mention that he didn’t know who’d been behind the move, so I asked a couple of people at my new club. They all thought I’d been offered by my old club. But I asked there, and they thought the opposite. Nobody on either side knew where it had come from, and I don’t think anybody was being dishonest. Nobody had any real reason to.”
David seems content with his mysterious transfer — in a game where bad moves can end careers, getting one that works out is perhaps too precious to question — but Steve sees this as just another sign that something much more sinister is going on.
“This is bigger than just some secretive super-agents. This is more than just money moving for money’s sake. You look at the detail of some of the transfers and there’s a pattern, a structure, that doesn’t make any sense unless you look at it as part of the whole market.” He opens up a window that appears to be nothing more than a jumble of arrows, a mish-mash of incomprehensible criss-crosses.
“This is every single transfer in world football since the Bosman rule came into force. But this” – he taps twice on the keyboard, and most of the arrows vanish – “is the same thing, but with all those transfers that we know to be legitimate removed. These are the three hundred or so that I think are at least slightly … odd. And, well, look …”
The arrows that remain glitter in neat, self-contained triangles and tidy squares, displaying a coherence and geometry that would make Brendan Rogers proud. “Patterns”, says Steve. “Patterns that don’t follow the usual concentrations of money, that are hidden behind the general noise. Every single one of these transfers happened. Nobody knows why.”
Steve leans forward and lowers his voice, the better to explain his theory, the idea that brought me to the home of this obsessive in the first place.
“Year on year, the market gets more and more complex, as the entities that make up the market multiply exponentially: players, agents, more agents, advisors, money-men, managers, scouts, directors of football, other players, and on and on. What I’ve found — what that pattern shows — is that the market has become so complex, and so intricate, that it has become self-aware. It’s sentient. It’s doing this all by itself.”
Steve speaks in the quiet, insistent tone of a man who knows that what he says is remarkable and potentially lunatic, yet is utterly convinced by his own reasoning. “The market knows what it is doing, and is generating transfers all by itself. Like all living things, it must feed; as a network, it feeds on exchanges, on transactions, on movement. That’s what it’s trying to do: to keep everything moving. It’s like … a prayer wheel, but to its own magnificence. It feeds, and we worship. It pushes, and we spin. And it’s getting hungrier every season”
As I leave Steve’s basement, a chilly wind is blowing. In the cold evening gloom it sounds, of course, like so much conspiratorial nonsense: the paranoid ramblings of a man starved of sunlight and human contact. But then I remember Shuttleworth and David — two straightforward football men, both baffled, in their separate ways, by something pulling strings behind the scenes. My telephone beeps. It’s a friend, looking for anything I might know about a rumour that this player will be going to that club from the other one. It’s a stupid move — they don’t need him, and he’s fine where he is — but we’ve all seen plenty worse. Looking at the state of football, it occurs to me that either the market is an awful lot cleverer than we think, or all the people involved are an awful lot more stupid then we’re willing to admit.
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Image: Well Offside.