Were the fake football agent's transfer rumours any more flaky than the usual ones?

FootballAgent49 claims to have fooled the Mail, Guardian and the Mirror.

Did you ever wonder where they came from, that constant stream of transfer rumours? Were the top journalists snooping around the training grounds, listening to gossip? Did members of the public really see Footballer X’s wife shopping in the Arndale Centre, concluding he was bound to be making a big move?

Or – and let’s try and put this as delicately as possible – was it all made up?

Today, the antics of tweeter ‘@footballagent49’ have shone a light into a murky world. Footballagent49 amassed 40,000 followers in a short space of time, delivering plausible enough stories and claiming retrospective credit for big scoops. But today the tweeter said:

“I am not a 'Football Agent' or 'ITK. [in the know]' I am infact an 18 year old and I have been fooling all of you gullible idiots with my fake stories for the past 2 months. 

“I'm proud to say that I haven't had even one transfer scoop in my time yet people still say im [sic] more reliable than Sky Sports News and the BBC. Laughable. Some of my personal highlights were the Kaka and Falcao stories which were completely made up.”

Footballagent49 added: “The Daily Mail even wrote an article based on my Kaka tweets and the 2 journalists who wrote it were following me.”

Did that happen? Let's look at the evidence. On the evening of August 18, Footballagent49 tweeted: “Manchester United asked Madrid on Friday about taking Kaka on loan. Club officials are confident a deal can be done but its [sic] early stages”.

The next day, the Daily Mail published this story, saying: “Kaka has been offered to Manchester United on a season-long loan as Real Madrid prepare for the arrival of Luka Modric.”

As is always the case with these rumours, they were kicked around by most of the rest of the sportsdesks, hungry for the latest news on the biggest clubs. The Guardian wrote: “Real Madrid are hoping to free up a dressing-room peg for [Luka Modric] by offering Kaka to Manchester United on loan.” The story also appeared in other papers’ round-ups.  

Except, was there any truth in it at all? When you think about it, why would a football agent bother to tweet his secret deals to Twitter when it could jeopardise his earnings? Does it matter if we can’t believe what we read in a ‘trivial’ subject like football, or does that tarnish the reputation of the rest of the paper?

Neil Ashton, one of the two Mail journalists mentioned in the @footballagent49 post (and who was still following the account at the time of writing), said in response to one reader asking if he’d regurgitated a made-up story: “Ha, no, not quite... Kaka being offered around was common knowledge.” Maybe the ‘fake’ account had accidentally landed on a genuine possible deal? Maybe it came from another source? You can’t rule it out.

As far as the source’s more recent ‘Falcao to Chelsea’ tale is concerned, that is a re-heating of an earlier rumour. Again, there is a grain of truth making it plausible – but not a great deal.

So, does it matter? Football transfer rumours have been going for years, and are a useful source of stories when nothing else is happening – especially during the summer break and during the transfer window. There are a huge amount of movements that are possible, and can be made to sound believable. If you know a manager who’s looking for a player, and you know a player who’s looking for a move, why not link them, even if they aren’t really linked? What harm does it do? Fans treat most rumours with the contempt they deserve, and (rightly or wrongly) are even more sceptical about those sections than they are about the others.

Every now and then, of course, one of the so-called ‘fliers’ actually takes off, and is proven right. You’ll see ragouts and ‘We told you first!’ triumphant headlines when that does happen; what you won’t see are the dozens and dozens more times when the rumours turned out to be, well, not quite as concrete as they were made to seem at the time. Those failed fliers get quietly forgotten about.

It’s hard to disprove a negative. How can you show there was no truth in a story when a ‘want-away striker’ issues a ‘come and get me plea’ and another club are looking ‘to bolster their frontline’, to use that delightful dialect of the back pages? Probably not. Maybe @footballagent49 is a real agent, and this is just an elaborate double bluff to take the heat away. If by some miracle that implausible guess is correct, remember you heard it here first. 

Kaka was the subject of one of a flaky transfer rumour. Photo: Getty
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Why Labour's dismal poll ratings won't harm Jeremy Corbyn's re-election chances

Members didn't vote for him on electoral grounds and believe his opponents would fare no better.

On the day of Theresa May's coronation as Conservative leader, a Labour MP texted me: "Can you imagine how big the Tory lead will be?!" We need imagine no more. An ICM poll yesterday gave the Tories a 16-point lead over Labour, their biggest since October 2009, while YouGov put them 12 ahead. The latter showed that 2.7 million people who voted for the opposition in 2015 believe that Theresa May would make a better prime minister than Jeremy Corbyn (she leads among all voters by 52-18).

One might expect these subterranean ratings to reduce Corbyn's chances of victory in the Labour leadership contest. But any effect is likely to be negligible. Corbyn was not elected last summer because members regarded him as best-placed to win a general election (polling showed Andy Burnham ahead on that front) but because his views aligned with theirs on austerity, immigration and foreign policy. Some explicitly stated that they regarded the next election as lost in advance and thought it better to devote themselves to the long-term task of movement building (a sentiment that current polling will only encourage). Their backing for Corbyn was not conditional on improved performance among the public. The surge in party membership from 200,000 last year to 515,000 is far more worthy of note. 

To the extent to which electoral considerations influence their judgement, Corbyn's supporters do not blame the Labour leader for his party's parlous position. He inherited an outfit that had lost two general elections, neither on a hard-left policy platform. From the start, Corbyn has been opposed by the majority of Labour MPs; the latest polls follow 81 per cent voting no confidence in him. It is this disunity, rather than Corbyn's leadership, that many members regard as the cause of the party's malady. Alongside this, data is cherry picked in order to paint a more rosy picture. It was widely claimed yesterday that Labour was polling level with the Tories until the challenge against Corbyn. In reality, the party has trailed by an average of eight points this year, only matching he Conservatives in a sole Survation survey.

But it is Labour's disunity, rather than Corbyn, that most members hold responsible. MPs contend that division is necessary to ensure the selection of a more electable figure. The problem for them is that members believe they would do little, if any, better. A YouGov poll published on 19 July found that just 8 per cent believed Smith was "likely to lead Labour to victory at the next general election", compared to 24 per cent for Corbyn.

The former shadow work and pensions secretary hopes to eradicate this gap as the campaign progresses. He has made the claim that he combines Corbyn's radicalism with superior electability his defining offer. But as Burnham's fate showed, being seen as a winner is no guarantee of success. Despite his insistence to the contrary, many fear that Smith would too willingly trade principle for power. As YouGov's Marcus Roberts told me: "One of the big reasons candidates like Tessa Jowell and Andy Burnham struggled last summer was that they put too much emphasis on winning. When you say 'winning' to the PLP they think of landslides. But when you say 'winning' to today's membership they often think it implies some kind of moral compromise." When Corbyn supporters hear the words "Labour government" many think first of the Iraq war, top-up fees and privatisation, rather than the minimum wage, tax credits and public sector investment.

It was the overwhelming desire for a break with the politics of New Labour that delivered Corbyn victory. It is the fear of its return that ensures his survival. The hitherto low-profile Smith was swiftly framed by his opponents as a Big Pharma lobbyist (he was formerly Pfizer's head of policy) and an NHS privatiser (he suggested in 2006 that firms could provide “valuable services”). His decision to make Trident renewal and patriotism dividing lines with Corbyn are unlikely to help him overcome this disadvantage (though he belatedly unveiled 20 left-wing policies this morning).

Short of Corbyn dramatically reneging on his life-long stances, it is hard to conceive of circumstances in which the current Labour selectorate would turn against him. For this reason, if you want to predict the outcome, the polls are not the place to look.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.