We have all gone completely out of our minds.
On English football’s transfer deadline day, a record £630m was spent by the 20 Premier League clubs, up 29 per cent on the previous year. The day's transactions included a world record £85m for a single player, Gareth Bale of Tottenham Hotspur, who was bought by Real Madrid. Spurs were the biggest spenders, laying out £103.7m on new players. But, helped by Bale’s bumper fee, the club recouped £106.7m. On the final day of the transfer window alone, £140m was spent.
The figures are extraordinary. It’s as if the recession was just a figment of our imagination. But what’s even more extraordinary is that watching the trading of fantastic amounts of money as player brands are moved to club franchises is becoming as big a draw as watching the game itself. The BBC’s live transfer web page was read by two million browsers and, as BBC Sport’s Stuart Rowson revealed:
— Stuart Rowson (@StuartRowson) September 3, 2013
Audiences are so big that every major media brand has to have live coverage running. Here, all journalistic caution is thrown to the wind – just get the names in, pick up the rumours, create the churn. If a rumour doesn’t turn out to be true, no matter, the story is that the original story was not a story. Keeping the names in the frame is what counts.
The big daddy of them all is Sky Sports News’s Deadline Day coverage. It’s The Day Today on acid. All day, presenter Jim White bounces excitably in his seat while linking to live to-camera reports from reporters standing outside training grounds where something might be going on. The reporters’ job is to suck in as much information as possible before spewing it into the camera while standing in front of over-excited groups of fans making sure they don’t flick wanker signs at the camera.
Back in the studio, White regularly turns lustfully to a big screen and asks a colleague how big the total wodge of dosh that’s been spent is, encouraging us to wallow in the sheer spending power on display.
It is compelling, obscene and absurd. All through the month-long transfer window, and long after the deals have been done behind closed doors, the pantomime is played out as clubs and players and agents and media select heroes and villains for their own ends. The Bale deal, for instance, was done months ago. Since then a complex PR battle has been fought as the parties involved sought position and commercial advantage. Veteran journalist Norman Giller called the Bale deal early and correctly – and received a barrage of abuse for his trouble. Because while fans lap it all up, they don’t trust the media who they see as stoking the deals – another example of the public despising the media for delivering what they demand.
Now, with the window closed, come the debates, the agonising, the retrospectives – this blog. There’s talk of winners and losers before any of these players have kicked a ball. Fans complain their club has spent too much or too little, everyone wants a shiny new toy while simultaneously bemoaning the bastard footballers who don’t stick around to wear the shirt. The conversation will move into the more serious slots, where people will ask how many hospitals could be built for the price of a Bale. I’ve always found such arguments odd – it’s not as if Arsenal was going to pump £42m into a Keynesian stimulus intiative but decided to buy Mesut Özil instead.
There’s dark comedy too. The advertorial masquerading as a news story in the Telegraph written by Bale’s agent Jonathan Barnett is a masterpiece of zero self-awareness. Barnett, let’s not forget, was the agent who helped Ashley Cole move after Arsenal’s offer of a £55,000 week contract nearly, according to Cole, “made me crash my car in disgust”.
On the day Bale’s £85m transfer was confirmed, non-league Kettering Town went out of business with debts of £58,000. See? You switch the 5 and the 8 around and knock off some noughts – see? But the story is not the neat juxtaposition; not even, as some seem to have inferred, that the Bale transfer is directly responsible for Kettering’s plight. The story is the great lie that wealth trickles down, that there is a national game that is linked from top to bottom. But telling that doesn’t provide the buzz that the big brands and the big names and the big deals do – and anyway, my £40m midfielder is bigger than your £40m midfielder. And so’s his dad. So there. Ya wanker.
There are, of course, many fans who take a more considered view. My writing colleague Adam Powley’s piece for fan site The Fighting Cock is a terrific read – an insightful and considered take that knocks much of the mainstream media bluster into a cockerelled hat. And there’s plenty out there, in the independent football media and in corners of the mainstream too, that probes and questions.
It’s easy to conclude that too many care too much about something too inconsequential – transfer window madness as a symbol of the final debauched days of a crumbling empire is too easy an angle to pass up. But it’s not the caring that’s the problem – it’s the embrace of not caring we should worry about.
Yesterday, one of the blokes I sit with at Spurs, who I’ve known since college and followed the club all over Europe with, said to me: “Forget what you were brought up with – the game is not about glory, it’s about hard-nosed capitalism. No one except old romantics actually cares about trophies or history or team. It’s all about the kerching kerching.” He’s not a former fan, he’s still got his season ticket.
I do not understand what he thinks the attraction is.
On this site, I’ve said that “as the lines between sport and business become ever more blurred, sport risks losing the qualities that make it attractive to business”. Maybe I just want to think that. Maybe the mass spectator sport of the modern age will be the watching of the wheels of commerce as they crush the soul and spirit of everything they touch.
Maybe we have all gone completely out of our minds.
Martin Cloake’s new ebook, Sound of the crowd: Spurs fan culture and the fight for future football, is now out, priced £2.99.