Did we all go out of our minds on transfer deadline day?

It is obscene and absurd — but Martin Cloake can't stop watching.

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:

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.

Gareth Bale's new shirt is hung in Real Madrid's store. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder