For the modern footballer, moving into a January transfer window is bit like stepping onto the Starship Enterprise's occasionally unreliable transporter platform.
One minute you're a printed shirt in the club shop, settled at work, a contented life playing out around you.
The next you're blasted into the football void, desperately praying for a safe landing in a safe, stable environment. In other words, anywhere but Cardiff, then.
Depending on market forces, a player might land in Madrid, London or Manchester with a month to prepare – if he's lucky. If he's not, Stoke, Besiktas or Tiraspol might loom into view at 24 hours’ notice.
To find out what the experience is really like, Esquire reached out to The Secret Footballer, the game's Deep Throat-style whistle blower, to reveal the fascinating home truths of the transfer window experience, in both the dressing room and the chairman's office.
As the author of two books (Tales From The Secret Footballer and I Am The Secret Footballer: Lifting The Lid On The Beautiful Game), and a website (thesecretfootballer.com) this mystery English pro with two Premiership clubs to his name is perfectly qualified to lift the lid on football's most chaotic period of the year.
Esquire: How does life change for footballers once the January transfer window opens?
Secret Footballer: If we’re moving clubs then we’ll usually know in advance, so when January comes around it's simply a matter of waiting for things to drop into place.
It’s the players at the back end of the transfer window that are caught off guard. I don’t think Andy Carroll ever expected to leave Newcastle in that window, but that’s because nobody thought Fernando Torres would join Chelsea for £50m.
The domino effect towards the end of any transfer window is what makes them so entertaining to watch.
ESQ: Is January an unsettling time for players?
SF: It can be for a player that's continually linked with a move from the start of the window but doesn’t end up moving until the last day. For those of us that don’t expect to be moving — and that's the vast majority of players — we just carry on as normal. There’s no other option.
ESQ: How does a footballer manage the situation when it comes to their wives and families?
SF: I think our wives and families understand that there's always a chance that we'll move in a window.
They're also aware that the vast majority of players will move at some stage anyway for a whole host of reasons.
Hardly any player stays at the same club their whole career. Also, the reasons for moving could be for a bigger team, higher wages or better location, so it’s usually for a positive reason.
It's hard for families to start again and make new friends. People think every footballer's wife is somebody that stays at home, shops on Net-a-Porter and nips to Dubai for three weeks at the drop of the hat. The reality is that many are juggling the kids, their own businesses or job and the house – with not a lot of help, it has to be said. But don’t get me wrong: some of them are total dicks, too.
ESQ: If a player is unhappy at his club, how does he go about instigating a move?
SF: Well, he might not have to be unhappy, he may simply have a better offer, but ultimately the first step is to realise your standing at the club.
If you’re highly thought of then it’s going to be harder to move clubs. If that player has made his mind up to go, he tells his agent and his agent acts as the conduit between the clubs.
I know of clubs that were adamant they didn't want to sell a player until the agent got involved and got them a fantastic price. There is a tipping point for every player at every club: When all the factors line up – age, potential, value, profit, replacement – a player can always get a move. Take the Gareth Bale deal. The agents eventually got to the point where they got Madrid's best price – a world record – for a player that had already helped Spurs in to Europe and who could be replaced with several international players.
In the end, the profit and replacements outweighed Bale's age and his potential. It's all in the fee.
ESQ: Does tapping up go on?
SF: Of course. Ninety per cent of transfers come from tapping up.
But let's just put it into context: tapping up isn’t a load of unsavory characters sat in dark rooms. It’s a manager or a director of football ringing an agent and asking if his player is available.
Imagine if you had to do it by the book. An official of the buying club has to ring an official at the selling club and ask if their best player is available. He’d get a two-word reply before the phone went dead.
Instead, the club would contact the agent and ask if his player would be interested in transferring. The whole deal is worked out before the agent even approaches the selling club because, ultimately, there is no point in contacting the club if the deal is shit for the player.
The clubs don’t even hear about many of these enquiries because the deal is a non-starter because of wages or transfer fee. And clubs don’t want the aggravation of dealing with all these enquiries that go nowhere. The agent filters them out, always for the player, but indirectly for the club, too.
ESQ: So how much of a transfer deal is led by the agent, and how much is led by the player?
SF: It's 99 per cent led by the agent. The agent mentions any solid enquiries to his player and they agree if it's something they’d like to follow through on.
Only then does the agent approach the player's club and start negotiating. The role of the agent is to bring the officials from each club to the table.
If he can do that, the deal will almost certainly happen. Some deals take longer than others, of course. Going back to Bale, there was so much to negotiate in that deal that I’m surprised it only took one summer. Spurs had to ask which players were available from Madrid, then those player's agents had to be informed and they then had to ask what wages they could expect, which was tough because the transfer fee was still being negotiated.
Then there was Bale’s contract to negotiate, which would have taken weeks because he’d have had to get used to Madrid's policy of taking half of every player's off field earnings. That would have been negotiated down. Then there would have been talk of friendlies between the clubs as a sweetener – a location would have been found for that and there would have been negotiation over whether that would be in England or Spain, or as part of a tournament elsewhere.
It goes on and on. And don’t forget, in the background Spurs are negotiating fees and wages with five new players that are coming in to replace Bale. Trust me, we need agents to help bring all that to the table otherwise nothing would ever get done.
ESQ: Should fans believe the rumours they read in the papers or take it all with a pinch of salt?
SF: Most of those rumours are to ‘flush out’ a real bid. Let’s say I want to go to Manchester United and I know that I'm on their list, but maybe I’m not the first name.
I might try to force their hand. To do that, my agent might talk to a journalist at a well-known daily red top and tell him that United’s rivals, Manchester City, are ‘preparing a bid’.
Depending on how well known the player is, the more space the journalist gives it. The idea is to rush Manchester United into a deal, flushing them out to see how strong their interest really is. It sounds ridiculous but it definitely works, at least, it did for me.
For the journalist's part, they will cover their reporting credibility by saying that the move was ‘hijacked’ if Manchester United did actually come in with an offer.
ESQ: Do players chat in the dressing room about who might be moving where or who their agents might be talking to?
SF: Only within our cliques, and only in a ‘have you heard?’ type of way. Nobody is that bothered with players moving out, they're far more interested in who might be coming in.
ESQ: When a player is reported as being unsettled is that clear to everyone in the dressing room, or is it largely media rubbish?
SF: If the story's really about being unsettled then it can be true. My chairman once put a story in the paper about me being unsettled. It was total bullshit and I took great pleasure in telling him.
I took even greater pleasure in putting the real story in the paper and exposing it as bullshit.
ESQ: Are players glued to Sky Sports News on Transfer Deadline Day like everyone else?
SF: Quite a few players watch it in the last few hours just to see which clubs have done what business.
It can be quite entertaining and it’s always especially fun to wind up the presenters by texting them fake rumours, or simply abusing them to see if you get a reaction live on TV. They're allowed to check their phones during the transmission.
Years ago I used to enjoy doing that very thing myself.
ESQ: Do players up their game in the weeks leading up to a transfer window to attract more attention?
SF: It seems that way. You’ll notice that those players that seem to swap clubs every year always have a great end to the season, say the last four or five games, having been distinctly average up to that moment. I can think of one player in particular that seems to specialise in that tactic.
ESQ: Is it easy for a player like Peter Odemwingie to go back to a club after a deal might have fallen through?
SF: I genuinely believe that some people are missing the part of their brain that deals with shame.
It should be difficult for players to come back to a club after something like that and he’d have had the piss taken out of him of course. But if a player did that at our club and then walked back in, I’d probably make life uncomfortable for him for a while.
It’s utterly disrespectful to the club, the players and the fans.
ESQ: Is the transfer window as much of a mad scramble at the clubs as it is in the media? Or are the players cocooned from it all?
SF: The players are miles away from it. The person you need to feel for is the club secretary. That is not a job I’d like to have on transfer deadline day.
I remember being in a boardroom about to sign when another manager rang me to tell me not to. My agent and I needed to buy some time so he adopted a very old time wasting technique.
There are eight separate contracts to sign in a deal, copies of which are sent to all the relevant parties. My agent made the club secretary change the wording from ‘The Player’ to my name on every contract. The club secretary had to go to the other side of the building and reprint every contract and get the signatures of all the other people that need to sign the contracts along with me. It took him an hour, more than enough time for my agent to find out how serious this other manager really was.
ESQ: Ultimately, do you think the transfer window is a good thing?
SF: I understand the motives behind it, we don’t want the wealthiest clubs buying three new strikers with two games left of the season.
But I don’t see why it can’t stay open from the summer through to the end of January. Perhaps somewhere down the line there's somebody in a position of power whose interest it is to get Premier League clubs to spend their money, and with the current mechanism that will always happen.
On the other hand, it's a restriction of movement. As an employee of a business I ought to be free to leave, providing a transfer fee can be agreed, as and when I want, not when FIFA say I can.
I’m sure that a person with deep pockets and the motivation would have a good chance of challenging the transfer window in a court of law.
ESQ: What do the managers think of it? Ultimately is it a win-win situation for agents?
SF: It is but don’t forget that the system is flawed, too.
Because the window is finite there is more scope for ruthlessness owing to the fact that the opportunity to make money for an agent is limited to one summer and 31 days in January.
That means there is more tapping up because he isn’t going to stand still until January 1st, there will be phone calls on a daily basis all year round to try to maneouver things in to position for one of those windows. There is more pressure on the clubs and the players have to make quick and very often career-defining decisions on somebody else’s terms.
If you’re a player that happens to have an agent that wants to make himself as much money as possible from your career then you'll always be on the move, whether it’s the right move for you or not. It’s true that the player will make a lot of money, but he’ll never fulfill his potential. That can’t be good for a career. For all those reasons I’m sure that managers would prefer to go at their own pace, too."
Tales From The Secret Footballer by Anonymous (Faber) is out now. For more, see thesecretfootballer.com