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The Transfer Window is a Circus – One that is Laughing Right Back at You

The Transfer Window is a Circus – One that is Laughing Right Back at You

Tuesday, 5 February, 2019 - 08:15
Veteran striker Peter Crouch is back in the Premier League with Burnley. (Reuters)
London - Barney Ronay
It was reported in December, quite casually, that 400 people had queued on Christmas night outside a branch of Next in Nottingham to be first in line for the 6.30am Boxing Day sale.

Nobody objected to this. The people queuing were described as “bargain hunters”. It was as though this is all just fine, normal behavior. Rather than, say, mass acquisitive hysteria, the shared conviction there is a some kind of happiness to be found in waiting six hours in the festive cold in order to pay marginally less for a cable-knit V-neck jumper that starts to look slightly sad and disappointed the first time you wash it.

I’d like to think those 400 people sprinting into Next at 6:30am on Boxing Day felt euphoria at first. Followed by a slow dislocation of the senses: drowning in fleece and wool-mix weave, struck with silent angst on the escalators. Before finally giving in to a rising tide of rage, the urge to smash and tear down and break out through the plate glass, to rip the half-price roll neck from their shoulders and howl at the dawn, perhaps after stopping off in Costa for a panini.

It seems unlikely this was how it played out in practice. Public displays of consumerism have become a form of shared affirmation, something to be celebrated and waved around like a flag, as anyone who follows football will know already.

Watching transfer deadline day play out on Thursday evening it was tempting to wonder if English football will ever start to question its own obsession with performative spending. This is a sport that always seems to be coiled on the starting line outside Next, maxed-out credit card in hand, face pressed up to the glass, already drooling over the knockdown gentlemen’s smalls.

People know all this of course. We raise our eyebrows on social media and express a weary disquiet. In the January transfer window net spending for the season rose to a record £905m. Going by the figures for 2018-19 at least £220m of the overall spend will leave football in payments to agents and in-betweeners. This is what the transfer window is for. It is a circus but a circus that is laughing right back at you. Meanwhile there is less green space, no drainage at the rec, no workable changing rooms, less will to participate. When will we start to resist?

It’s also a lot of fun. Deadline day was, as ever, a brilliantly slick production. Sky Sports News was fronted up in mid-afternoon by two eager, gleaming men dressed as corrupt high-end estate agents. A countdown clock spun at the edge of the screen, ticking down the minutes to deadline hour.

It is the roving reporters who are the real heroes of this show. Vinny O’Connor was at Liverpool, gamely freezing his feet into the car park asphalt on our behalf. “Jürgen Klopp has just left for the day. I wonder what message that sends.” Nobody really wanted to say.

Tim Thornton was at Huddersfield standing in front of a snow-dusted fence, looking healthy and eager, like a handsome farmer advertising muesli. He seemed unshakably optimistic. “We will of course bring you any news as soon as some happens.” In the corner the doomsday clock swung closer to 11pm.

Later the rolling studio show was renamed Deadline Day: The Countdown. Peter Crouch has gone to Burnley. Sam Vokes has gone to Stoke. Wilfried Bony, the scorer of six goals in the last three years, is off to Qatar. Apologies if you heard some bad language there. And we can go live to Kirsty Edwards, who has been stationed in the barren wastes of the Leicester car park all day and who has, you feel intensely reassured to notice, remembered to wear gloves.

It is all deeply engrossing. But somehow it does not really fit the staging any more. With seven minutes left on the clock Sam Allardyce began to talk a little jarringly about austerity as the studio thrummed with confected excitement about “getting Michy Batshuayi over the line”. When will we start to resist?

English football has a tonal problem at moments such as these. The Premier League is obsessed with competitive spending, with the idea success really can be whistled up out of a shopping spree. This is its founding principle, Thatcherism in shorts.

It just seems increasingly jarring and vulgar. We are a cash-strapped nation these days, full of people working harder and longer and feeling ever more stretched. But wait. Here comes football again with its wasted millions, hat askew, a drunken lord gurgling down Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill at the back of the bus as it trundles on towards the edge of the cliff.

There are some things that could be done about this. The January window should go for a start. It’s disruptive and inane. It offers a misleadingly easy way out. A culture shift may help too. Perhaps we could venerate a little more the methods of someone such as Mauricio Pochettino, who has built a strong team while “not spending money” (even typing those words, it is hard not to work in a note of shrill outrage).

Clubs could stop presenting the purchase of a player as a moment of triumph in itself. For the rest of us the idea that it is fine for supporters to be needlessly priced out because this is the will of The Market could be dismissed as defeatist rot. Who is all this benefiting anyway? Apart from the people who always benefit, those whose job it is to promote this profitable flux; while the rest of us stand, noses pressed up against the glass at every splurge of the money-gun, hypnotized by someone else’s show.

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