Another summer of transfer-related theatre and drama resulted in some surprising deals and a whole lot of bad feeling, Jon Spurling writes

Sir Alex Ferguson described the summer transfer window as “an annual farce of half-truths” and David Moyes claimed it gives football writers the chance to “peddle irresponsible headlines”. The latest doses of rumour and counter rumour seem to have left many Premiership managers feeling far more drained and insecure than normal. “Yous are talking out of your backsides,” barked an apoplectic Ferguson when a gaggle of hacks suggested that Ruud van Nistelrooy was poised to move to Real Madrid. By simply adding the “ski” suffix to a player’s surname, or deploying the “Real deal” headline, tabloids can give even the most experienced manager nightmares, such is the financial clout of Chelsea and the Madrid giants.

Rafael Benítez and Arsène Wenger believed that Michael Owen and Patrick Vieira “had their heads turned” by advisers. Such parlance suggests the pair were set to join a gang from the wrong side of the tracks, rather than negotiating terms with the world’s highest-profile club. Irate supporters question why players and agents consistently refuse to clarify their intentions. The beleaguered Kevin Keegan claimed: “The press seem to know more about some of my players’ movements than I do. It’s all gone too far.” Keegan’s fellow bosses confirm that the world has officially gone player-power crazy.

Nonetheless, the two bona fide Real deals were wrapped up surprisingly quickly. Broad­sheets, weary of the Vieira mini-drama, refused to entertain the idea that Owen was actually destined for Spain until the player was “rested” by Benítez for Liverpool’s Cham­pions League qualifier in Graz. And what of Jonathan Woodgate’s move? Real Madrid’s director of marketing talked sense in comparing his club to a “big blockbuster movie”. It is hardly surprising that Owen and Woodgate want a piece of the action. By staying put, the pair could have consigned themselves to careers on the fringes of domestic success. Modern players know that immortality is now earned in the Champions League – Arsenal’s “invincibles” would willingly have swapped last season’s unbeaten Premiership run for victory over Chelsea in their Champions League quarter-final.

Although it is convenient for some to label ambitious stars as disloyal mercenaries, there is a flip side. David Dein is set to report three Real officials for making “improper advances” towards Vieira. Yet Dein appears oblivious to the fact that his own club is being probed after exploiting the dodgiest of loopholes to bring Marseille’s Mathieu Flamini to Highbury. Had he stayed in France, the 20-year-old would have had to sign a contract with the club that had trained him; Marseille claim that he was tapped up since he was 16. Arsenal’s actions are legal, but they are hardly ethical. The club’s top brass would also rather forget about FIFA’s ongoing investigations into the murky passport affairs that brought the Brazilians Edu and Silvinho to the club.

Benítez played the loyalty card with Owen, urging him to consider An­field’s “tradition”, not to mention the “red blood flowing through his veins”. Yet Benítez gave vent to his true feelings when he admitted: “We need to consider the fact that in a year, Michael could leave for nothing. The deal needs to be right for this club.” Some years ago, the much maligned Claude Anelka (Nicolas’s brother and adviser) commented: “Clubs pretend to be whiter than white and talk of loyalty. But if a player lost form or no longer fitted in, he’d be out straight away. At the end of it all, players are still pieces of meat to be bought and sold at the right price. But the public never sees this side of the business.” Little changes, it seems.

Transfer dramas are in­variably overblown. The characters (“I love this club” and “It’s al­ways been my dream to play here”) of­ten appear shallow and insincere, and the endings can be unsatisfactory. In a caustic Times article, Giles Smith placed Vieira’s head on to Spider-man’s body and rightly pre­dicted that Vieira-man 4 – this being the fourth consecutive summer that the Frenchman was linked with a move to Spain – was des­tined to flop at the box office. Man­chester United’s intervention on tran­s­fer deadline day means that Roonski 2, scheduled for a January release, has had to be permanently shelved. No matter, as a host of other drawn-out sagas are already in the planning stages for next year.

From WSC 212 October 2004. What was happening this month

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