Erling Haaland during the Manchester City Summer Signing Presentation Event at Etihad Stadium (Photo by Manchester City FC/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)

Messi to Aston Villa?

The joyous anarchy of football transfer gossip

Artillery Row

There have been many memorable football headlines over the years, but perhaps the greatest was a back page splash in the Evening Standard in the summer of 1995: “Baggio is QPR target!”

Baggio — Roberto Baggio — was the striker with the trademark curly mullet ponytail. The previous year he had inspired the Italy national team to get all the way to the World Cup final, which they lost only when he missed his penalty in a shootout. 

QPR were — younger readers may struggle to believe this — a Premier League team. Just.

The idea that one of the most brilliant footballers of his generation — whose previous move, from Fiorentina to Juventus, had set the world transfer fee record — might be tempted to swap adoration in Turin for crowds of 17,000 in Shepherd’s Bush seemed just a tad unlikely. And so it proved: Baggio opted for life at the San Siro rather than Loftus Road, joining AC Milan. Baggio-less QPR was relegated the following May. 

Internationals don’t sate the club football obsessive

But how many QPR fans, unaware of the horror that lay ahead, spent that summer dreaming of better things, imagining the Italian playmaker in the blue hoops: “Brevett … Impey … Baggio … GOAL!”

That is what transfer window gossip stories are about: dreams. Obsessively following them is a displacement activity every summer. 

Yes, there are summers with football — last year the men’s Euros (of anal firework fame) and this the women’s (a goal fest) — but internationals don’t sate the club football obsessive. So transfer speculation becomes a source of fierce intrigue.

Mad rumours intensify as the end of the window approaches, culminating in transfer deadline day. This is the closest that transfer speculation gets to converging with actual football as a spectacle. Sky Sport, talkSPORT et cetera provide frenzied live updates from training grounds and stadia across the country. The classic image is Harry Redknapp leaning out of the window of his motor talking about “irons in fires” as he drives into the training ground like some dugout Arthur Daley. 

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Because transfer deadline day is about things that actually happen, or almost happen — players moving from one club to another, or clubs making offers to other clubs to induce this. Whereas transfer gossip very often has no basis in reality at all. 

I said these stories are about inspiring dreams. But the stories are sometimes inspired by them, too. I knew one red top sports reporter who was known to colleagues by the nickname “Voices” — because, they said, his number one source for his stories were the voices in his head. 

Another tabloid colleague referred to his transfer stories as “flying a kite”. In politics this means floating an idea to gauge public reaction. In football journalism it has a more Mary Poppins connotation, evoking a world where the unreal is briefly, seemingly possible: Baggio to QPR et al

My club, West Ham, was first reported in May to be looking at Nayef Aguerd, a Moroccan centre half playing at Rennes in France. At that point virtually none of the club’s supporters had heard of him. But with subsequent daily reports suggesting we were “closing in on” or “leading the hunt for” Aguerd, accompanied by the circulation of footage of impressive tackles, clearances and surging runs, we became more and more invested. 

Then there was a late problem: suddenly newly (and dubiously) wealthy Newcastle was being “linked” with Aguerd too. They were “planning a late swoop”, we read in horror and looked “set to pip” West Ham. The same fans who weeks earlier had never heard of Aguerd were now having a collective nervous breakdown at the prospect of losing him. Finally, after six weeks of these daily reports West Ham actually did sign him, for £30m. There was widespread joy, delirium even. It was almost as if we’d won something. 

No story, however mad, is formally shot down

One of the biggest transfers of this year however was carried out with uncharacteristically minimal fuss: Manchester City announced the arrival of Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund for £51m in early June without endless rumours. It was over before it had properly begun. So the transfer scribes began to play a longer game, and we started to see stories suggesting that Real Madrid could be in for him next summer. Before he had even kicked a ball for his new club they were speculating about his next one. 

This summer’s most heavily covered transfer saga has been Frenkie de Jong’s putative move from Barcelona to Manchester United. I must have read about it at least 100 times yet nothing has actually happened, and there is every chance that nothing ever will.

While a Club will give regular updates on a player’s fitness, it never does on potential transfers. That’s called “tapping up” and is not allowed. So nothing is ever confirmed or denied and consequently no story, no matter how mad, is ever formally shot down.

To be fair to football hacks, most of the stories stem not from dreams but from managers and particularly agents — who are like rogue car salesmen but without the scruples. They brief reporters to start often completely unfounded rumours for their own ends: to panic other clubs, for example, into moving more quickly, or to create a buzz around a player. 

Yet rather than acknowledging that a high proportion of these “X linked to Y” stories will necessarily prove untrue, supporters, myself included, continue to lap them up. The BBC sports site aggregates all the gossip daily, and I find myself looking at this every morning — before I’ve even had coffee or done Wordle. 

All this interest is underpinned by hope — hope that our team will be better next season. But on the balance of probabilities, they won’t. The new signings we crave are just as likely to turn out to be flops or crocks as superstars. 

Aguerd played his first game for West Ham this week. He lasted 23 minutes before limping off with suspected ankle ligament injuries. He could be out for months.

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