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The football transfer market reopens on January 1st and will stay open for the entire month. As the day approaches when clubs can start signing new players again there is increasing excitement and speculation in all parts of the media. Email traffic amongst friends rises dramatically as we discuss every rumour out there and daydream about the possible good and bad outcomes. All this will reach a frenzied pitch on the evening of January 31st when the transfer window slams (and you must use the word slam) shut.

A minute after midnight on Sky Sports News the absurd Jim White will present The Best Team Of The Transfer Window trophy to one lucky club as decided by a judging panel of Harry Bassett, The Bloke With 2 Phones and Some Idiot From A Tabloid Newspaper. Ok, this last part does not actually happen yet but I don’t think the day is too far off. The summer and winter transfer windows have become monstrous entities in English football so why has this happened?

The transfer windows were not a creation of the media, but they are a gift from God to them and their motivation in all this is very clear. More people buying their newspapers and checking their websites to read every horseshit rumour they put out. More people tuning into Sky Sports News in the desperate hope that the yellow tickertape will now be reading ‘Kaka to have medical at …’. As an aside, why are there so many scrolling news items these days? Such a status used to be reserved for important things, I have just this second checked the BBC Sport site and there is a scrolling item reading,

‘Scottish Premier League Result: St Johnstone 1 Aberdeen 2’

You see my point, anyway.

Football fans know, to the same degree of certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow, that virtually all the stories propagated in the fever of the transfer window are complete fabrications. Even stories that may have a legitimate source are essentially worthless as there a wide range of factors that can scupper any deal happening even if Club A actually does want to buy Player X. However, despite having this knowledge I read the Gossip Column section of the BBC Sport website today and I will read it again tomorrow. So what exactly is my problem?

There has to be clue in the fact that the BBC even call that section the ‘Gossip Column’. Maybe all this rumour is feeding a need in the football fan akin to the need that celebrity gossip magazines fulfil for those people that like celebrity gossip. ‘Spurs to swoop for Tevez’ becomes the football equivalent of ‘Brad Pitt romantically linked to Ann Widdecome’, they probably have about the same basis in fact as well. A friend of mine who is not a fan once described football as ‘a soap opera for men’. Leaving aside the fact that some women like the game too, I fear that this is getting closer and closer to the truth. However there are factors to consider in the rise and rise of the transfer window.

There is no doubt that new signings can be exciting for fans and sometimes it may even improve the team. However we have all had the experience of warmly welcoming a new player on his home debut convinced that he is the answer to all our problems only for a year or two later to be completely sick of the sight of him and demanding that he be sold. We should know that the transfer market doesn’t always provide good solutions but we don’t and I think that illustrates a wider point about English football.

Let us consider that a team has one or both of the following problems,

  1. They don’t score many goals
  2. They concede too many goals

The standard response from the pundits, media and fans to problem A would be ‘buy a new striker’ and to problem B it would be ‘buy some new defenders.’ There is rarely any discussion about any alternatives: can a coach reshape his side tactically to give it a better attacking or defensive emphasis, can players already on the books be improved technically? A strikers finishing could be improved to alleviate goal scoring problems, a defenders positioning can be worked on to help solve defensive issues. You simply don’t hear stuff like this, the answer to any and every problem is to buy, buy, buy! If you doubt this then consider the vitriolic criticism from the pundits, media and fans when a club doesn’t buy players when it has been decreed that they should.

Perhaps this is reflective of the wider society and the consumer culture that has come to dominate it. Like many individuals, football clubs may be guilty of buying things that they don’t necessarily need and worse, can’t afford. It is absolutely right and necessary for a club to use the transfer market to improve its options on the playing field and when this is done well it can be a beautiful thing. The idea that dominates English football is that the transfer market is the only way a club can improve itself, and it is this erroneous belief that gives the transfer window a hyper-inflated sense of importance that it does not really deserve.

by Nilesh Bhagat.