January transfers: A beginner's guide

THESE days, North East sports journalists don’t seem to write transfer stories.

Loic Remy of France and Demba Ba
Loic Remy of France and Demba Ba

THESE days, North East sports journalists don’t seem to write transfer stories. Instead we chronicle transfer sagas – like the ones that unfurled around Mathieu Debuchy, Steven Fletcher, Demba Ba and, lately, Loïc Rémy.

Quick business is possible in the two transfer windows but time and time again, Newcastle and Sunderland’s transfer negotiations become drawn-out affairs. The drip feed of Rémy bulletins have led to fatalism among Magpies, who fear a familiar tale of frustration.

Clubs tell us it takes time to go through the process of brokering a deal but for those outside the game, it is difficult to comprehend. Newcastle want Rémy, the player seems to want to come to St James’ Park and Marseille would sell at the right price – so why the hold-up?

The Journal canvassed opinion from across the game and came up with a fascinating picture of bluff, double-bluff and, in some cases, a very flexible relationship with the rules. All of it done to extract the best possible deal, of course.

The first thing to recognise is that it is not strictly true that all transfers are, as a matter of course, a complicated business. Sometimes they can be pleasingly straightforward – especially when clubs follow Fifa regulations that govern the transfer market.

These state that the only way to conduct business is between two clubs. A manager, managing director or club official should contact their equivalent at the selling club, make them an offer and, if the bid is accepted, the player is free to discuss the move.

Going by Fifa guidelines, it is only when contact is made and an acceptable offer tabled that an agent should be able to get involved.

It sounds simple, but the waters are muddied somewhere along the line because most clubs, players and agents just don’t do their business that way any more. Martin O’Neill summed it up best when talking about Keiren Westwood last week: “A manager did ask me about him a few days ago – it was manager to manager, which is very unusual these days!”

Why, you might ask, do the authorities not act? We don’t know. Sometimes they do, when wrong-doing is established. For the most part, though, Fifa rules are ignored because hardly anyone follows them. In a battle for the best deal, you have to be cute.

Without being privy to Newcastle’s negotiations on Rémy, deals like this become complicated for two reasons. First up, both clubs are delaying a deal to try and extract best value and secondly, agents have got involved. This being a global game, a top player who is either looking for a move or being made available by his club will attract interest from every corner of Europe. In the case of someone like Ba, his status also alerted agents all over the Continent.

A huge complication then arises. While some agents have signed a contract to say that they represent a player, others prefer to keep their relationship fluid. They do this basically to earn more money – because signing a contract with a player means the player has to pay tax on any agents fee that a club pays. If they refrain from signing a contract, when a player moves they can say they’ve acted on behalf of the buying club instead – and all fees come directly to the agent. This loophole isn’t illegal, although we understand that the HMRC are looking into it.

What does this mean for the transfer? It means it is essentially a free-for-all, with agents in every country suddenly pushing the player to a multitude of clubs in order to secure a big pay-off for their client.

How do agents do this? Usually they use friends in the media to smoke out interest.

Any agent worth their salt will know who Premier League scouts are looking at – and scouts will often speak freely to agents as part of their extensive background work. But that means clubs’ targets are rarely kept secret for long.

The slew of Rémy stories in the weeks leading up to the transfer window variously claimed that United had agreed terms and a fee with Marseille when Newcastle sources were briefing anything but.

For the agents, the job was done. Rémy’s name was now on the agenda and clubs were alerted to his availability – with Newcastle’s interest a red flag to their rivals clubs. If United, with their top French scouting operation, are interested, shouldn’t we be taking a look?

A lot of bidders drives the price up, and gives the player power to negotiate a better deal. No wonder the list of interested clubs in Rémy grows by the day.

When negotiations start, it is usually through the player’s representative first. Wages, length of contract and the player’s desire to actually move can all be ascertained here – along with getting an idea of the sort of fee that would cost. The obvious point here is why it takes so much time. Couldn’t United end the smoke and mirrors by tabling a bid with Marseille?

This, too, is fraught with danger. “As soon as Newcastle table a bid, the news is out there. Too many people are involved now for it to be kept secret,” a leading North East agent explains.

“Then they’ve shown their hand. Instead, they’ll be trying to establish what price Marseille want through intermediaries so that when they eventually get round the table with officials they can pretty much wrap the deal up within a few hours.

“If they’re typical of a Premier League team, the player has probably already agreed terms and Newcastle will have established that he wants to come. So all of this is about getting the best deal.”

For the sake of saving a million or two, United are locked into a long process on Rémy.

Fans get frustrated but the board believe that their negotiating stance makes sense – and point out that if they paid over the valuation for every player, they would be on a road to financial ruin.

Still, January lends a sense of urgency to the whole process. If you’re struggling or need a player in a certain position, you’re essentially over a barrel. In Newcastle’s case, the loss of Ba doesn’t make it any easier to negotiate.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer