Transfer talks between managers and journalists benefit both sides
The transfer window is closed until January, but transfer-related activity hasn't stopped. There's always a grapevine of information, as clubs never stop looking at players. They build up as much intelligence on potential players as possible. There's far more to it than merely scouting a talent and making an offer for him, which is what the official protocol would suggest. A buying club would be far happier knowing the player wants to join them before they put a bid in.
I've lost count of the number of footballers who, when explaining one of their transfers have told me: "The manager called me, and we had a chat, but don't put that in." Don't put that in because tapping a player up while at another club is forbidden and misconduct charges have been brought in the past.
It happens all the time, though. If not directly between a manager and player, then the manager will speak to the player's agent. It's always best for the player to hear from the manager himself -- and for the manager to communicate directly with the player. Both their reputations will be put on the line, and they need to establish trust. The selling club might even turn a blind eye: if they want to sell, it's to their advantage, but most of the time they don't know about these private phone calls.
Diego Forlan, then of Independiente, told me how his agent set up a private phone call with Sir Alex Ferguson -- while Forlan was in the bathroom.
What isn't so well appreciated is the part journalists can play in transfers. Ferguson trusted one Dutch journalist enough for him to recommend him players. I've been asked to recommend players in Spanish football worth scouting -- not that Sir Alex called me. One asked me to be his agent. I told him I'd rather be his friend. A decade on, I'm still his friend.
Some journalists have even had a hand in the appointments at managerial level. I know of one current Premier League manager who called a journalist friend and said: 'Get me in at X.' He was out of work and knew the journalist had good contacts with a particular club. His idea worked.
It's not a new phenomenon. Manchester United couldn't find anyone to manage their club in 1981. Hard as it might seem to believe today, United were not big payers before the Premier League era and Bobby Robson, Ron Saunders and Lawrie McMenemy had all rejected the job when a journalist, John Maddock, called the United's chairman Martin Edwards and informed him that the West Bromwich Albion manager Ron Atkinson would take the United job.
"That was music to my ears," Edwards told me when I interviewed him. "Ron was an up-and-coming buck doing well at West Bromwich Albion. He'd led his exciting side to a 5-3 victory over United at Old Trafford. He was under contract, though, so I approached [chairman] Bert Millichip at West Bromwich. We met at a service station in the Midlands and did a deal where United would compensate West Brom. Bert wasn't happy, but he realised that Ron wanted to come to Old Trafford so there was little he could do."
Last week, I received the following text message, which was a new one for me.
"Strange one this, but do you know any players of ---- heritage?" asked the caller, a footballer who plays in England's championship. I told the player I didn't, but I'd look into it, then asked him why.
"The president [of the country] has just called me and wants to know," came the reply.
The country is a small island with a significant diaspora. The national football team want to strengthen, and the president was taking a hands-on role. The championship player will probably be their best recruit. Interesting that the president of the country has become personally involved in the fortunes of his country's national football team.
Managers and players frequently call journalists they trust. They're a source of knowledge -- even for managers at the highest level. If the manager or chief scout of a Premier League club, for example, is looking at a player in Spain, then he's going to build up as detailed a picture as possible about that player from people he respects. That person might be a journalist who knows more about the player. I've seen English clubs watch and admire a Spanish player yet not have anyone who can speak Spanish to do any background checks on the player. So they might go to journalists for harder information. They want to know if they're about to bid for a good professional or someone who likes to go clubbing three nights a week.
Opta stats can tell suitors how many sideways passes a player has made in a reserve game, but not that his three best friends are gangsters and he has a complicated love life. It's all vital intelligence and a trusted journalist can provide that off-the-record information, which could avoid a costly mistake. The journalist benefits because information flows both ways, or he might get a favour in future -- access to one of the manager's players, for instance.
I won't dish dirt, but I'm happy to help players and ex-players that I like and are worth it. Or players who were decent with me when they played.
Before the transfer window closed, I received a message from a former Manchester United player who was out of contract and looking for a new club. He asked me if I knew Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and if I could call him -- even though the player had played under him when the Norwegian was reserve team manager at United.
Having ghosted Solskjaer's personal website for him more than a decade ago, I did know him, but I'd lost touch and didn't have a current phone number for him. I called a journalist who covers the South Wales beat. He liked Solskjaer as a person but didn't seem to be impressed by the job he was doing at Cardiff City. He gave me the number of someone at Cardiff who could help put me in touch with him.
The official spoke to Solskjaer, who passed on a message for me to ring the manager directly. I called his mobile number, and he started the conversation by complaining he was wasting too much money to read my articles, then said I should go to Cardiff to do a piece and added it was like "a mini Man United" at the club, such was the number of former United players.
He knew the player I mentioned and liked him. He gave a detailed synopsis of his strengths and weaknesses and mentioned the leagues he'd be suited to, but he didn't need a player in that position.
I'd only passed on a message but was more interested in his idea of going to Cardiff to write about them. That's now unlikely, given that Solskjaer and the Welsh club parted ways on Friday.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.