I was tapped up: What happens and why clubs risk it for transfer targets
Tapping up, the practice of one club courting a player of another without permission, is football's worst kept secret. And it is one that the general public only ever hear about when a club or player get caught. The rest of the time, hidden in plain sight, transfer dealings are often conducted in direct contravention of the regulations and no one bats an eyelid.
It is widespread but only when a club is particularly determined to keep hold of their player, or there is a feeling that the unwritten rules of discretion have been thrown out the window entirely, is an official complaint ever made.
Southampton felt both after learning that Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp reportedly met with Virgil van Dijk and exchanged a series of messages with the defender before any official bid had been lodged. Although Liverpool subsequently apologised to Southampton "for any misunderstanding" and withdrew their interest in Van Dijk -- for the time being, at least -- their only genuine regret may have been the embarrassment of getting caught.
One thing that is certain, however, is that they won't have been the only ones. The FA and Premier League will be acutely aware of that, but it is an incredibly hard task to police every single transfer deal.
So, what exactly does go on?
Very rarely does a transfer begin the moment a bid is made. I had calls from managers during my career before any contact with my club was made and was even once asked to sound out a teammate on behalf of a former manager of mine too. More often than not, though, sporting directors, heads of recruitment and agents are the "go-between" men.
Usually there will have been weeks of negotiations between representatives -- sounding out interest, perhaps any competition for your signature, wage demands -- and, in some instances, what the player and his agent thinks would be a reasonable offer to make to his club.
Tireless checks on potential signings are run, which stretch way beyond their talents on the pitch. Subtle enquiries are made to people both in and outside football, to learn more about the player's character and personal life.
Nothing wrong with that, of course, but most managers I have known will never sanction a signing before they have met the player first. Sure, they could meet after a bid has been lodged and permission granted, but transfers often move pretty quickly from that point. In my experience, managers like to sit down and get to know you a little bit. And just as importantly, it is a chance to sell their vision of the club and your role within it.
There is another side to the coin, though. I played with several players who were the subject of a bid from another club but were never informed about it. One former teammate was six months into a three-year contract, scoring freely, and when January arrived he received a call from the manger of a team in a higher division to sound out if he would be interested in signing.
He was. Money was discussed and the following week the first of several official approaches were made. Finally, they were told what fee would be acceptable -- an exorbitant figure, based firmly in fantasy, which they knew all too well.
When this was relayed to my teammate, he wasn't pleased and he let the manager know that. He spoke of having been offered double his weekly wage, which rather let the cat out of the bag. The manager threatened to report the club and the deal was dead.
However, why should a player not have the right to know of interest from elsewhere? At least to know about the possibility of playing at a higher level, and, yes, earning substantially more money? I would argue that they do. That is one of the reasons why tapping up exists. If there were no back-channelled conversations, clandestine meetings or leaks to the press, the clubs would be in an extraordinary position of strength.
Six months later the same former teammate had the manager and chairman of another club sitting in his living room. They knew, of course, that he would not be sold for any reasonable fee, so suggested that the player "kick up a fuss" in a bid to force his way out of the club.
It's true that power is shifting towards players, but it didn't work then and if clubs stand firm -- and the player has years left on his contract -- then it won't.
Football is a multi-billion pound global industry, but it is futile trying to police every transfer deal. And unless the FA and Premier League choose to start handing out harsher penalties than a fine and a slap on the wrist, "tapping up" will be here to stay.
Gregor is a former professional footballer who played over 300 games in the English Football League. Twitter: @GregorRoberts0n.