Anatomy of the boardroom: The football transfer window explained

8th Dec 2018

Man in suit catching football

Rumours, reputation and cold, hard cash. No, this isn’t a soap opera synopsis, but the usual dynamic of the transfer window. But what really happens when football’s millionaire owners enter a frenzied bidding war for the best players?

Running the gauntlet that is the transfer deadline window, clubs can face tough decisions, deals and last-minute disasters. But it’s these backroom negotiations, amid the chatter of the teleprinter and the frantic phone calls about salaries and bonus packages, that our number-crunching nerds want to explore. So we decided to bring you a snapshot of the unseen faces and frustrations behind the deals that bring in the best talent by transfer deadline day.

Spotting the right talent

Person holding binoculars

Despite the panic of the transfer window, scouts can actually spend months and sometimes years1 tracking talent beforehand, tailing specific targets to make sure they’re the right fit for the team.
And since Premier League cheques often run into the tens of millions, there’s plenty to consider. Picking a footballer, particularly when it’s a big name, has got to pay off.

Who sets the deal in motion?

Man doing jigsaw puzzle


Once the talent has been spotted, the game is on to bring them in. But it’s not about going in all guns blazing. No-one wants to reveal their intentions too early for fear of rejection. This is where agents come in. A club will instead approach a player’s agent to test the water before they make their official offer to the club.2 3

This conversation, known to – and banned by - FIFA as ‘tapping up’ - basically sorts out whether a player is even interested in transferring. While severely frowned upon, according to an interview conducted by Esquire, 90%4 of transfers are a result of the tapping up method.

Once a player’s interest has been established, a club will ask about cost, time left on the player’s contract, their expected salary, and personal circumstances. After this, a few bids will be communicated by email, with the first bid rejected 99.9% of the time.5

What’s open for negotiation?

Two men shaking hands

Fast forward to the official transfer deal and negotiation meetings are unsurprisingly brief. With all the prior discussion, the player’s agent and the buying club, headed up by the chief executive, head of recruitment or director of football will simply lay down their demands.

However, a wide range of bonuses are still open for negotiation. Loyalty bonuses, appearance bonuses, bonuses for scoring goals, keeping clean sheets, winning a league, qualifying for Europe, and reaching a certain round in a tournament are just some of the special financial rewards a club can offer to entice a player.

Coincidentally, you may have noticed no two media reports feature the same transfer price for a single player. This is because some choose to report on additional fees such as sell-on clauses, which set out bonuses paid to clubs who previously owned the player, based on their performance over time for the buying club, while others simply opt for the flat transfer fee.

How much does “player power” come into it?

Man in suit holding a football

The idea of a player donning a suit to sit around the boardroom and bash out the numbers seems pretty unlikely - and it is.6 The agent, who only gets involved in transfers, leads on 99% of the transfer deal.7 A player will be consulted at this stage, but only really in the sense that they agree the agent can start negotiating the deal on their behalf.

The next time a player will dip into the negotiations is right before the deal is made, and it’s simply to talk through with the manager about how well they’d suit their new club.

Who holds the purse strings?

Miniature football balancing on stack of coins


While the managers are off weighing up what they want from the footballer, the owners and directors of football are left to talk cold, hard cash. This includes everything from basic wages to bonuses and anything else a player or agent demands.8

A club’s secretary will then need to handle the paperwork. This could be the transfer documentation and financial agreement, the player’s contract, registration and bonus schedule, and any agents’ forms.9 The polished and shiny transfer is then lodged with the Premier League and FA.10

Last minute dramas

Football player with head in hand

You didn’t think it’d be that easy did you? Deadline day wouldn’t be deadline day without the last minute panic deals, and nothing brings more drama to the boardroom table than the ‘domino effect.’11

This is where a sudden switch or backpedal on a deal means a club is left without the player they intended to buy, which can lead to  many clubs finding themselves scrabbling around a reduced talent pool for a replacement.

Other things can throw clubs into a panic too. A chance injury or recent trend of mediocre performances can suddenly make a player seem rather less inviting, particularly if a club faces a make or break season in terms of their position in the league. So minds change, deals fall through, and the transfer market becomes a turbulent place to be.

Making it through to the transfer deadline

Clock striking twelve

While it might all add to the drama seeing owners, managers and directors forced to improvise wildly after a signing falls through, not every club suffers at the hands of the domino effect. Although most clubs engage in some form of negotiation, the privilege of dealing in millions of pounds means big clubs, at least, can afford to sign players without being tied to the ‘sell then buy’ conditions of those with limited finances. For them, the biggest problem they’ll have is getting their new player to turn up at the right training ground on Monday morning.

What do you think about the transfer window? Are some players worth their price tag?

Learn about the psychology behind why top players miss during a penalty shoot-out and read tips on bettering their chances in The secrets of penalty shoot-out success.

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