There are plenty of things that could persuade a player to sign for a club.
Money, naturally. The prospect of trophies. A step up in quality. Desire to play for a particular manager. Location, flattery, facilities: the list of possible factors could be endless. Robbie Fowler was persuaded to leave Leeds for Manchester City by a Leeds director shouting ‘Take the money and run! This place is going to the dogs!’ to him in the training ground car park.
Then there’s the personal touch. The recommendation from a friend. The times when a potential team-mate has a quiet word to convince a player to join them at their club.
It makes perfect sense, of course. If you or I knew of someone talented who could help you out at work, you would certainly have a little word to see if they fancied a career shift. Equally if you were going to move jobs and you knew someone at that company, you’d ask them what it was like. Football is a strange world and in many ways extremely different to what we call reality, but plenty of elements remain the same.
In fact, this is how plenty of transfers have been initiated over the years. In the past, it has been rather ad hoc: the story about a former top-flight player discovering a team were interested in him because he shared a car mechanic with a future team-mate, for example.
These days it tends to be a little more organised — the buying club will contact a player’s agent to gauge their interest before approaching the selling club — but, equally, moves can be floated by a little player-to-player contact.
Talk of this sort of thing was rife during the World Cup, when some corners of the internet became convinced England’s time in Qatar was less about trying to win the tournament and more a vehicle to put Jordan Henderson and Jude Bellingham in the same place so the Liverpool captain could persuade his young international team-mate to join him at Anfield.
Jude Bellingham 🔥🤝🏽 pic.twitter.com/hvcIGme1H2
— Jordan Henderson (@JHenderson) December 4, 2022
This seemed to be broadly based on that quite intense celebration in the game against Senegal. Obviously Henderson later denied he had been whispering in Bellingham’s ear. Not that these things particularly mattered to the people it mattered to: Agent Henderson had been deployed.
That’s exactly what seemed to be happening in the Dutch camp, mind. Cody Gakpo had his pick of clubs after a strong few weeks in Doha, but it just so happened that one of the more persuasive voices was his international skipper, Virgil van Dijk.
“We spoke a lot over the phone (in) the last days,” Gakpo said after his move to Liverpool was confirmed. “He told me this is the right move for me to make and for me to develop and to become a better player, that the club is a really big and massive club but also like a real family — that’s also very important for me because I’m a family guy.
“He said only good things.”
International duty is ripe for this sort of thing.
In 2016, Moussa Sissoko had the choice of moving from Newcastle to either Everton or Tottenham, but the London club had a trump card: Sissoko’s captain with France. “I spoke with Hugo Lloris,” he said after choosing Spurs. “He told me this club is amazing and everything is here for me to do well.”
This fate seems to befall Everton rather too regularly. In 2020, Gabriel Magalhaes looked on the verge of joining them only for the deal to collapse. Then, later in the year, a former colleague at Lille gave him a call. “I spoke with Napoli, Everton once again, but I then chose Arsenal thanks to Nicolas Pepe, who sold the club well to me,” he said. Pepe might not have justified that £72million ($89m) fee on the pitch but, as an informal recruiter, he may have found them a Premier League-winning centre-back.
Arsenal have been on the other end, too. Take the Da Silva twins — Fabio and Rafael — who looked set to join them in 2007 only for Sir Alex Ferguson to get wind of the deal and set his top salesman on the case.
“First it was a Portuguese greeting. Then the voice says: ‘It is Cristiano Ronaldo‘,” Fabio told the Daily Mail. “I think it is a joke but he says, ‘No, it is Cristiano here. I’m calling you to tell you to come to United. I can help you guys so you need to come. You’re going to enjoy it’.”
These things can be even more carefully orchestrated than arranging a phone call, too. A good example came way back in 1983 when a young Charlie Nicholas was the hottest of properties having announced he was leaving Celtic. Just about every English club was queuing up to sign him, including Liverpool.
At the end of the season, Scotland were due to go on a post-season tour to Canada, so outgoing Liverpool manager Bob Paisley asked his old friend Jock Stein, at that time the national team manager, to ensure Nicholas roomed with Graeme Souness. Paisley then instructed the midfielder to be on Nicholas’ case about moving to Anfield as much as possible.
Alas for them, this was one of the occasions the tactic did not bear fruit and Nicholas ended up signing for Arsenal. Not for the want of Souness trying, though.
It’s partly why a club might sign a high-profile, influential player. Last summer, for example, after Jesse Lingard signed for newly-promoted Nottingham Forest he took it upon himself to help convince Emmanuel Dennis to join him at the City Ground.
On a bigger scale, Paul Pogba was part of the advance party as Romelu Lukaku was deciding his future in 2017. “I spoke with Paul a lot, obviously,” Lukaku said after leaving Everton for Manchester United. “We spent our holiday together and he said: ‘What do you want to do?’
“I told him that I was thinking a lot about signing for United, something was telling me (to do it). I live near Manchester so, when I was coming to the city, I would drive past Old Trafford and ask my mates what they thought.
“Me and Paul, we’d go to the city to have dinner and he’d drive past Old Trafford on purpose!”
Others do not need quite as much persuading, but a little word here and there doesn’t hurt.
Kalidou Koulibaly’s move to Chelsea from Napoli last summer was partly facilitated by his former Napoli team-mate Jorginho, and his Senegal compatriot Edouard Mendy.
“Jorgi actually texted me and asked if I wanted to come to Chelsea!” he said after signing on at Stamford Bridge. “At the time, I wasn’t sure if they wanted me but of course, I said I would come with pleasure. It was the same with Edou, he asked me the question and I told him it was already done and I would see him soon!”
The intervention of friends into long-running transfer sagas is common, too. Those of us around for the ‘will Cesc Fabregas join Barcelona?’ hoo-ha, that seemed to last for years, are only just recovering from the punishing tedium of it. But Xavi was doing his best to grease the wheels, saying in 2011: “I spoke to Cesc in Ibiza and he said he was suffering, because he really wants to come. It’s what he most wants, he’s done everything he can to come and wants Arsenal to let him go.”
Speaking of long-running sagas involving Barca, for a while Dani Alves seemed to spend more time worrying about Neymar’s career moves than his own. When Neymar was mulling over who to join when he was at Santos, it was Alves, his international colleague, who made the case for Barcelona.
“Playing with Messi, Iniesta and Xavi is a great honour,” said Neymar at the time. “Dani Alves, as well, he kept telling me to go to Barcelona.”
And then, when the seemingly fanciful talk surfaced that Neymar would leave Catalonia for Paris Saint-Germain, who should pop up with some career advice?
“The easiest solution for Neymar is to stay in Barcelona. But fortune favours the brave,” said Alves, who had just moved to Paris himself.
Of course, it doesn’t always work.
Last year Thiago Silva tried to persuade the wunderkind Endrick to join Chelsea, but he ultimately chose Real Madrid, who themselves had a fairly big gun to roll out in Vinicius Junior. Le Parisien reported in December that, when Robert Lewandowski was trying to bust his way out of Bayern Munich, Kylian Mbappe tried to sell him the benefits of PSG over Barcelona.
We could go on.
But all of this serves to illustrate that transfers are not just a case of Club A bids for Player B from Club C, contracts are signed and it’s all done with a handshake. In reality, existing relationships between players can have nearly as much influence in signing new players as the clubs do themselves.
(Top image: PABLO PORCIUNCULA/AFP via Getty; Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty; design by Sam Richardson)
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