(Editor’s note: Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a Norwegian football scout and former chief executive and sporting director at French club AS Monaco who has been faced with the scenario of having to get a deal over the line at the last minute on Transfer Deadline Day.)
Ideally every club would want to get their business done as early as possible in the transfer window, but things don’t always go to plan.
“Transfer Deadline Day” is the final 24 hours before the window slams shut (usually at 11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET) and features fans turning up outside stadiums, helicopters ferrying players between cities and desperate fights with technology (at least there are no more fax machines involved, David de Gea) in a bid to get a deal done before the deadline.
It can be frenetic and wild, though while fans usually enjoy that kind of drama, the clubs themselves much prefer things to go a lot smoother.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to how Deadline Day might go for a sporting director.
The first thing to understand: No deal just happens in 24 hours. It’s a result of days, months, sometimes years of scouting. Even when the deadline is closing in, clubs will have a good idea of the player they are signing already, but it’s important to have the scouting team and analysts on hand early to provide extra information and quick feedback in case there hasn’t been a lot of time to talk about them beforehand.
Obviously the input of the manager is needed, along with your medical team, club secretary, someone to liaise with the FA, legal team, as well as the PR and communications people to spread the news about your signing.
Once a bid is accepted, the sooner everyone is on the same page the better, as you’ll need to arrange flights if the player involved is based abroad. Subject to local entry and quarantine rules regarding COVID-19 there may also be hotel rooms to book and tests to take, which adds another layer of complexity.
– Sound out the player
Having got the all-clear from the player’s club to make official contact — though there’s no denying that a lot of the details are hashed out with a player’s agent long before the club has been informed or given their permission to hold talks — you’d want to exchange a few words directly with the player.
Speaking to the prospective addition hours before you have to make a decision on signing them is by no means ideal — really you would like to have a comprehensive chat with them — but this being Deadline Day, the clock is ticking and your options are limited. Such a courtesy call is unlikely to make either party much wiser, but at least the player gets a chance to learn slightly more about your club, which is better than nothing. Having your manager on the call to elaborate on how he sees the new recruit fit in tactically is mandatory too. Making someone feel wanted is never a waste of time, even as you’re fumbling around on Deadline Day.
Any red flags that are raised — such as a lack of enthusiasm or interest in your club, or if it’s clear the information that the agent has fed you about them doesn’t add up — could see you pull the plug on the deal. Ultimately an appreciation of social behaviour will help and, even in this day and age of analytics, you have to trust your gut feeling. One call won’t give you the full picture, but there’s still valuable hints to be picked up and it’s the best you can do at this late stage.
– Finalise terms with the agent
Once you’ve come off the phone with the player, you move on to the agent. In the unlikely event that this is the first time the subject of personal terms (salary, signing-on fee, agent commission, as well as any additional clauses for performance/appearance related increases and win bonuses) is on the table — such cases do happen, however — this is set to be one of the most unwanted conversations you’ll have. On top of that, there will be discussions over things like housing arrangements, flights, sponsorship deals and image rights…depending on the status of the player.
The agent is well aware that you’re under pressure, that you’re desperate and most probably have no other options lined up. At this point, the best you can do is to settle on a ballpark figure for wages and fees and wait until the player arrives with his entourage later in the day.
– Work out the logistics and get your staff ready
Racing against the clock, there’s little option but to book a private jet — provided that such service is available from this particular corner of Europe. It’s not strictly necessary for a loan signing or even a permanent transfer to arrive before the actual transfer deadline as all the mandatory paperwork can easily be processed digitally and remotely. You want the agent there in person too (they may be coming from somewhere different to the player) to work out the formalities before any presentation is done.
Once the travel arrangements are sorted, you can breathe a temporary sigh of relief, but not before you’ve done some serious delegating. At an elite club you’d obviously have dedicated staff to assist in all the practical tasks, but there are still those who’ll have to convene with their medical and communication heads for a quick briefing.
Ideally you’d like your own trusted medical department to perform a check on the player (albeit a brief one) and meet the player, as issues can turn up at any time. Another option is to fly your medical staff out to assess the player at a facility near their current club, which can save you some time in certain scenarios.
For the medical department it’s a matter of booking all the appointments they can possibly make within the timeframe available: They would want to do a full MRI scan — and preferably a heart scan too, which requires specialist equipment — as well as the more rudimentary checks performed in your gym and local medical facility.
In most cases, the club the player is joining would also have medical records passed on by their former club, which would be sent over electronically and subsequently studied by the team doctor in the hours prior to the player’s arrival.
As a full medical typically takes a least one whole day, and often two, having just five or six hours can make this aspect of a transfer somewhat risky. These days improved technology, plus easier access to information (such as a player’s past injury record), has helped to reduce the jeopardy to an extent. Yet, in the interest of the club and the player himself, you don’t want to leave anything to chance when it comes to health. A proper medical does require time.
Your communications team would also need to be properly briefed. Though tons of information can be dug up online, a few comments from the head coach on the player’s skillset and the reason why they are being brought in is the kind of information you’d like to share with the club’s supporters and display on your website as soon as the deal is struck. Arrangements need to be made for photo and video shoots later in the day, while short introduction videos for social media — seemingly indispensable in this day and age — need time to be mocked up.
– Catch up on the news
With a bit of luck you can have a short breather and some lunch. Ideally you’d like to catch up on what else is going on — is anyone else doing any business? Has the media got wind of your incoming new star? Perhaps you can even get around to reading your emails or incoming messages. And they could be in triple digits. There might even be loan or permanent transfer bids for your own players, though most of them tend to be agents trying it on and are a waste of time.
You usually have a fair idea in the preceding days as to whether one of your players is going to move, so you can prepare for that. However, if something else urgent is happening at your club you need to make sure that everyone knows how to find you, probably by reaching you on a second phone. Most sporting directors have more than one mobile number or handset — some may even have three or four!
– Check in with the owners
Before the anticipated arrival of your new signing, you may want to touch base with “upstairs” as well. There’s nothing that stirs up more excitement at a football club than transfer activity, and CEOs, board members or even ultra-rich owners are no different to the ordinary fan in that regard.
Unless you’re already equipped with all the essential mandates, you’ll need to check in with the owners about how keen they are on the ongoing transfer proceedings. As much as we all acknowledge that signing new players should be based purely on footballing decisions as long as they fit within the assigned budget, having the person who pays the bills on board is never a bad thing…particularly if you need some leverage for unexpected (expensive) snags later in the afternoon. They should trust your judgement, and it should all be fine, but it never hurts to ask.
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– Hosting the player
By this time, the player and his agent should have safely arrived at the ground. You offer them a quick, clandestine (at least to your best ability) tour of the stadium, preferably accompanied by your head coach or club captain. There’s time for a brief meal for the arriving guests before the player is led away to perform the rushed and slightly impromptu medical procedures.
– Back to the contract negotiations
While they are doing that, this is where you often get down to the nitty-gritty of working out the specifics of the contract. Depending on your relationship with the agent or agents (some have domestic partners who will typically come along at this point and, with their knowledge of the country’s specific modus operandi and legislations, may be of significant help), the next hour or so may be just a formality or a potential hazard to the completion of the deal.
A trusted agent may keep his word and stay true to what’s been principally agreed on the phone, whereas someone less worried about reputation or future relationships might even put the whole deal at risk by trying on all sorts of shenanigans.
If you’re lucky you might get away with just having to throw in a few flights for the player’s friends and family (and, yes, they can still be demanded even in deals worth millions) or you’ll end up having to face requests for extortionate signing-on fees, personal bonuses or agent commissions that haven’t previously surfaced. Such things can be expensive and are often dealt with right at the end of negotiations.
It’s worth mentioning that the latter scenario has become a rarer occurrence with the emergence of generally more reliable and professional agents that acknowledge the value in retaining good relations with clubs. But, if not, there’s always the option of pulling out of the deal.
With just hours left until the transfer window closes, sometimes being taken for a ride is literally the price you pay for having to do last-minute business.
– Give the paperwork a final look
With the personal terms out of the way, the actual preparation of the paperwork is relatively straightforward. Both parties will go through the first and second pages of the standard professional contracts, plus have a good look at appendixes in which bonuses or exceptional add-ons are stated.
Whereas previously the player’s contract could be amended and needed legal professionals to have the last look (this still happens) as the small print was subject to a lot of nit-picking, most professional contracts across European leagues are by and large based on standard FA templates that cannot be altered (obviously with the exception of duration and financial terms.)
The transfer agreement between the clubs — be it a loan or a permanent deal — also needs to be scrutinised. As opposed to the player’s contract, the transfer agreement is not based on a set template as such but can often be a patchwork based on multiple e-mail alterations between the two clubs. With significant amounts regularly involved, it does help having an experienced legal team (which most top-tier clubs have) overseeing the completion of the agreement.
– Find out how the medical went
As the transfer deadline beckons it’s time to sit down with the club doctor or head of medical department to hear the findings from the hurried medical check. Unless the medical professionals have raised any particular concerns, the report is signed off with the recommendation of proceeding with the registration of the new player.
It’s now the player’s turn to have a good look at the contract. Any queries that may surface are normally raised with the agent (who has already gone through the contracts earlier in the afternoon.)
Just before the deadline
– Get the paperwork submitted
Before the clock hits the deadline, all the contracts are signed and handed over to the appropriate person in charge of dealing with the FA over registration matters.
The first stage — for an international transfer — is to upload all the relevant documents to the FIFA TMS (Transfer Matching System). This extremely useful online platform was launched by FIFA in 2010 and has significantly sped up the registration process of players moving across borders (hence from one FA to another). The system used to be relatively complex and not particularly user friendly, but now it works seamlessly.
Once all the information related to the transfer is matched (i.e. identical information as relates to payment terms, instalments, sell-on percentage, bank details, plus various clauses) by both clubs, which is usually done in around 10-15 minutes, you are all clear. The rest of the registration process, including clearance to play competitive matches, is then handled by the FAs involved.
At this point you’re effectively home and dry. The player can be unveiled with your snazzy social media announcement and you can sit back and watch the fans go crazy. Sometimes, in extreme cases, the final approval can be delayed — such as when Andrei Arshavin’s move to Arsenal was interrupted by a snowstorm in 2009 — but generally as long as the paperwork is filed by the set time, you’re fine.
After the deadline
Once you’ve congratulated your staff on getting the deal across the line, it’s finally time to sit back, pour a drink, light that cigar and bask in the glory. How the player settles at your club is out of your hands, and you’ve done the best job you can. Just be glad that Deadline Day is over for another six months, and try to avoid such a rushed situation with better planning and communication next time.