ON SKY Sports right now there’s a commercial for the station where a roving camera spins round the studios and offices capturing the relaxed, off-air banter between the presenters.
You don’t hear any of them speak until Jim White hoves into view, to holler down the line to an unseen reporter: “What’ve you got for me, Dave?” Now I love Jim but I wouldn’t be surprised if the director of the advert asked Jeff Stelling, Kirsty Gallagher and the rest to engage in pretend, silent chit-chat and Jim just couldn’t do it. Jim doesn’t have an off-switch, far less a mute button, as we’ll experience tomorrow on football’s craziest day.
Is it that time of year again? It certainly is. Transfer Deadline Day is capped-up now – because of the enormo-sums involved, the number of Daves and Andys and Steves destined to shiver long into the night outside stadiums and training complexes, the lemon-ness of Jim’s favourite tie, only matched by the lemon-ness of co-host Natalie Sawyer’s favourite dress, and the sheer blinding obsession English football has with these deals. For a long time, I’ve thought it should be TRANSFER DEADLINE DAY, in recognition of Jim’s epic shouting. And this might also be necessary now because of one particular club whose manager is threatening to create merry hell by the time the day is done, on top of the £147 million he’s already spent.
He is of course Louis van Gaal of Manchester United, who’s warned his players, at least the ones he inherited, that come tomorrow the team could look dramatically different. “Maybe after this weekend we shall have another group,” he said. “Players shall go away and others shall come in.” Now, there’s no doubt United require rebuilding, but you might wonder what a club of their status are doing on the department-store floor, along with the dithering and the desperate. Transfer Deadline Day, as is often remarked, is like the last shopping day before Christmas. Everyone goes a bit mad and this warps judgment.
Buying clubs who do their business on the final day know they have to come away with a player and will almost seem to grab at anyone. But the alternatives can only come from the limited number available at that time. Selling clubs can smell the urgency of buying clubs and ramp up prices. Unlike in the shops where the January sales have already begun, there are no bargains to be had – quite the opposite.
For three transfer windows running now, the others have seen United coming. In David Moyes’ first window, if United were the befuddled husband and unable to decide on a handbag for the missus or some perfume, then Everton saw an opportunity to sell them a lampshade for £27.5m.
“The Lampshade” was the nickname given Marouane Fellaini by the Old Trafford faithful after the Belgian stood tall in the midfield but mostly static. With his problems mounting, Moyes threw even more money at them in the January window – £37.1m for Juan Mata. The Spaniard was always going to be too much of a butterfly to be the creative fulcrum United needed, far less display the relentless drive of Roy Keane or Paul Scholes, and so it has proved. Now comes Van Gaal’s purchase of Angel Di Maria for a new British record £59.7m. Scholes himself reckons the Argentine is overpriced, like Mata and Fellaini were, and in any case he doesn’t address the problem areas of the middle of the park and central defence.
Of course we only see the circus of Transfer Deadline Day from this vantage-point.
Maybe other football nations make a similar fuss of it with starring roles for their own versions of Jim White – Jim Blanc? Javier White? – but the money-lust that exists in the English game is all-encompassing.
Arsene Wenger, for one, is dismayed by it. After Olivier Giroud was ruled out until Christmas by injury, the Arsenal manager was irked at being asked who the striker’s immediate replacement would be. Spending money isn’t the answer to everything, he said. Another example of the money-lust came in a story I read criticising Moyes for deliberating over signings. “At United he didn’t need to be so careful,” the report said. “Money isn’t an object there.” And here, kind of, is another: Jim White goes on holiday to Brazil, three guys from Coventry come up to him in a bar and ask him if he’s looking forward to the next Transfer Deadline Day. “Lads,” pleads Jim, “we’re in Sao Paolo. Surely there are other distractions?”
After the England team’s poor showing in Brazil – the worst-ever in a World Cup – you might have expected some serious debate about club vs country, the overbearing power of the Premier League, what Germany had got right and what England were still doing wrong and how the number of home-grown players in the top flight could be increased from 35 per cent to closer to the Bundesliga and La Liga’s 60 per cent. There was a bit of this stuff, admittedly, but all too quickly the discussion was less about “What can we learn from the World Cup?” and more concerned with “What can the World Cup give us and does that clever Chilean No.10 fancy £200k a week and a mansion in Cheshire’s Golden Triangle?”
“The self-proclaimed best league in the world,” was Gordon Strachan’s description of “the Prem” in an aside last week. Self-regarding, for sure, and self-serving. The crowd for Wednesday’s friendly with Norway will be the new Wembley’s lowest-ever and may not even reach 40,000. “Fans have fallen out of love with England,” ran one headline last week.
None of this is the concern of Van Gaal, who seems set to ditch three of United’s Englishmen and would probably like to get rid of a couple from the defence as well, if the forward-planning in that area hadn’t been so chaotic. The Dutchman inherited a few problems dating back to Sir Alex Ferguson, which Moyes didn’t solve. But United under Van Gaal – and here vice-chairman Ed Woodward must again share some of the blame – have repeated the mistake from the Moyes era of being too sluggish in the marketplace.
Ander Herrera – who cost £29m – was a missed Moyes target, but he’s not Cesc Fabregas and he’s certainly not Toni Kroos. The availability of both should have overridden the desire not to lose out on the Athletic Bilbao man again. There also seemed to be some impetuosity involved in the signing of Luke Shaw, £27m being a staggering price for a 19-year-old left-back with “fitness issues”.
But what do I or any of the other sceptics know? Louis van Gaal is a football man and one big enough to have Woodward write the big cheques – including one yesterday for £13.8m to sign Daley Blind from Ajax. Van Gaal’s big enough to re-educate United in 3-5-2 only to concede after three games that Di Maria’s arrival will probably require a change of formation. He’s big enough to go with a weakened team in the Capital One Cup – and lose embarrassingly – even though it was one of only two trophies United had a realistic chance of winning this season.
There’s a lot of bluster about him, just as there was about his Holland. He performed some nifty card-tricks with substitutions in Brazil but if he manages to make a whole United team disappear by tomorrow, replacing it with another, I’ll be simultaneously appalled and impressed.