For a few frantic hours last Thursday, executives from 250 football clubs across five continents were immersed in the world of online speed dating. Every 10 minutes a fresh encounter would start. Small talk would be made. An understanding be reached. Perhaps even a deal struck. And then a button would be pressed and the whole process would start again. And all the business was conducted without an agent in sight.
In all, 13 Premier League clubs were involved, including Arsenal, Everton, and Brighton. “You get a 10-minute slot. That’s it. Then, bang, on to the next one,” explains Dan Ashworth, Brighton’s technical director, who says he and his colleagues Paul Winstanley and David Weir wracked up 45 virtual meetings with other clubs in four hours.
“A button comes up to press for your next meeting and you’re straight into it,” he added. “Before each meeting we’ll have a look at some of the players that you might be interested in from that club – they will do the same with you. It’s a great way of improving your contact base and being really time efficient, and just getting to speak to a lot of clubs.”
The summit was the latest to be held under the auspices of the online player trading platform Transfer Room, which allows clubs to make transfer and loan deals online. The message to those clubs from Jonas Ankersen, its founder and chief executive, is seductive: they can take back control when it comes to transfers. The pitch seems to be working: more than 500 clubs are involved, paying a monthly subscription of £165 to £2500 depending on whether they are League Two level or in the Champions League.
The site lets clubs see which players are available, and to gather information by direct message – without the often tortuous and expensive process of going through agents and intermediaries. The first deal on the platform was for £3m in 2017, between two Championship clubs, and Ankersen is expecting well over a hundred more this summer.
“The big benefit is that some deals can go faster,” says the Dynamo Dresden sports director, Kristian Walter, who described the site as a “quiet revolution”. “You don’t have to contact three, four or five agents. You can go straight to the club. If, for example, I need a player and I don’t have direct contact with the club the agent has the power. He will say: ‘I will try to work on the deal, but I need this and this.’ You cannot save the agent fee in the end, but the contact between the clubs will save some money.”
You cannot blame them either. Last year a Fifa report found that more than half a billion pounds was spent on agents and intermediaries involved in international transfers – an increase of almost 20% on 2018. “I see how keen clubs are on taking back control in the transfer market,” says Ankersen. “I see that clubs want to be more in charge, and they will be a lot more dominating on the market in the future.”
When the sporting directors were not discussing deals on Thursday another topic repeatedly came up: how different the transfer market will look this summer after the devastating blow of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although predictions among those present varied, Feyenoord’s director of football, Frank Arnesen, was not alone in his assessment that there could be a fall in fees by as much as 25-30%.
“If your club has money in the next transfer window, it will be great for business,” he says. “But most of the clubs haven’t because of the pandemic. At Feyenoord we have 300 people – it’s difficult to tell them you have had to reduce your income, only to then buy this player and that player. For me it is very important to re-sign the players that are out of contract. If we can do that, we will be strong. But we will probably only bring in two or three loan players, because we can’t spend a lot of money.”
Arnesen, who was previously at Tottenham and Chelsea, raised another pertinent issue. “Everyone is hoping things will be back to normal in a year’s time, but it will be interesting to see how long it will take for football to recover,” he says. “Owners of many clubs own big companies, and a lot of them will have lost money. Sponsorship, tickets and TV income is not there any more at the same level. So maybe it will be longer than everyone thinks.”
But Ivan Kepcija, the sporting director of Hajduk Split, says he believes the disruption may help smarter clubs with less money progress up football’s pyramid quicker than they otherwise might have done.
“We hope the big leagues will continue spending as planned because from them it trickles down to clubs like ours,” he says. “But if the owner of a top club is financially hit in his personal business that may well affect his team. So you might see some powerhouses going down, some mid-level clubs emerging to be in the top standings; you will maybe see clubs that have good recruitment practices and are savvy, and have worked on the markets, improved as a result.
“It will be a big transition for some of them. And this will be an opportunity for smaller clubs to rise up.”
Rangers’ sporting director, Ross Wilson, says it is too early to make predictions. “We are in such an uncertain place, the only thing we can guarantee is that things will be different. Transfer fees, wages and agents fees will go down – we can see that already. It is a very different market place than it was four months ago.”
Walter hopes the events of the past few months will make football’s powerbrokers reset the relationship with the supporters and reassess the game’s place in wider society. “The corona pandemic is a good chance for all the clubs to focus on what football really is,” he says. “Because it has become more a business: about money, money, money. That is OK to an extent but some of the financial payments almost now come from another universe. A player can be transferred to a country for €200m but in that same city there are people that cannot even buy food to eat. It is simply crazy.”
But with the Premier League back next week Ashworth is preferring to remain optimistic. “The industry has taken a big hit,” he says. “But I don’t think it is going to be quite as bad as people first thought maybe four or five weeks ago.
“And if any group is going to benefit from this I think it will probably young players because I do think there’ll be more opportunities for them to go and play as teams probably try to adjust.”
What might that new reality look like? “I think clubs will probably run with slightly smaller squads,” he predicts. “There will be less money in the game. Less money for transfer fees, for agents fees, for salaries and wages. That’s for sure. There has to be because we’ve all taken a hit. But we’re doing our best to crack on and try to prepare for every eventuality.”
And with that Ashworth says his goodbyes. After all he had another date to keep.