Tony Pulis during his second spell in charge of Stoke City. Pulis got the club promoted to the Premier League and reached the FA Cup final in 2011.

I somehow ended up as a transfer ITK and it was a f*cking nightmare

Here we go! With more than 18million followers on Twitter X, it’s fair to say Fabrizio Romano has carved out a decent career for himself as a football transfers expert.

David Ornstein has got 2.5million followers, Gianluca Di Marzio has got 1.8mil…if you want a big, adoring following as a football journalist, transfers are the way to go.

So when I started to receive exclusive transfer news about my boyhood team just a couple of years into my career, I was well on the way to achieving everything I thought I wanted.

It soon became a f*cking nightmare.

I’d realised pretty much as soon as I became a journalist for TEAMtalk.com there was a big discrepancy between what people assumed I knew and what I actually knew – nothing, by the way – but it turned out it was much easier to know nothing than something.

Because, let me tell you, feed the Twitterati with a transfer titbit that comes off and you’ll soon realise there is no filling those hungry little bastards. Football fans are desperate to find out the latest news about their club and will smash you open like a piñata to get what they think you know.

A fortunate first exclusive

The first time I did know something was back in 2007 when I heard my club, Stoke City, were trying to sign Richard Cresswell from Leeds. We were (still are) based there at TEAMtalk and half of my colleagues supported them so it was just office tittle-tattle basically.

But I published the story, it came off, and I had caught the bug like the naive fool I was.

It’s not quite the kind of exclusive that gets you Romano levels of followers, but it certainly earned me a bit of kudos among Stoke fans. All it takes is one – you might have stumbled across the info via the bloke in the pub or your next-door neighbour’s nan, but the second you call a transfer you’re in the know. An ITK.

Fortunately for me, TEAMtalk had been bought by Sky Sports earlier that year. They moved their full website team to our office in Leeds and suddenly I was working next to their transfer correspondents, with the whole might of the Sky network feeding in information to the team.

Anything on Stoke soon got passed to me.

I vaguely recall getting some info around Glenn Whelan’s move in the January 2008 window, but it wasn’t until the next summer that things really took off for me.

Stoke were promoted, Sky and the rest of the media were suddenly a lot more interested, and work commissioned me to cover all the press conferences for the season.

Jackpot. I was still a kid basically, 23, and I was at the pressers with all the local media I’d grown up reading and listening to, not to mention some of the country’s most prominent journalists.

The inner circle

And these press conferences were nothing like what you imagine. No big auditorium with only a few brave souls getting to ask questions, this was essentially a canteen with a few small groups getting their chance to speak to the manager and players.

Gaffer, as I insisted on calling him, knew me by name. I got relatively friendly with a couple of the players, the local journos, a couple of the national guys, and, especially, the Stoke media team.

With all that and the Sky guys back in the office, I had transfer information coming out of my bloody ears.

It amusingly came to a head when I was in the chief exec’s office for an interview and walked out of the door to be met by a player from another club who was presumably there to sign his contract. Cue much panic from the head of media.

I didn’t publish that one until after it had been announced elsewhere – it was Charlton’s Amdy Faye, for the record, and I decided on a tactical leave – but it’s the perfect example of the kind of information I had on any transfer I did report on.

I knew for a fact that Faye had been at the stadium because I’d seen him with my own eyes. And he was wearing Stoke training gear so I could have a fair guess that things had moved beyond an initial conversation.

But what did I actually know about any deal to sign him? Absolutely f*ck all.

The truth about transfer gossip

And outside of a small handful of properly connected journos, that’s the truth about 90% of the transfer gossip we all read. I never concocted a link out of thin air, but I often had no more to go on than ‘x are interested in y’.

It might have come from an agent, a scout, another journo who wasn’t going to cover it, someone at a club, even a player, but I never possessed anywhere near all of the facts.

Now, if you could just publish ‘x are interested in y’ and be done with it, that wouldn’t be such a problem. But you need a bit more than that if you’re going to dedicate a whole article to it.

And even just sending a tweet is going to open the door to hundreds of questions: ‘Do you think he’ll sign? How much is he going to cost? How long’s the contract? Any idea where he’s going to play?’

All questions you have no clue how to answer. And just think about how many players a club scouts, calls an agent about or asks for an opinion on in any one transfer window. You’re talking dozens.

So you might very well have exclusive information that a club is looking at a player, but if that’s all you have, you really don’t have much at all.

But if that’s the game you’re in, inevitably you’re going to publish what you’ve got, fill in some of the gaps yourself, and sex it all up with the weird transfer parlance everyone uses. ‘x set to swoop on y for highly-rated z’ – all that kind of nonsense.

It’s all good fun by and large. Have the odd exclusive come in, have other publications back up what you’ve heard on a couple more, double check and follow up on stuff printed elsewhere…it really doesn’t take that much to be trusted as an ITK.

READ: 33 weird clichés you’re guaranteed to read during every transfer window

In The Know (It All)

We had good links in the North East back in the day at Sky. I think, from memory, I got the exclusive on Danny Collins joining from Sunderland. I remember being well-informed on Tuncay and Robert Huth’s moves from Middlesbrough.

I got plenty, but the 23, 24-year-old me wanted to pretend he knew everything about every rumour.

So me hearing Stoke are looking at a player soon became me confidently predicting said player would be signing any day.

The best example was in 2009 when Tony Pulis enquired about Dean Ashton at West Ham. He’d only played five times in 08-09, but this was a player who’d looked ready to break into the England team a couple of years before and I was seriously excited.

To the point that there is a picture of me knocking around Facebook somewhere holding an ‘Ashton 9’ sign. Ridiculous.

I can’t remember where or when I first heard we’d asked about him, but I was pestering everyone about it that summer. Such was my desperation for transfer news that I even spent a couple of days helping out the media department, under the misapprehension that they were a good source of information.

To be fair, there was a handy friendship with one of the coach’s sons that led to some good info, but in retrospect these guys were using me to get info as much as I was them. We were all just Stoke fans desperate for transfer news.

By this point, I was even exchanging information with ITKs on forums FFS. I should have known I’d fallen too deep into the rabbit hole by this point, but you end up in a circle of trust where everyone exchanges information and ultimately ends up with the same story.

Which probably explains some of the rumours from that summer about Ashton being at the training ground and infamously being spotted on a train to Stoke. Allegedly.

The chairman, Peter Coates, actually confirmed Stoke had spoken to West Ham about Ashton so it’s not like this story was based on nothing, but in 2020 I asked Ashton how close he’d actually come to joining.

Him telling me “I was basically on the edge of retirement” was a pretty succinct way of summing up I’d gotten a bit carried away that summer.

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West Ham United's Dean Ashton celebrates his last-minute winner against Plymouth Argyle at Upton Park, London, September 2007.

READ: Dean Ashton on Stoke interest of 2009: I was in no fit state to move anywhere

• • • •

Eventually it became too much like hard work keeping up with it all and I quietly gave it all up. I can enjoy all the transfer nonsense without getting involved these days and know the part of the story to pay attention to – ‘x are interested in y’ – and the part that’s filler to get a word count up.

And the odd occasion I have something fall back into my lap, I can just tweet it out and gladly tell people I know FA about anything else. It’s quite cathartic, all these years on.

So if ever you have something fall into your lap, you might want to do the same. Because let me tell you, I was an ITK and it was a f*cking nightmare.

By Mark Holmes

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