The Secret Footballer: 95% of all transfers happen through tapping up

Everybody realises very few football clubs go through the so-called correct procedure of asking a club about a player’s availability and then agreeing a deal before getting into contract talks – but, as The Secret Footballer explains, it’s all even murkier than you might expect.

Many players remember the biggest transfer of their careers. But only because of the sums involved and the club they moved to. Mine was different. In football circles at least it has gone down as part of Premier League folklore.

The sum involved was in the many millions of pounds, a record transfer for both the buying and the selling club, but that was not the reason that my transfer is still talked about today.

No. The reason I’m part of football transfer royalty is because with the seconds ticking down on transfer deadline day and with another Premier League club desperately trying to hijack the deal, my new club decided to take me on a tour of their boardroom.

It was only after I’d walked around the grand mahogany table for the twentieth time on my own, staring for the twentieth time at the same meaningless trophies and pendants from pre-season friendlies from the 60s, did I think to try the doors that I’d entered through an hour earlier.

Locked. My new employer had locked me in the club’s boardroom. With no time left to travel to other interested parties and discuss terms and undergo medicals I had no option but to sign.

Tapping up is how transfers work

Transfers, as you can guess, are not straightforward.

Here’s something that some of you will find obvious and some of you will find surprising: Ninety-five percent of all transfers in professional football happen through tapping up.

But what is tapping up?

Well, strictly speaking a buying club is supposed to contact the selling club regarding the availability of the player that it would like to sign. But here’s a fact: That’s not how football works.

The reality is that either the club contacts the agent asking after a specific player or the agent contacts the club peddling his players.

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READ: Seth Johnson: I wasn’t even there for Leeds contract negotiations

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Even if two clubs are keen to do a deal for a player for the right fee, that deal does not happen unless the agent is taken care of. You don’t need 20 players as an agent to become a multi-millionaire. You need one; the right one.

It’s all but impossible to prove that an agent and a chief executive of a club are speaking about a specific player. And therefore it’s all but impossible to prove that tapping up goes on.

As a result, tapping up is the industry standard for almost every transfer in the game. It’s easier. It’s less time-consuming.

It allows players to move clubs instead of clubs holding players. It allows managers to concentrate on the business of winning football matches and hand the problem of recruitment to specialists within the club.

Think of a player like N’Golo Kante. Arsenal or Tottenham or Manchester City or Manchester United may suddenly decide that they need a Kante. Not the Kante that Leicester signed but the Kante that Chelsea signed. The finished article.

They have the money. They don’t want to punt. They can cast the net on their own if they like or they can go to the top agents in the world who have already done the hard work by recruiting the players in the first place and ask each of them what they have in the way of a Kante.

How contract negotiations work

Anyway, let’s say the new Kante agrees to move to a new club. Who does the contract negotiations?

Well, despite Gary Neville’s assertion that he would do away with agents – easy to say when you are the best right back in the world at the world’s biggest club – it is always the agent.

There is a reason for that. I’ve played in every league – and every league is different. I don’t know what the highest earner is in each league. I need a man that does know.

Only occasionally did my agent ask me to feel out a team-mate in terms of what he was earning or what bonuses he had. And I had no problem doing that; after all, in the end it was for my benefit.

What goes into a contract?

So what exactly was he negotiating? Well, this is where things get very complicated indeed.

Bonuses are like a sweet shop when you’re a kid. You want everything in the window, but on closer inspection you realise you can do without the Werther’s Originals and the liquorice wheels.

Let me explain. You don’t want a £20,000 goal bonus if it is clear you are the fourth-choice striker. And believe me, that is exactly the bonus you will be offered by a club looking to drive your basic wage down.

Similarly, Mesut Ozil doesn’t want an assist bonus over having a win bonus. It is true that he may set up 15 goals at £10,000 a go. But he may win 20 games with Arsenal at £20,000.

Because of this anomaly, bonuses have become stupidly intricate, and today bonuses break into two parts. Club bonuses and individual bonuses.

When a player signs for a club he will become part of the club bonus pool. That is to say that whatever the team achieves he will share in the profits on a pro-rata basis. This includes win bonuses and bonuses for drawing a match. There is nothing for a loss.

However, clubs skin that bonus differently. Sometimes they will pay a standard win and draw bonus regardless of the opposition, but sometimes they will pay the bonus based on how the team is functioning in the league.

If it is in the Champions League places then the bonuses are increased for a win, and if it is in the relegation places then the bonuses are considerably less for a win. That never made any sense to me as a player, but that’s how it works at some clubs.

Gambling for gains

Then we have individual bonuses. And it is these bonuses where your agent earns his money.

If you’re a striker then you want a goal bonus and a win bonus and draw bonus on top of your squad bonus. But if you are the number one striker then you want a goal bonus that is bigger than your team-mates’.

For example, it is obvious whose job it is to score goals, at Tottenham it will be Harry Kane, and therefore Kane would expect his goal bonus to be that much bigger than anyone else’s.

And this is why there is no silver bullet when it comes to bonuses. There is no one size fits all approach. There is a pot of money available for a player’s contract and the club wants to split it in their favour.

For a player it’s like a Vegas casino. Yes, you may win a big hand, but you’ve already gambled twice as much to win it.

This article was originally published in 2017.

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