Tapping Up: The Dark Art In The Light

How quaint that West Ham have got all upset about Rene Meulensteen claiming that Ravel Morrison wants to join Fulham. It's like moaning that not enough men wear a hat...

Last Updated: 16/01/14 at 08:57 Post Comment

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Something exciting happened at Craven Cottage on Tuesday night, and we're not talking about the football. That's partly because the football wasn't very exciting, but mostly because this is the transfer window, and so any actual sport is overshadowed by the possibility that some men might change jobs.

Accordingly, when Fulham manager Rene Meulensteen was asked after the game about West Ham's official designated silver lining, Ravel Morrison, he stated that the player wanted to move. Asked how he knew this, he replied: "Because I've known him a long time."

West Ham immediately assumed their angriest countenance, dialled everything up to 'hot funk', and dispatched a telegram to the Premier League consisting entirely of four-letter words. This is a family website, so we can only confirm that these included but were not limited to 'RENE' and 'STOP'.

The ancient and venerable art of tapping-up - of making inappropriate approaches to footballers in contravention of the rules - is, of course, an extremely naughty thing for any football club to be doing. Professional football is built on trust, on honour, and on the Corinthian values of fair play and sportsmanship. Even the faintest suggestion that one of its great institutions might have in some way fallen short of these lofty ideals would, if proven, do irrevocable damage to the dreams of children and overgrown children everywhere. And that is why, for so many years, for the good of the game, it was absolutely paramount that everybody pretended as hard as they possibly could that nothing of the sort was going on.

It was, obviously, but the effort had to be made. An elaborate fan dance of euphemism and code built up around the practice. Managers would talk - with the caveat that they would never, under any circumstances, talk about another club's player - of their strictly abstract admiration for another club's player. Players, for their part, would hem and haw around the question of their commitment, while simultaneously 'admitting' - read: 'writing in flaming letters a hundred feet high while winking furiously' - that of course any offer from such a 'massive' - read: 'rich' - club would have to be treated with the utmost seriousness. There was even a point to international breaks, which seethed with intrigue as professionals took the opportunity to apprise their fellow countrymen of their club's magnificently magnificent magnificence.

Occasionally, people got caught and had their knuckles rapped. Ashley Cole, famously, was fined £100,000 after a clandestine meeting with Chelsea representatives found its way into the newspapers, though it's a good job the transfer happened anyway. God knows how he'd have paid that off if he'd been forced to stay on minimum wage at Arsenal. Then, in 2009, Chelsea found themselves in more trouble when their snaffling of Gael Kakuta from Lens ended in a worldwide transfer ban. Said punishment was only lifted when Chelsea promised, faithfully, cross their heart, that they hadn't done anything wrong.

Around the same time, Manchester United were briefly asked to explain similar irregularities around the acquisition of Paul Pogba from - what? Oh! Yes, you read that correctly. Pogba was once a Manchester United player! I know, right? Nobody ever mentions it.

But these were the exceptions, because they were obvious and far too overt. Tapping up and other associated grubbiness occupied, for the most part, the same place in British football as the infidelities of politicians: the minority that are exposed result in scandal and much wringing of hands; the majority, even when they come out later via an autobiography or an unguarded interview, are simply filed away as curiosities. As long as it stayed behind closed doors, nobody minded too much. (Don't dwell on this analogy for too long, else you'll end up trawling the world of dubious transfers in search of an analogy for the John Major-Edwina Currie liaison, and that way lies queasiness.)

Something, though, has changed in the intervening few years. The euphemism has begun to melt away. It's increasingly commonplace for personal terms to be agreed - and to be announced to have been agreed - well ahead of any contact between the two clubs; it's similarly commonplace for such arrangements to pass unremarked upon, at least in public, by either the prospective selling club or national association. Players have even begun to appear in the stands well before any deal has been struck.

Direct contact between players is more overt than ever before. After winning the Ballon d'Or, Cristiano Ronaldo was happy to inform the watching world that Rio Ferdinand had spent all summer attempting to entice him back to Manchester. Obviously, we don't know for sure that this amounts to an inappropriate approach. Perhaps it never happened. Perhaps it was a joke. Perhaps Ferdinand obtained permission from Real Madrid. Perhaps there's simply nothing wrong with a series of increasingly desperate and embarrassing text messages that culminate with a blurry picture - captioned 'Look! Ferg's back!' - that on closer inspection proves to be David Moyes wearing a #5 cap.

In this new world of flagrant and feckless faucetry, West Ham's objections seem quaint, almost amusing, like a man railing against the fact that these days there are simply too many people going around without a proper hat. The dark arts have gone mainstream now; the power has shifted. In this brave new hat-free world, run as it is by players, agents and superagents, and glued together as it is by a thousand different lines of communication that nobody could ever hope to usefully control, it's perhaps best to assume that all players exist in a permanent state of up-tappedness, with whispers forever in their ears. And how to quiet the whispers? Easily done. Let's talk about a new contract...

Andi Thomas - you can follow him on Twitter, you know, and you can read more of his work at SBNation

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