Football is a banquet. Your typical mid-table league matches are the chicken (tasty enough but nothing extravagant). Local derbies and top-of-the-table clashes are the ribeye steak. Relegation deciders are face-wrinklingly bitter lemons. Playoff finals are the delicious sweet dessert that sometimes proves too rich to enjoy. International friendlies are the dry, boring salad, but the World Cup is a full-on barbecue with all your best friends.
On this footballing smorgasbord, transfer rumours are the starchy carbohydrates. They’re the staple that’s bad for you and they’re likely made of nothing but crap, but totally necessary to sustaining fans and journalists alike through the long, lean months.
Paying too much attention to them is like necking a whole tube of knockoff own-brand Pringles like a duck without even stopping to chew: you’ll be left unfulfilled and full of self-loathing, wondering why you put yourself through this every day.
But now and then, transfer rumours will take the form of a delicious fresh pasta dish, topped with the parmesan of intrigue and the ragu of truth.
It’s this possibility that keeps us coming back for more, because there is almost no unfolding story that can be more tantalising than following a transfer from rumour to bid to medical to unveiling.
If there are bumps and derailments along the way, so much the better. Remember how metatarsals were all the rage in 2002 and 2006? Well, in 2000 all eyes were on Ruud van Nistelrooy’s wafer-like knee, which caused Manchester United to postpone his transfer and then demonstrated an incredible understanding of storytelling structure by rupturing entirely a day later.
Liverpool’s long drawn-out pursuits of Emile Heskey and Lee Bowyer around the turn of the millennium were a topic of debate on Merseyside for months, while Newcastle’s signing of Alan Shearer for a world record £15m in 1996 is one of the most iconic images of an era crawling with feelgood memories.
Notably, all of these events are ancient history now. Part of that is starry-eyed nostalgia, I’m sure, but it’s also reflective of the way stories unfold in the internet era. When you got one update per day at the very most, even a protracted move had much less potential to wear thin so quickly.
Now, every website provides up-to-the-minute information on how many Polo mints Angel di Maria has eaten that day, or what we can learn about Virgil van Dijk’s state of mind by examining his tyre tread.
It’s easy to sneer at this approach, and we will continue to do so, but it’s equally easy to see why websites continue to do it: it works incredibly well. The way to get clicks is to get there first and loudest, regardless of accuracy or truth. Like it or not, those clicks keep people in jobs and, in the best case, allow websites to fund less lucrative quality journalism.
The obvious downside is that we have reached a point where transfer rumours have all but ceased to be fun for anyone, but we still get glimmers of the old joy. The Torres-Carroll saga of 2011 was one of the most fun and memorable days of this decade, and the excitement generated by Manchester United’s moves for Di Maria in 2014 and Zlatan Ibrahimovic last year was infectious and genuinely interesting to follow – in the end, at least.
The best bit, though, is always at the end. The anticipation of what your team’s big new signing is going to do for the side is electric and energising; it’s the powerful espresso you need to wake up from the drowsiness of a long, drawn-out season.