The phone is not ringing

 

January is upon us. The month of new beginnings, new year resolutions and the most overhyped day of television of the year. No, I don’t mean the housemates entering the Celebrity Big Brother house. I am referring to transfer deadline day on Sky Sports News. We are promised thrills, spills and plenty of big transfers but are constantly left watching reporters outside training grounds around the country surrounded by local delinquents causing mischief. Don’t get me wrong, deadline day has had its moments over the years. No one will forget Torres moving to Chelsea and Carroll heading to Liverpool. Those transfers are remembered now as cautionary tales for anyone considering a big splash in the January market. Harry Redknapp giving the obligatory interview out his car window and Peter Odemwingie arriving at QPR’s training ground before a fee had been agreed have given us some more lighthearted moments. Most recently we have been left with Harry Bassett and Jamie Redknapp sitting in the studio discussing the transfers that didn’t happen and never were going to happen. All in all, I think it’s a big fat let down.

For any manager, shopping in the January transfer window somewhat resembles the January sales on the high street. Everyone is looking for a bargain but all the items they really want are stored in the back, out of arms reach, and instead, all the unwanted stock that has been gathering dust in the back is pushed out front. Football clubs are no different. They don’t want to sell their most prized assets halfway through the season. It just doesn’t make sense. Unless you have piles of money and are willing to pay over the odds, especially if buying from another British club, there doesn’t seem to be good value for money in January.

Over the past few years I get the impression most clubs have realized there is no value in big transfers during the January window and leave it well alone. A handful of clubs may manage to make some astute signings to improve the squad but there is nowhere near the extravaganza of excitement that the media claims is on offer on that final day of transfer “mayhem”. The most talked about piece of news is normally Arsenal’s failure to make a significant signing and Chelsea letting another player leave on loan.

A quick look back at the best loan signings include Suarez to Liverpool and Vidic and Evra to Manchester United. It is worth remembering that the United duo didn’t take to life in the Premiership quickly and only really looked like true United players the following year. Everyone associates the January transfer window with a quick fix, someone to come and have an instant impact, yet when you look through history books these players are so hard to find. Dugarry comes to mind as one of the highest profile success when he played a vital role in keeping Birmingham in the Premiership. Youri Djorkaeff had a similar impact at Bolton many years ago. Unfortunately, there are far more failures than successes. Who remembers Alfonso Alves’ £13 million move to Middlesbrough or Christophe Samba’s £13.5 million move to QPR? These signings were unmitigated disasters for the clubs, fans and players.

I would always advise a player to try and move in the summer instead of the January transfer window. There are so many variables that many people don’t consider. The pressure is ramped up several notches in comparison to signing in preseason. You are heading straight into a relegation battle or title fight and you are expected to contribute immediately. There is no settling-in period. No time to suss out the area, find a house to live in and find schools for the kids. The chances are you are stuck in a hotel if you can’t commute. Stuck in a hotel. Boohoo. It might not seem the end of the world, but I can tell you it is not conducive for a footballer producing their best performances on the pitch. There is no time to bond with your teammates and form relationships on and off the pitch. You are expected to hit the ground running the second the contract is signed. At the end of the day, you are a professional and that’s what they are paying you for isn’t it? If only it was that easy.

I joined in on the transfer day deadline madness back in 2011 when I made the move across Yorkshire from Leeds United to Sheffield United. With two days to go before the deadline I expected nothing more than to be a Leeds player. I was currently out of the side and on the bench. I had featured in 23 games up until that point as we sat in the playoff positions and I was battling to find my way back in to the team. Our squad was full of talent with players like Snodgrass, Johnson, Howson, Schmeichel along with a fantastic team spirit. I felt we were really on the cusp of something special.

Generally, when a bid goes in for a player the bidding club has sounded out, through the players’ agent, his intentions before they make their move. It isn’t officially allowed but it is exactly what happens. No club wants to spend time bidding for a player that has no intention of leaving. That was not evident in my case. I arrived home from training one Sunday and Bam! Ring, ring, ring. The phone is going and it is Leeds Assistant Dusty Miller. “Neill, we have accepted a bid from Sheffield United.” I am gobsmacked and in a haze but manage to ask, “Do you want me to stay?” Dusty’s response tells me all I need to know. “Well it’s up to you.” Conversation over, yet a million questions go through my mind.

Now choosing between playing for Sheffield United or Leeds United isn’t the worst position to be in, trust me. You only have to ask the thousands of players out of contract, but that doesn’t make the decision any easier. Since I had left Wolves 18 months prior, I had been at Preston and now Leeds — did I want to move again? There are so many variables for a footballer to consider when deciding on a transfer, it can tie you in knots.

What is the gaffer like? What type of club is it? Will I play every week? Who will I play alongside? What are the lads like? What is the training ground like? If only Marty McFly and Doc Brown could give me a shot in the DeLorean it would be much easier.

I have always tried to base my decisions on a couple of important factors, the manager and the club. The manager is vitally important and is going to have the biggest impact on your life, apart from maybe your wife, depending on who you marry. The club is of equal importance if not more so. The manager might change but the club will stay the same. Some managers might seem like a dream to play for but what if they leave for pastures new and you are left at a club that quickly goes downhill without their expert guidance? Some people might notice I haven’t mentioned money and that’s because I feel it only plays a small part if you are really interested in the progress of your career. My agent and my dad have given some of the best advice: “Always make the best football decision.” If the football is right, the money tends to follow. Regardless, I would always rather the experience of playing for a huge club over a few more pound notes in the bank. Oscar, the Brazilian, is obviously not of the same opinion.

Before I know it, I am making my way to Sheffield on deadline day to meet the manager and complete a medical. Meanwhile, my agent was agreeing terms. There was no time to waste, yet I still wasn’t sure about the move. My agent had since told me Leeds were willing to sell me in order to finance loan moves for other players. I had no reservations about Sheffield United as a club. I had been there before on loan and played in the Steel City derby. Seeing the atmosphere United fans created after a famous victory at Hillsborough is enough to stick in anyone’s mind. I had been back at Brammall Lane plenty of times since as a player and loved the ground. It is a traditional football stadium with a fantastic atmosphere. Defending the goal in front of the Kop is one of the hardest jobs in football. You feel like the fans are sucking the ball in to the goal. Despite all this, the team was sitting in the bottom three and looking like strong relegation candidates. They were already on to their third manager of the season and confidence was low.

I arrived at the training ground and spoke to players I knew there, including Nick Montgomery, Chris Morgan and Michael Doyle. They were players I respected and they convinced me we would be able to climb up the table and that the squad was too strong to go down. It was all the convincing I needed. I was desperate to play and this great football club wanted me. I completed the move with time to spare and couldn’t wait to run out at Bramall Lane and shoot down towards the Kop playing for the home team.

That Saturday, I made my debut at Portman Road against Ipswich. We lost 3-0 and ended up with nine men. I had been in the game long enough to realise that we were deep enough in the brown stuff. Confidence was shot. We couldn’t score goals and we were leaking them like a sieve. I was desperate to make an impression and impact the team, but my energy was misguided. Instead of settling in to a new club and concentrating on my own performance, I tried to be like Roy of the Rovers and Terry Butcher rolled into one and it didn’t go well. Our performances were generally ok, but we couldn’t win matches and we would always throw in the odd aberration. The more I tried, the worse it seemed to get.

Whenever it looked like me might build momentum, it would be killed stone dead. After a good home win against Notts Forest, we travelled to Watford and were reduced to nine men after only thirty minutes culminating in a 3-0 defeat. Ill discipline was rife at the club on and off the pitch. There were good professionals at the club like Steven Quinn and Richard Cresswell, but they were supplemented by too many loan players who knew, come what may, they wouldn’t be there. It’s not that they didn’t try, they just didn’t care enough and the squad was all over the place with three managers’ worth of signings mashed together.

We eventually got relegated and I played in fourteen matches after signing in January. Along with fellow January signing Michael Doyle, we bore the brunt of the fans’ frustration and I can understand why. We were the main January signings and were meant to help arrest the slide and start leading the team up the table. Instead, things went from bad to worse. It was one of the most frustrating times of my career. I had swapped a promotion push to the Premiership for a relegation battle and team heading for League One but couldn’t make an impact. There were so many problems I doubt Rio Ferdinand could have kept the Blades up that year.

Did I ever regret making the move? Not for a second. I made the move for the right reasons but could never have realized how deep-rooted the problems at the club were until I experienced them first hand. I learnt a lot about myself and became a better player for the experience. If I could do it all again I would still make the move. In hindsight I tried to do too much too soon before I had established myself in the team. January signings have to be viewed as long term acquisitions otherwise you are setting yourself up for a fall.

Despite all these pitfalls, I can guarantee many players will still be secretly hoping their phone might ring with their agent on the other end having lined up their dream move. Just ask my ex-Preston teammate Chris Sedgewick. One January morning with nothing better to do with our time we managed to get hold of Sedgeys phone and change his agents number for one of the lads. While he was training his phone was called several times and showed up with his agents’ name. All the boys were in on it and returned quickly to the dressing room afterwards to watch the prank unfold. Like clockwork, Chris came in and checked his phone. “Lads, I could be on the move. Got seven missed calls from my agent,” Chris exclaimed before racing out the changing room to call him back. Unbeknown to Chris the call came straight to the phone in the changing room. On loudspeaker for everyone’s amusement, “Brian, Chris here. What’s happening?” Poor Sedgey’s briefest moment of hope was killed stone dead by a whole group of us laughing down the phone.

They say it’s hope that kills you. That’s what the January transfer window does to everyone, players, fans and managers. It gives false hope yet we will all still be tuned in to Sky Sports on deadline day just wishing our team to make that one big signing that is going to change everything.

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