Jim White and Natalie Sawyer pump up the hype on September's transfer deadline day
It all started with Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate. No, I’m not digging up an alleged racist beating that took place some ten years back but rather something just as violent and obnoxious: the January transfer window.
Bowyer was the first player in English football to make a permanent move in the newly created mid-season window, signing for West Ham United from Leeds United on the 8th of January, 2003. Less than a fortnight later Woodgate became the first big-money deadline day transfer, also fleeing the sinking Leeds ship but for Newcastle, rather than Green Street, in a £9 million move. The January transfer window – a throbbing, chuntering month of swoops, scoops, coups and bullshit – had been inaugurated.
This particular January we’ve seen the fourth highest fee for a Premier League player change hands, with Manchester United paying £37.1 million for Juan Mata. Chelsea used some of that cash to pay £21 million for Nemanja Matic, while, at the time of writing, Arsenal remain in the market for German wunderkind Julian Draxler, who is reportedly available for around £40 million. What did we get in 2003? Malcolm Christie moving from Derby to Middlesbrough for three million quid. Steve McClaren’s master-haggling must have rubbed off on Christie, because he’s now a salesman at an Aston Martin dealership.
In fact, back in '03, only ten players moved clubs for more than £1 million and just £35 million was spent across the entire window, compared to a record £225 million in 2011. McClaren, a man who could outmanoeuvre the market like Enron, also spent £3.5 million on Michael Ricketts, the one-cap wonder who played for nine lower league teams in six years after leaving Boro. The first January transfer window was a slow one, but maybe that’s because we didn’t know what it was yet.
Before the implementation of the mid-season transfer window in 2003, clubs had been free to sign whoever they wanted, when they wanted. They had commercial freedom, just like every other line of industry (ignoring the anomaly that the purchase and sale of workers is actually forbidden by European law). But Premier League managers’ loss was a certain satellite broadcaster’s gain.
As we all know, Sky Sports invented English football with the creation of the Premier League in 1992. Satellite dishes, spreading like a fungal infection across tower blocks and suburban housing estates, became a status symbol, each one a metallic ear pointed in the direction of Murdoch’s Death Star.
By the start of the millennium Murdoch had English football, and Scottish football and Champions League football, clenched in his liver-spotted robot fist, and was squeezing every last drop of spectacle out of them.
“Are you ready for all this?” asked Elton John in a 2003 promotion. Actually, it sounded more like "Or ya weddy fall allodis?" but there was enough going on in the background that you got the gist. There were dancing girls, strobe lights, keepy-uppies, more dancing girls, and, because this was back in the good old days, when men were men and women were slags, the voices of Andy Gray and Richards Keys disembodied and hyping from the ether.
But what did the first ever deadline day live on Sky Sports News look like back in 2003?
Andy Burton, the man who shares a surname with the shop he appears to buy his entire wardrobe from, had just one phone sitting on the desk in front of him. Well, presumably. He’d yet to be hired by Sky and his predecessor, Nick Collins never adhered to the "having loads of phones make me look busy and important" school of thought.
Sky hadn’t yet thought to send reporters out to training grounds and stadiums around the country. There were no crowds of rowdy rent-a-gobshites trying to force their illuminated faces into the shot, like some sort of widescreen, live TV selfie. There was no countdown clock lurking in the bottom corner. There were no "Sky Sources", because Twitter was still three years away from conception.
However, Jim White was still the dominating alpha-male of deadline day 2003, although his transfer updates, delivered in between James Nesbitt adverts for the Yellow Pages (if you can’t remember what those are, google it), were admittedly less bombastic.
Since then White has famously become the big swinging dick of deadline day, flanked by whichever gleaming, shiny robo-babe Sky’s analysts have built for that specific night. He is Sky Sports News’ Jordan Belfort, whipping his team of starry-eyed interns and research assistants into a frenzy all to achieve a result of impression and illusion, rather than something that actually exists.
Of course, 11 years later the formula has been refined. Everything’s yellow rather than blue, as it was in 2003. There are news tickers, graphs and tables around the entire perimeter of the screen. All this information gives the impression of importance, something Sky are very good at conjuring. Last year Sky Sports News even pre-empted their broadcast of deadline day live on Sky Sports News with a Sky Sports News exclusive, showing footage of White arriving at Sky Sports News studios to present Sky Sports News’ coverage of deadline day live on Sky Sports News.
The tangibility of deadline is difficult to comprehend. Would transfer deadline day even exist without Sky Sports News? Should it be a thing? What genre of entertainment is it? For a sports news channel, there’s a distinct lack of sport. And it’s not news, that’s for sure. So is it drama?
Maybe it’s best described as reality TV. Yes, there are autocues and running orders but deadline day is a reflection of the irrational hysteria that grips football fans around the country on January 31st. And just like most reality TV shows, not much actually happens. No word, back to the studio, no word, back to the studio, and here’s a press release we could have read to you from the studio. Back to the studio.
It’s not all about Sky Sports News, though. For all the swirling, swooshing graphics, breaking news tickers and Alan Curbishleys some transfers are actually made on deadline day.
For struggling teams, the January transfer window offers an opportunity to wipe away the stain of the season so far. But so often efforts to turn things round with mid-season transfers are so clumsy and awkward that the more you wipe the bigger the stain gets. Until all you can see is the stain.
But sometimes, just sometimes, a January signing can make all the difference. Everyone close to falling off the face of the earth into the Championship is trying to find a Christophe Dugarry. “There has not been a better player ever to play for this club,” ejaculated Steve Bruce (not to be confused with the pigeon lady from Home Alone 2) after signing the former AC Milan and Barca forward on loan for Birmingham City. Indeed Dugarry proved an inspired signing, sparking a fightback that saw Birmingham beat the drop.
Yakubu also joined Portsmouth on loan from Maccabi Haifa in the first January window. “I said to Alex Ferguson that I was trying to get Yakubu,” said Harry Redknapp, presumably through a car window. “And he said ‘Harry, hop in your car and get him now.” Clearly Fergie had no clue where Haifa is.
Yet for all the bluster and bullshit there is something heartening about the January window. How many Liverpool fans have seen Yevhen Konoplyanka play, or had even heard of him before he was linked with the Anfield club in the last week? Yet now every Kopite knows he’s the best inverted left-sided enganche this side of the Lobanovskyi statue.
With every January signing, even if they’ve been found down a Latvian well, there is the inkling that this guy will be the final piece of the puzzle. They serve a purpose in a different sense, as totems for shared hopes and dreams, even if they never actually materialise. Arsenal never did sign Sebastien Frey, or Obafemi Martins, or Saloman Kalou (yet). Ipswich never did tie up those deals for Oscar Ruggeri and Gabriel Batistuta. Yet it's nice to think that the possibility of their arrivals provided a conversational route out of a few awkward situations, doused the odd burning bridge. Who knows, maybe this January, Lacina Traore was the first thing a West Ham-supporting father and his wayward teenage son genuinely bonded over in months.
So, where will the January transfer window be in a further 11 years? What will Deadline Day 2025 live on Sky Sports News look like? Well it’ll probably be beamed straight into our cerebral cortexes by Google Brain Stem. But of course Jim White will still be there, his disembodied head mounted on cloned legs, yattering away about how Man United stalwart Adnan Januzaj is attempting to tap up the latest Ukrainian world-beater with a free Nando’s. And fans will still believe that this guy, the guy signed at the eleventh hour for an undisclosed fee, is the guy.
This article was updated at 2.55PM on Friday, the 31st of January because we spelt Steve McClaren's name wrong.
_Follow Graham on Twitter: _@grahamruthven__