Experiencing Britain's latest weird folk tradition.
Yesterday was the weirdest day in the football calendar: transfer deadline day. What makes it so insane? Well, it's the last day of a pre-allocated period of time in which European football clubs are allowed to buy and sell players.
If this concept weren't already exciting enough, the media – and, in particular, Sky Sports News – have seized upon what should really just be a bureaucratic bookend and turned it into something resembling a national holiday for banter merchants, plastic fans, diehards and stats nerds alike. People take the day off work for it, they throw parties for it, they phone in reports of players they pretend to have seen at airports and motorway service stations for it. It's turned previously anonymous media journeymen like Jim White and Andy Burton into celebrities and is now more important a day than the League Cup Final.
Complicit in this are the people who actually run football clubs, who are often fairly stupid, very competitive and convinced of their own prowess as arch, ball-breaking negotiators. Their tendency to leave two months' worth of business down to the very last day, means that for 24 hours English football exists in a state of chaos, a crazy flux in which almost anything seems possible.
I've always observed transfer deadline day from my sofa but this year I wanted to throw myself into the midst of it. So I decided to head to the Emirates, where a small band of Arsenal fans had gathered to anticipate the signing of Real Madrid's blobfish-faced genius Mesut Özil.
For the best part of a decade, Arsenal have been busy forging a reputation as misers, cast into a relative povvos' wilderness by petrodollar billionaires and the Emirates itself, which cost a shit ton of money to build. Özil's signing would mean more to the fans than a bit of added creativity in midfield. This would be a statement of intent from the club, meant to signal their arrival back in the big time. Anything less than Özil could mean a misery-riot on the streets of North London.
Arriving there in the dusk, a small but hardy bunch of fans had gathered outside the stadium. As a Chelsea fan, I felt strangely uneasy about being there, like I was hitching a ride on somebody else's emotion-wagon. Here I was, behind enemy lines and vicariously feeling the innermost hopes and desires of a group of (mostly) men who all seemed to be awaiting the birth of the same baby.
The crowd was mostly comprised of young men in sportswear, who huddled together on steps cross-referencing rumours on Twitter, anxiously pacing up to each other saying things like "Tancredi Palmeri says Man U just put in a late bid!"
They seemed happy enough though, possessing that fans' curse of finding a kind of contentment through mass mutual agonising.
At the centre of the fans was a small camera crew from Sky Sports News. It's funny, you watch these things on TV and expect a smooth operation, but they seemed as lost as anyone; just a couple of fat blokes who didn't want their cameras to get smashed.
The host was this guy, Geraint Hughes. He spent much of the early evening with his phone locked to his ear, speaking to club representatives in a slightly-too-loud manner that reminded me of when my mum used to pretend to call Father Christmas to tell him not to bother this year. He looked a bit like an affable young headmaster or Mayor Quimby from The Simpsons, his slick manner at odds with the hysterical crowd of whooping rudeboys growing behind him.
It was his job to provide a series of teasing video links throughout the evening as the story developed, which probably seemed like a great idea to the people in the studio, but on the ground proved something of a logistical nightmare.
The pattern would go as follows: the camera would mount up outside a different part of the stadium, the crowd would get excited and run over to it, then they would wait around for a few minutes chanting "Red Army, Red Army, Red Army!"
Then Geraint would come over, and everyone would crowd around him for a few minutes as they thought he might be announcing Özil's signing. Then he'd say "Get back lads, we can't do it with you this close to the camera," but no one would listen to him.
Then everybody would stand back in fearful anticipation, as though Geraint were a kind of town crier soon to announce the coronation of a new king. But time and time again he'd just say something like "Patience is a virtue, and Arsenal fans sure do have a lot of it!" and then everybody would sulk off to check Twitter again.
This continued for several hours in a weird informational striptease. What had initially been so alluring became quite tedious, and the crowd began to dwindle.
The more the announcement was delayed, the more potent was the sense of dread that fell over the crowd. Twitter was full of people saying "Surely it must be done by now" and "There must be a problem". People were beginning to curse Arsene Wenger, Arsenal's manager. Even the previously ebullient Geraint was looking a bit grim, his manner had slipped from that of a young Kennedy clan member on the campaign trail to that of a Scout Leader who's just realised he's left a kid behind.
As the smiles turned into screwfaces, it became clear that if this deal didn't go through, poor Geraint was going to have a bit of a situation on his hands. Perhaps he'd find himself taken out purely for being the closest member to the footballing establishment the fans could get their hands on. Like some unsuspecting meals on wheels worker getting their house firebombed by anarchists purely because they work at Westminster council.
At one point, Geraint even had a can thrown at him. He'd gone from a bringer of good tidings to just another cog in the oppressive machine that was conspiring to keep Arsenal from glory.
The saga dragged on into the darkness. The crowd grew more and more anxious. By this point, everyone looked sad, confused or both when Geraint delivered his updates to camera, like people who'd just been told they'd be spending Christmas Day in Terminal 5. Although one man had brought along a potato – or "spud" – with which to taunt the losers of the previous day's local derby: Spurs.
I guess that's what's so good about football really, that it carries enough emotional heft to convince a man to spend the bulk of his Monday evening trying to get a potato on television, purely to wind up some Tottenham fans he will never meet.
But then it happened. At just after 10.30PM – four and a half hours after I'd arrived – the news that everybody was waiting for finally came. Geraint announced to the crowd that the deal had been done and he did so before even giving his spiel to camera. And for that, they loved him; he was now the man who held the scrolls that would change their destiny, the PR prophet, Moses with a radio mic. One fan at the back of the crowd even gleefully announced that, "Right now us mandem are the only mandem in the country that know right now." They went berserk, drowning him in limbs and club paraphernalia like he was a confused dad at a Pendulum concert.
The cameras swooped in on the fans, who were now caught up in a mass slam dance, screaming every song they could remember, ecstatically bellowing "Özil is a Gooner!" towards the tower blocks and silvery London clouds overhead.
It seemed that nobody could stop grinning. This was a club that had taken a lot of shit in recent years, and finally they were competing with the big boys again. I felt like I was present at the birth of a new king.
Geraint had retreated into his van in a flurry of handshakes and selfies, beers had been bought and now the jubilant masses had started something of a makeshift parade heading north down the Hornsey Road, stopping traffic and banging on car windows.
I wondered if Mesut Özil had ever imagined he would one day make some strange men in London this happy. While I wasn't on the ground to witness the Mardi Gras that greeted Stephen Ireland's arrival at Stoke, this was turning into quite a spectacle.
People will no doubt look at the image of a guy in trainers splaying himself against a police van as a show of civil disobedience or an indicator of the thuggery and stupidity of football fans. But honestly, it was nothing like that. It was just a display of pure, uncontainable joy; the kind you rarely ever see in public, especially not in London (and especially not from Arsenal fans). Even the cops were laughing and the cops hate everything.
Then everyone decided to sit down in the middle of the road because they "hate Tottenham". But there were no Tottenham fans there to see this show of faith, just some recycling workers and our camera (Geraint and the Sky Sports News team were long gone by this point). You can see why people mock transfer deadline day as the commercialisation of football writ large but there seemed to be a sense of genuine togetherness on display here.
I came out realising that transfer deadline day has joined the pantheon of those typically bizarre British traditions, like Morris Dancing, Glastonbury, Notting Hill Carnival or that hill that people chase cheese down. It applies to most of Europe, yet it's the Premier League fans who seem most keen to turn it into this display of weird street pageantry and hysteria. Sometimes it almost seems as if we prefer it to the actual football – maybe because the sad truth is that despite the moments of brilliance, 90 percent of football is Jonjo Shelvey screwing shots tamely across goal and Scott Parker passing to himself.
There's not much to cheer about in Britain these days, but football remains something that we can get excited about. The people involved in last night's proceedings weren't the miserable bastards who call up Stan Collymore to whine about referees, they were local people who love their club and wanted to do something out of the ordinary on a Monday night. They wanted to throw themselves into the drama and the chaos of deadline day, and of football as a whole.
It was a joyous, invigorating, tense experience that kind of restored my faith in football as a force for good, a thing born of community. And I say that as a fucking Chelsea fan.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
Find more of Tom Johnson's photography here.