At the outset of another new year, it is my solemn duty to inform you of a secret addiction that has Britain choking in a vice-like grip. This creeping compulsion has permeated every sphere of private and public life, a ubiquitous epidemic helping to power an industry worth billions, while at the same time mutilating productivity levels at workplaces countrywide. Its dark fantasies have been with us since the Major years, but it is alongside the internet that it’s truly come into its own, thriving in the web’s grubbiest and most hope-starved corners. It's a mania that attacks without prejudice, finding its victims in every strata of society; it has become the last thing in your boss's thoughts before he falls asleep at night and the first thing your children rush to get their fix of when they wake. In fact, if you’re reading this, it’s statistically improbable that you don’t suffer from some form of this addiction yourself. Brothers, sisters, friends, nemeses: all must know by now the degenerate lure of that irresistible transfer gossip dopamine, a fix that at this time of year hijacks football’s neural circuitry, a jones that continues to promise the world, while giving us barely anything at all.
Not convinced? Check your symptoms. Can you bear to go a day without gobbling up the morning gossip blogs at F365, Goal and all the other sites slavishly parroting outright lies for web traffic? Do you ever find yourself day-dreaming of the wages that could be freed up if only Trabzonspor or An Unnamed Chinese Club were to swoop for all your club's deadwood? Have you already read the words "swoop", "deadwood", "loan to buy", "Milan Škriniar" and "the Jadon Sancho model" far too often this month? Do you know what Tuttomercato is? Do you know who Abdulkadir Omur and Arnaut Groeneveld are? And how often, exactly, do you find yourself staring into a screen, cycling between the same four websites and social media feeds with a clenched jaw and angry eyebrows, refreshing, refreshing, refreshing again, in the hope that new information – any new information, whether it be good or bad or total nonsense – comes pouring down the swill-pipe?
If, like me, you tick all of these boxes, then you are sad. You are sad but you are not alone; it was hard to read a Guardian article on dopamine and repetitive behavioural patterns last week and not be reminded of the compulsive daze that scouring the internet for transfer gossip can lull you into, the way an unquenchable thirst for it can gnaw away at the brain, trapping your mind in an addictive warren of rubbish. "Our 21st-century world is so heavily baited with cues and stimuli – from stealth marketing to junk food, not to mention the nagging lure of online life – that it appears to be rigging our dopamine systems to become 'hypersensitised'," the article read, positing that the insidious rush and push of helter-skelter modern living has turned our dopamine receptors into raw, twitching nerve endings constantly on the hunt for any kind of repetitive stimulation.
It is, by now, more or less accepted that you can find yourself worryingly hooked to the mechanics of social media. So why not transfer gossip, too? The constant whispers are, after all, "cues and stimuli" with all the substance of junk food, little packets of data that nag away at you constantly from an online realm that settles on top of the corporeal like a layer of digital snow: chasing us across the web in targeted ads, lurking in every pub conversation, throbbing in the sordid form of saccharine EDM through your flatmate's bedroom wall as he watches "10 Minutes of Yannick Carrasco Destroying the Chinese Super League" on YouTube. In January, transfer gossip is almost impossible to avoid as it dissolves into the air and becomes part of the ambient atmosphere, a strangely compelling force that has made us experts in the concept of contractual amortisation, lured thousands to track private jets on SkyScanner, functioned as hurriedly deployed social currency in WhatsApp group chats. It’s the reason half your iPhone notes are potential XIs comprised of players you’ve never seen on live TV, and why your dad's banned you from discussing "net spend" at the family dinner table.
Ever since the proto-internet days of Ceefax p302 and ClubCall – the latter a pre-recorded, premium-rate phone line that would charge you anything from £1 to a tenner for the inside scoop on deals that were fated to never happen – the transfer gossip mini-industry has been a colossal ruse. It's difficult to say precisely what percentage of it is concocted by tired sports hacks and teenagers pretending to be super-agents on Twitter, but basic analysis carried out by the BBC in 2016 found that just one in three transfers mooted in its own daily round-up actually came to pass.
To the grizzled transfer gossip veteran, this might seem a surprisingly high hit rate, but then this was two years ago and BBC Sport don’t write their own rumours; their column is a round-up curated by a trained journalist on the look out for anything that is just too suspiciously stupid to bother including. It doesn't take into account the thousands of other rumours that, over the course of a January transfer window – let alone a whole summer – come sashaying out on Twitter and NewsNow to titillate and frustrate, to reel in radio phone-in callers and keep us all aboard the click-carousel that provides and absorbs so much of the noise and energy thrust into the modern game.
Point II: even if the transfer gossip mini-industry has always been a colossal ruse, everyone is, at this stage, more or less fine with that. A key moment in any football fan's maturation is realising that barely any of these pipe dreams ever come true and that not one of the charlatans who push them can be trusted; the idea that the gossip might be credible, that the move might actually get "over the line", isn't really the point. What’s most important is that the rumours turn up at just the right time – halfway through the season, after the gruelling footballing overdose that is the festive period – to plug gaps in the narrative that waning interest in the matches themselves can’t fill, to provoke conversation, lance fears, stoke anxieties, stir hope and create headlines.
For those involved in the game, the window functions differently, helping agents get their payday and players their dream moves, assisting exasperated chairmen and managers in their efforts to move bad blood off the books. For those with a vested interest, the transfer window is a big parlour game that involves leaking the right memo to the right person at the right time in order to undermine or seduce some rival interest. It's a big talking shop, and it's not only journalists making noise; it’s a marketplace, with everyone pushing their competing agendas. That’s why there’s always at least one piece of gossip in every window that truly blows open the doors of perception, dropkicks the concept of financial common sense off its hinges, recalibrating in the process the idea of what "market value" means to football as an industry.
This year’s window had barely been open a week before some idiot had clambered through it demanding £50 million for Tammy Abraham, for example – shocking in itself, but already a mere stepping stone to the brave new world we now inhabit where the words "Callum Wilson" and "seventy-five million pounds" have been spied cosying up to each other like some horrifyingly mismatched celebrity couple, Marilyn Manson cooking the Saturday fry-up in last night's bleary drag while Jacqui Oatley reclines on the five-post pentagram nail-bed, squinting into her phone at the latest transfer update from Bleacher Report.
At which point it might pay to shatter the fantasies and consider again the role that football plays in our grounded and banal day-to-day lives. Has football, so rich with narrative, become less a sport than something that can be mined to provide data for a digital generation that seems to crave data above all else, less a localised tribal concern than a global information generator feeding a billion hungry thumbs with a potentially endless feast of content? Do all the people who claim to like football really like football, or is football just a great excuse to waste huge swathes of time on the internet, feeding those ravenous and overstimulated dopamine receptors? Do people enjoy football, or do they simply enjoy the never-ending glut of data and noise that swirls around football?
It might be dispiriting to see football in this way. But ask yourself if it feels fallacious. In the meantime, I’ll return my attentions not to my family, my lover, my employers or my friends, but to the people I've been giving most of my time to this month: the 37 poor souls I’ve crammed into the fretting, fuming anxiety farm that is my club-specific transfer gossip Twitter group. Some would probably say that this is a narrow lens through which to absorb the machinations of a world that has never felt more chaotic and grimly compelling. But all of life is here, from the amateur financial analysts to the ageing house DJs, the right-wing cab drivers to the xG-obsessed Europhiles, the youth football coaches to the blokes who spend the summer promoting their upcoming gigs at the Edinburgh Fringe. The world is full of dark fantasies built to divide and rupture. At least down here, in the seedy depths of the transfer gossip anxiety farm, we are all united by the same mutual concern: dopamine, and how to submit to it.