This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
In a moment of uncharacteristic self-awareness, the powers that be at West Ham were last week compelled to scrap their 'Insider' column. For the sake of the uninitiated, this was essentially an in-house transfer write-up which professed to give insight into the club's targets and potential acquisitions. The 'Insider' would address reports in the media and was, in some sense, an attempt to regulate transfer rumours, with a club employee giving a semi-official line on West Ham's activity in the transfer market. Unfortunately, the level of insight given last week was deemed unacceptable by the West Ham hierarchy, after the nominal 'Insider' revealed much of the club's strategy for the January window, or at least far more of their transfer plans than could be considered wise.
While the 'Insider' column came with the caveat that the views expressed within were "not necessarily those of West Ham United," the fact that it was commissioned by the club and featured on their website gave it an aura of legitimacy. In the swirling maelstrom of transfer gossip, this was meant to be an outlet which the club could endorse and control. Sadly, in the end, it proved to be a self-destructive exercise as much as it was bizarre and futile. With fans baffled by the content of the column (from which many deduced that West Ham were planning a bid for Celtic's Moussa Dembele, as well as Scott Hogan and Jermain Defoe), Karren Brady soon confirmed that it would be permanently discontinued. So ended West Ham's dalliance with self-generating transfer news, which to most supporters – and the club's negotiators – no doubt came as a welcome turn of events.
In a way, this was a form of meta-gossip from West Ham; a bid to butt in on the tabloids' territory and write the transfer narrative themselves, presumably with the intention of spinning it to their own advantage. When club 'Insiders' routinely publish news of their employers' machinations in the transfer market, the football industry will surely have reached the pinnacle of inadvertent self-reference. Transfer gossip is an industry within an industry at this point, and clubs increasingly seem to want a slice of the action, or at least to influence the way in which their transfer business is reported. West Ham certainly aren't the only club to actively engage with transfer rumours and – flawed as it quite obviously was – their 'Insider' column was arguably more comprehensible than some of their competitors' efforts.
At this point, it is worth restating how transfer rumours work in relation to the clubs they concern. While a certain proportion of stories come from genuine sources via reputable journalists, a far higher proportion are factually baseless and are disseminated by websites with lax editorial policies, often in the form of rehashed articles and indiscriminate gossip round-ups. The sheer number of stories and the frequency with which they are published creates the impression of fervent transfer activity at almost every club, while the reality is that many of them are relatively inactive, especially in the January transfer window. This gives fans a false impression of how much business their clubs are likely to do, while also building them up for constant disappointment as supposed transfer targets pass them by.
It is not difficult to see why clubs might want to take greater control of this process, and to better manage expectations. Supporters often grow increasingly frustrated as mooted transfers fail to materialise, even if the transfers in question are little more than media conjecture. That heaps the pressure on club hierarchies from top to bottom, with owners, directors, managers and negotiators blamed for failing to secure illusory signings. Nonetheless, an 'Insider' column is never going to be an effective way of managing transfer rumours. The limited noise an in-house media team can generate will inevitably be drowned out by the cacophony of other outlets, unless of course that media team gives up more information than is prudent, as was clearly the case with West Ham.
That said, in the case of West Ham's ill-fated 'Insider' one can at least see what the intention was. There was discernible reasoning to the club's efforts, even if their attempt to monopolise transfer speculation ended up going horribly wrong. That is more than can be said of 'Media Watch', a feature on the official sites of Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham, amongst others. This is little more than a rumour aggregator, which takes transfer stories from a wide variety of outlets and links to them in an official capacity. This is surely the most ludicrous aspect of the transfer window, and one of the most telling symptoms of the madness of modern football as a whole.
On the surface, there seems to be absolutely no advantage to doing this. Where clubs should stay aloof from gossip, leaving it to managers to dispel inconvenient rumours as they see fit, they are instead embroiling themselves in the rampant speculation and spreading misinformation which could ultimately harm their employees. When Arsenal's 'Media Watch' regurgitates transfer links to dozens of different players in the space of a week, it's not hard to see how that might help to raise the expectation of a hopeful fanbase to unreasonable levels. When Arsene Wenger makes one, perhaps two moves over the course of the January window, he is then seen as letting down supporters, some of whom will doubtlessly have been encouraged by transfer rumours perpetuated by the club's own site.
This is but one example of how 'Media Watch' helps turn the incessant rumour mill, and how it might work to the detriment of the men in charge. In further disseminating flimsy speculation with what often appears to be little to no filter, football clubs are bending the knee to the burgeoning power of the gossip industry. At the time of writing, on Liverpool's 'Media Watch' alone, there are links to transfer stories from outlets as varied as The Independent, The Express, The Mirror, The Metro, ESPN, ClubCall and Goal.com. Though some of these might be well researched pieces, others will have little basis in reality. Indeed, ClubCall's Google listing describes it as a forum for "football news and transfer rumours." The optimal word here is 'rumours', and Liverpool are helping to spread them far and wide.
If it is beneath the dignity of a football club to facilitate the proliferation of transfer gossip, then, it is also potentially damaging to the bond of trust between club and fans. While an 'Insider' column can at least be seen as a weak attempt to regulate that gossip, 'Media Watch' is little more than an uncritical reiteration of supposed news. To top off the absurdity of it all, this appears to be in the name of 'engagement', which is surely the only feasible reason that someone would sanction a dedicated rumour section on a club's official website. In an attempt to build up their online audience, clubs are helping to sustain the mass speculation which leaves so many of their supporters disenchanted. So, in an effort to keep up with the times, they are haplessly shooting themselves in the foot.
Contacted about their decision to scrap the 'Insider' column, West Ham told us that they "have no comment to make on this occasion."