When Saturday Comes once ran a cartoon that depicted three newspaper hacks (drawn as pigs wearing trilbys with "press" stuck in the hatband) each holding a bag of the sort once used for the FA Cup draw. In turn they pull out a piece of paper. The first reads out: "Vinnie Jones". The second: "Real Madrid". The third: "£2m". The first one says, "That'll do".
At this time of year it would be easy to believe this is how the sports media operates, not least because of the speculation industry's expansion beyond the traditional red-tops to what were once known as broadsheets, plus radio, rolling news broadcasters and websites. The sheer volume of touted transfers is astonishing. Every Premier League club is linked with a minimum half-a-dozen names, yet in this transfer window last year the 20 clubs completed only 10 deals between them.
In fact, very few deals are the figment of journalists' imaginations, or even educated guesses (such as, Everton need a goalscorer, Michael Owen is available, he used to support the club his father once played for, and would like to continue living in nearby north Wales, ergo, "Owen for the Toffees"). Most of the speculation comes from agents, some from clubs. Agents wish to tout a player, or secure him a better deal at his current club; managers and chairmen like to look busy in the market, or put pressure on other, pending, deals. In addition, people trade information, or simply gossip.
A lot of speculation is accurate, though it never leads to a deal. West Ham co-owner David Gold says the club have 15 "irons in the fire". Even if true this does not mean they will sign 15 players. Five of the Irons' irons may be strikers ranked in descending order of desire. The challenge for Gold, his partner David Sullivan and manager Avram Grant, is to decide at what point they opt to sign the third choice, who is available but could be lost to a rival if they delay, or hang on in the hope they can secure one of the two preferred options. Say one of these is Robbie Keane, do they meet the financial demands of Spurs' chairman Daniel Levy, or try to barter these down and risk losing the player to relegation rivals Birmingham or Wolves? It could be a false economy if Keane kept Birmingham up at the expense of West Ham, losing the latter £30m minimum in the process.
But would he? Managers seeking an immediate impact from January transfer signings are backing against history. Good buys can be had in January, but usually they work in the long term. The classic example would be Patrice Evra. He is now recognised as one of the best left-backs in the Premier League but he struggled to settle at Old Trafford when he signed in January 2006, making a disastrous debut in the Manchester derby and completing only two matches by the end of the season.
West Ham are at least forewarned. Last January, with the new owners wishing to make an impact, they paid Blackburn £2.25m for Benni McCarthy. Overweight and out-of-condition, McCarthy started twice, was substituted both times, and finished the season dropped from South Africa's World Cup squad. The loan acquisition of Mido was similarly misguided and while another loanee, Ilan, scored some useful goals he was released at the end of the season.
Of the deals done last January Craig Gardner's £3m switch from Aston Villa to Birmingham was the most successful, though Adam Johnson and Younès Kaboul made respectable contributions to Manchester City and Tottenham – as might be expected at a combined cost of £11m. In the long term, Stoke's capture of Asmir Begovic may prove the best deal, though he played only three games last season.
Aston Villa, Blackburn and Newcastle, all under new management, are expected to be busy while the budgets allowed to Roy Hodgson, Mark Hughes and Carlo Ancelotti will be a good indication of how much trust their owners have in them. Wolves and Birmingham look as if they could do with a fresh face or two while the main concern of Blackpool and Bolton will be protecting overachieving squads from predators. Sir Alex Ferguson tends to buy for the future in January (as well as Evra he signed Nemanja Vidic in this window) but neighbours City look like spending heavily in an attempt to cement their Champions League place and strengthen a title challenge. Arsène Wenger is talking down his interest, but he signed Andrei Arshavin in the window two years ago so is not averse to a deal.
Championship clubs, meanwhile, will be looking to emulate Ian Holloway. It was during this window last year, with Blackpool outside the play-off places, he brought in D J Campbell and Stephen Dobbie. The pair scored 16 goals between them as the Tangerines won promotion through the play-offs. January signings can provide a lift, but too many are ill-researched panic buys which prove a bad move for player and club.
Worth a punt? successes and failures of previous January windows
* JANUARY 2006
Pedro Mendes, Noé Pamarot and Sean Davis (Tottenham-Portsmouth, £7m combined). Harry Redknapp's spree kept Pompey up.
* JANUARY 2007
Rory Delap (Sunderland-Stoke, free) Signed despite a broken leg incurred on loan, recovered to propel Stoke into top flight.
* JANUARY 2008
Nicolas Anelka (Bolton-Chelsea, £15m). Scored more than 50 goals since, and created many for Drogba.
* JANUARY 2009
Matty Etherington (West Ham-Stoke, £2m). Gave Stoke a different dimension and helped keep them up.
* JANUARY 2010
Craig Gardner (Aston Villa-Birmingham City, £3m). A regular in Blues' midfield.
* JANUARY 2006
Danny Murphy (Charlton-Tottenham, £2m). Never settled at White Hart Lane and soon left for Fulham, where he has since flourished.
* JANUARY 2007
Anthony Stokes (Arsenal-Sunderland, £2m). Lacked goals and discipline, eventually being sold to Hibernian for £500,000.
* JANUARY 2008
Marlon King (Watford-Wigan, £3.5m). One goal, twice loaned out, then sacked after he was jailed for sexual assault and ABH.
* JANUARY 2009
Jimmy Bullard (Fulham-Hull, £5m). Chronic knee injury meant he was unable to help Hull in their unsuccessful relegation fight.
* JANUARY 2010
Benni McCarthy (Blackburn-West Ham, £2.25m). Never fit enough to play 90 minutes last season. Yet to score.
Club by club: Who has your side been linked with?
Arsenal: Shay Given (Man City); Gary Cahill (Bolton); Per Mertesacker (W Bremen)
Aston Villa: Michael Owen (Man Utd); Robbie Keane (Spurs); Stephane Sessegnon (PSG)
Birmingham City: Ryan Babel (Liverpool); Jay Bothroyd (Cardiff City)
Blackburn Rovers: Ronaldinho (Milan); Geovanni (unattached); Roque Santa Cruz (Man City)
Blackpool: David Nugent (Portsmouth); Adam Hammill (Barnsley)
Bolton Wanderers: Charlie Adam (Blackpool); Carlos Vela (Arsenal)
Chelsea: David Luiz (Benfica); Andy Carroll (Newcastle); Luka Modric (Spurs)
Everton: Federico Macheda (Man Utd); R Santa Cruz (Man City); Niko Kranjcar (Spurs)
Fulham: Stephen Ireland (A Villa); R Santa Cruz (Man City); Christopher Samba (Blackburn)
Liverpool: Eljero Elia (Hamburg); P Mertesacker (Werder Bremen); Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Southampton)
Manchester City: Pepe (Real Madrid); Edin Dzeko (Wolfsburg);
Manchester United: David de Gea (Valencia); Luka Modric (Spurs); Lassana Diarra (Real Madrid)
Newcastle United: David Bentley (Spurs); David Beckham (LA Galaxy); Shaun Wright-Phillips (Man City)
Stoke City: Edson Buddle (LA Galaxy); R Keane Spurs); Sebastian Larsson (Birmingham City)
Sunderland: Charles N'Zogbia (Wigan)
Tottenham Hotspur: David Beckham (LA Galaxy); Steven Pienaar (Everton); Luis Suarez (Ajax); Scott Parker (West Ham); A Carroll (Newcastle)
West Bromwich Albion: Sean St Ledger (Preston); F Macheda (Man Utd)
West Ham United: Steve Sidwell (Aston Villa); Wayne Bridge (Man City); Demba Ba (Hoffenheim)
Wigan Athletic: Ali Al-Habsi (Bolton)
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Curtis Davies (Aston Villa); R Keane (Spurs); Danny Shittu (Millwall)
Five in demand during January
David Bentley, Tottenham Hotspur
There is always a manager who believes they can turn around a talented but feckless footballer. Thus, despite an abysmal time at Tottenham, there is a queue of suitors ready to take David Bentley off Harry Redknapp's hands. Alex McLeish (Birmingham), Alan Pardew (Newcastle), Mark Hughes (Fulham), Roy Hodgson (Liverpool) and Gérard Houllier (Aston Villa) have all been mentioned, with Hughes, under whom Bentley shone at Blackburn, the player's most logical choice.
Spurs paid £15m for Bentley in August 2008, but aside from a sensational equaliser against Arsenal early on he has been anonymous, last making the headlines for a drink-driving offence. There is no lack of ability and while most people's self-belief would have taken a dent after so long in the shadows that may not be the case with Bentley. The real doubts are about his application and maturity. At 26 the midfielder is still young enough to have a good career ahead of him, but is fast approaching the stage when he will be said to have had a promising future behind him.
Per Mertesacker, Werder Bremen
Per Mertesacker played in the 2006 and 2010 World Cup semi-finals, has 73 caps for Germany, stands 6ft 6in, and is only 26. All of which should make him a prime recruit for any Premier League club, even if his physicality does not always match his height. Arsenal and Liverpool, both sorely in need of a commanding centre-half who can pass the ball, lead the interest. Manchester United, aware that Rio Ferdinand is 32 with a history of back problems, are also monitoring a player who may feel he has achieved as much as he can with Werder Bremen.
The 2004 Bundesliga champions entered the winter break in 14th position, making a European campaign next season unlikely. With Mertesacker having only 18 months to run on his contract Werder, who sold Mesut Özil to Real Madrid in the summer, could decide to cash in.
The two caveats are that Mertesacker is ineligible for the Champions League this season, having played in the competition with Werder this year. He also has a history of injuries.
David Wheater, Middlesbrough
In 2008 David Wheater looked on the brink of a breakthrough. Already a fixture in an established Premier League side, he was twice called into England squads by Fabio Capello. His fortunes have subsequently declined along with those of Middlesbrough. Redcar-born and a graduate of Boro's youth system, Wheater stayed on Teesside when his club was relegated in the hope of a quick return, but with Boro unlikely to go up in this final year of parachute payments, a move seems inevitable. The only question is whether it is this month or in the summer. Wheater's contract expires in June so the club want to sell the 23-year-old centre-half now. The fee will be £2-4m, depending on whether a bidding war can be ramped up.
Wolves, Aston Villa, Sunderland, Everton, Stoke and Cardiff are considering granting Boro's wish. But the player, admits manager Tony Mowbray, may wait until the summer when he can collect a fat signing-on fee, and avoid the risk of moving now to a club that is relegated in May.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Southampton
The 17-year-old has played only 20 league matches for Southampton, but it is already being predicted that he will win more caps for England than the eight his father, Mark Chamberlain, won in the 1980s. Already capped at under-18 level, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is the latest tyro from a production line that has already produced Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale.
Only Walcott made his Southampton debut younger than Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was 16 years, 199 days when he played in March this year (Walcott was 16 years and 143 days). At present a winger, like his father, Oxlade-Chamberlain can also play in midfield, and has an eye for goal.
Liverpool lead the chase with Damien Comolli, the director of football strategy, scouting the player personally. Other interested clubs include Chelsea, Arsenal, Fulham and Stoke. Stoke hope to trade on the family connection (Mark Chamberlain was born in the Potteries and was at Stoke during his England years). Fulham have the advantage that Huw Jennings, who had Oxlade-Chamberlain under his wing when running Southampton's academy, is on their staff. Arsenal can point to the progress of Walcott.
Robbie Keane, Tottenham Hotspur
Robbie Keane's return to White Hart Lane two years ago has been a failure. Despite chipping in with 11 goals he is now fifth in the pecking order and the 30-year-old, transferred for fees totalling £70m in his peripatetic career, needs another move. He went to Celtic on loan last January but is also available for transfer this time, if the price is right.
West Ham, Birmingham, Newcastle, Everton, Fulham and Wolves are in contention, with Birmingham most inclined to agree a permanent move. West Ham have so far balked at the loan fee being demanded by Spurs – reported to be as high as £2m including a "staying up" premium – but may reconsider. Wolves were Keane's first club and though it is 11 years since he left, when he recently went back to mark Matt Murray's retirement he was given a rousing reception. As for Newcastle, the issue will be a good indication of how much faith – and funds – Mike Ashley is willing to invest in Alan Pardew.
Our football writers predict the deals that could be making headlines during the January transfer window:
Sam Wallace Football Correspondent: Luis Suarez (Ajax to Spurs)
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Southampton to Manchester City)
Gary Cahill (Bolton to Chelsea)
Wayne Bridge (Man City to West Ham – loan)
Chris Samba (Blackburn to A Villa)
Glenn Moore Football Editor: Jay Bothroyd (Cardiff to Fulham)
Gary Cahill (Bolton to Liverpool)
Edin Dzeko (Wolfsburg to Man City)
A Oxlade-Chamberlain (Southampton to Arsenal, and loaned back for this season)
Yakubu (Everton to West Ham)
Ian Herbert, Northern Football Correspondent: Sylvain Marveaux (Rennes to Liverpool)
David Bentley (Spurs to Blackburn)
Carlos Vela (Arsenal to Bolton – loan)
Carlton Cole (West Ham to Liverpool)
Stephen Ireland (A Villa to Fulham)
Mark Fleming, Football Writer: Demba Cisse (Freiburg to Fulham)
S Ireland (A Villa to Fulham)
Glen Johnson (Liverpool to Spurs)
Luke Young (A Villa to West Ham)
Yakubu (Everton to West Ham)
Steve Tongue, Football Writer: Edson Buddle (LA Galaxy to Birmingham)
Matty Fryatt (Leicester to Hull)
S Ireland (Aston Villa to Celtic)
Robbie Keane (Spurs to Wolves)
Keiren Westwood (Coventry to Celtic)