Every December, my friend Tom takes a breathtaking gamble.
While the nation shops itself into a lather, haunted by the spectre of a bare dining table on Christmas Day, Tom holds his nerve, stands his ground and leaves the purchase of his Christmas turkey only at the last possible moment. Then, late on December 24, as the sun sets, he pounces. He strides confidently into his local supermarket, makes a beeline for the poultry aisle, and picks out the plumpest turkey from the rows of unsold stock, very often with a bright yellow half-price sticker on it. He’s been playing this thrilling game of turkey chicken for close to a decade now, and to this day still boasts a 100 per cent success rate.
I think of Tom’s intrepid turkey dash every time transfer deadline day rolls along, with its unique bouquet of intrigue, rumour and yellow-liveried panic. For all the derision, parody and truly dreadful banter it attracts, deadline day is the closest football comes to approximating the high stakes, time-sensitive rush of an actual game without actually playing one. And like football, this is a game with a set of basic technical principles, but one played largely in the mind.
It’s not for everyone. For some, it’s a knife to the nerves, a high-stakes, hyperventilation-inducing joyride they want no part of. For some, it’s the ultimate high, for all the same reasons. Harry Redknapp could never resist a little deadline day dabble. Daniel Levy is similar, and in a sense the four years they spent together at Tottenham constitute the genre’s seminal era, the Lennon and McCartney of the last-minute loan, the McAlmont and Butler of the moonlight manoeuvre, Rafael van der Vaart their ‘Yes’, Ryan Nelsen their ‘Make It Right’. David Moyes, too, is an underrated deadline dealer, using it to bring in the likes of Nikica Jelavic, Bryan Oviedo and Johnny Heitinga while at Everton, as well as Marouane Fellaini not once but twice. Even Arsene Wenger liked a punt more frequently than is commonly remembered. Every so often the game theorist, the economist, the thrill-seeker and the gambler in him all would all join forces, have a little rummage and whip out Kim Kallstrom on loan.
Jose Mourinho, on the other hand, generally isn’t a fan. “I don’t want to be waiting for late decisions,” he said this time last year, when his Manchester United side were one of a handful of Premier League clubs to vote against the shortening of the transfer window. “I want to arrive at day one with my squad and players.” No, Mourinho prefers to get his players in early. It gives him plenty of time to break their spirit.
So what are we to read into the fact that with the window closing and the Premier League season just 24 hours away, United were still scrabbling around for a central defender like a Sunday league team trying to drum up a ringer for the weekend? As door after door was slammed in their face - first Jerome Boateng, then Raphael Varane, then Yerry Mina, then Kurt Zouma, then Harry Maguire - the fumes of desperation rising from Carrington could be detected from miles out. A richly optimistic move for Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin was mooted and swiftly doused.
And so United began to focus their attentions on Tottenham Hotspur’s Toby Alderweireld. It was always going to be a struggle, for above all it meant going toe-to-toe with Levy. Deadline day warfare, after all, is not like conventional warfare. And taking on Levy’s army in their natural habitat is a bit like taking on the Viet Cong in their own jungle backyard. They’ve got tunnels. They’ve got landmines. They’ve got snake pits and trip wires. They’ve got it all. Emboldened by the ticking clock and with no signings of his own to fund, Levy simply hoisted up the price like a triumphant flag and drowned United in their own feverish sweat.
No centre-half for Jose, then. Unless, of course, you count their existing centre-halves Marcos Rojo, Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, who one imagines are feeling nothing but good vibes at seeing the lengths to which their club has been prepared to go to replace them. Or the youngsters Tim Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe, who might have been hoping for a chance to break into the first team this season, and indeed will, at Fulham and Aston Villa respectively
In a sense, though, all this is simply the natural collateral damage that results when a club is so transfixed by its short-term battle plan that it stumbles into a maze of calamities that only a modicum of foresight might have averted. Amid all the boggling numbers and idle reverie, we often forget the human side of the transfer window: the players and families poised to uproot their lives on a single phone call, the coaches and scouts and agents and analysts with reputations on the line, the fans who bought their season tickets on the promise of a new dawn, wondering whether the reality will ever quite tally.
This, perhaps, is the nub of United’s problem. Mourinho will be fine. He has one of the most enviable attacking quartets in world football, the world’s most expensive midfielder at his disposal, a hefty CV and money in the bank and 24-hour room service at the Lowry. Ed Woodward will be fine: his performance will be judged on the ledger, not on the pitch, and his ability to secure more official partners than Brigham Young means his job is secure. No, it’s United’s supporters, the ones who pay their money and their time and their sweat, who measure success by silverware and not stock price, who see their all-conquering title-winning rivals across the city and just want to give them a decent fight.
Instead, they’ve got a grouchy manager, a vice-chairman with his reputation in tatters, a squad who have been told in no uncertain terms that they’re not good enough and a hierarchy they might be forgiven for thinking is dysfunctional from top to bottom. Nothing the club has done on the footballing side in the last three months will offer United fans the slightest comfort. And if there’s one thing more inept than leaving your transfer business until deadline day, it’s emerging empty-handed at the end of it.
Because here’s the thing about my friend Tom. He’s not going to take the risk of leaving his family hungry on Christmas Day. He’s not a monster. Which is why, when he makes his evening sally to the supermarket, he does so safe in the knowledge that if he fails in his quest, there’s always the turkey he purchased months ago, already sitting in his freezer, in case of emergency. Fortune favours the bold, they say, but there’s a part they don’t tell you. Play it smart, and you don’t need fortune at all.
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