Football player recruitment is a legal minefield.
You can’t just advertise and invite applications for a role as you would in any other business. You can’t put an advert on Fish 4 Footballers or in the Racing Post or Which Headphones or Tattoo Monthly or whatever publications players read these days.
It would make life so much easier if Steve Gibson and Aitor Karanka had the chance to put out an ad, then sit down with their HR staff and sift through 20 good CVs before organising interviews with the best five or six candidates.
It would give them the chance to openly compare the attributes and attitudes of the potential first team fixtures. And at least we would know that everyone in the mix wanted to come, that they had initiated the move, that they saw Boro as part of their career development and were up for the challenge.
But in football, none of the norms apply. It is certainly not like we mere mortals waiting anxiously for a letter to see if we have got an interview.
Clubs can’t just invite applicants. That would be inducing a player to break their contracts.
That could be punishable by a fine. Or a transfer embargo. Or even possibly a points deduction… depending on how big and rich and powerful a club you are.
So a Champions League club’s punishment for tapping up could be a £5,000 fine (suspended for two years). But you could imagine Boro and the likes being hit with a £1m fine and demotion to the Conference. You wouldn’t bet against it happening. And that isn’t just a mild bout of boronoia.
It wouldn’t matter that the player involved wanted to come. It wouldn’t matter that his current employer wasn’t playing him or was trying to sell him, nor if his relationship with his manager had broken down, that he had been told he was surplus to requirements or that his club had recruited someone else for his role.
Forget employment law and the European Charter on free movement of labour, football still has a medieval model of bonded labour. Alright, the players are not exactly serfs and, at the top, are very well paid. But the legal framework is uniquely archaic.
Legally, the current system probably wouldn’t stand up in court. It is a clear restraint of trade but the long term binding contract system is supported by the (big) clubs as it enables them to hoover up and stockpile talent so it will stand until a brave new crusader like Jean-Marc Bosman comes along to challenge it .
It would probably be better for the game as a whole to have one-year contracts and free movement in the summer.
The big clubs would still get best talent as they could offer higher wages, kudos and a higher level of competition. Smaller clubs would benefit, though, as they would not have to risk everything on a transfer fee arms race.
And players would have more freedom to break away from moves that have gone sour.
For instance, Danny Graham would be free to find a job of his choosing and not have to worry about Sunderland cutting their loses or trying to work him into deal for another player at a club he doesn’t want, a makeweight to be bartered.
Likewise, Kei Kamara could follow his heart shaped hands and return to Kansas. Assuming there was a place in their roster of course.
The current system has several built-in flaws, not least that the buying club has to make a formal approach and which means they are immediately at a marked disadvantage in any ensuing negotiations.
The selling club, even if the player is surplus to requirements, can charge a premium or invite other bids to drive up the price. Or threaten to pull the plug, stall and drag out talks in an attempt to squeeze out a few quid extra, a process which damages the ability of the buying club to coherently planning its recruitment and – if they then look elsewhere – prevent a deal going through that would have suited all parties, not least the player.
That system is economic nonsense when so many clubs are in crisis. It forces prices up year on year, which can’t help any club bar Manchester City and Chelsea.
It also encourages secrecy. If it is known Club A are after a left winger then prospective sellers put the price up. It also prompts rivals mulling over moves for the same targets to join in the jostling.
Club A will naturally try to do their recruitment under the radar. So it encourages clubs to break the rules and creates a furtive culture where clubs make secretive approaches.
But not directly. That would be stupid. That risks sanctions. Instead they are forced to do it through middle-men, mutual friends and former players, fixers and arm’s length agents, a chain of murky contacts with built-in deniability.
And that subterranean system leaves dark shadows in which rogues and chancers can flourish. Unofficial representatives, unauthorised advisors and assorted uncles and brothers are the conduits between players and the clubs who are courting them – and vice versa, often trying to engineer moves away to more lucrative clubs or leagues on spec.
They are the source of so much of the transfer tittle-tattle and internet white noise, trying to drum up business. If they can put people in contact and in agreement they can claim a cut of the fee long before the clubs, player and official agents even get officially involved.
But it also adds layers of complication with much of the spadework being done furtively.
They dodgy buyer can have little to complain about if the agent is working both ends against the middle, using Club A as a stalking horse to arrange a wage package that can then be presented for rivals to better. There is no complaints procedure if you are gazumped while doing a dodgy deal. You can’t appeal to the FA.
Football is riddled with ghost movers and shakers making transfers possible. Even when it is against the footballing interests of the player and possibly both clubs.
So much can go wrong when deals are done in the glare of publicity that clubs are also bound to make all the early moves at an arms length. The reality is that clubs often make initial contact with players through a maze of remote representatives and have the broad outline of a deal in place long before the “selling” club are aware or a bid is made.
It would be far easy all round if they could just advertise the post and see who applied.