Whenever I watched A Question of Sport in the 1980s – with the mighty triumvirate of David Coleman, Emlyn Hughes and Bill Beaumont – my favourite bit was always the ‘mystery guest’ round. It was usually someone like Neville Southall disguised as James Herriot, where the sequence would include:
- occasional flashes of an out-of-focus moustache
- footage of arm length veterinary gloves being rolled on
- a long-shot of Southall/Herriot plunging his arm, elbow deep, into a cow’s anus
- close-up of the cow’s face; its default expression of masticating nonchalance replaced with wide-eyed alarm, as it’s left in no doubt as to how Southall’s paddle-sized hands were able to deflect Mark Falco’s close-range header when Everton played Spurs at White Hart Lane in 1985.
Who would’ve thought that this ‘tease and reveal’ approach would become the blueprint for how every modern day football transfer would play out. (In fact, Arsenal’s social media tease video for Alexandre Lacazette was lifted straight from the QS ‘mystery guest’ playbook.)
This elaborate way of unveiling new players started with Manchester United, when Paul Pogba arrived from Juventus in August 2016 for a then word-record fee of £89.3m. Gone was the traditional pitchside photocall with Pogba holding aloft a scarf in front of a scrum of photographers, and in its place: a multi-faceted social media marketing campaign branded with the #Pogback hashtag.
There were videos of Pogba arriving in the UK by private jet and touring the club’s training complex, and even an online music video released by United’s kit sponsor Adidas that featured Pogba and grime star Stormzy (written as though I know what ‘grime’ actually is). Marketing Week described the video as representing “a fusion of music, sport and lifestyle marketing as it cast Pogba as a hip-hop star, dancing to Stormzy’s rap”. Of course, the antidote to all this marketing bullshit – and an easy way to dismantle slickly packaged content like this – is to imagine the hunched figure of Peter Beardsley trying to carry it off. Or even better: Charlton Athletic’s Derek Hales.
Marketing Week noted that United’s overblown campaign was designed to “build up Pogba as a brand in his own right, thereby increasing the opportunity for endorsements for both player and club”. Because it’s simply not enough to be amazing at football anymore, you’ve also got to have the potential to be the face of the latest cryptocurrency or new brand of worming tablet about to hit the south-east Asian pet care market.
Still, Pogba’s unveiling was a game-changer. And now every football club in the world has to think of innovative ways of unveiling new signings.
Manchester United’s ‘reveal’ of Alexis Sanchez showed him tinkling the ivories, with a plinky-plonk rendition of ‘Glory, Glory Man United’. Behind-the-scenes footage showed that it was actually him playing the piano (he was also filmed playing Richard Marx’s ‘Right Here Waiting’ at the 2014 Arsenal Christmas party – so he can play). But still, it’s how you’d imagine Manchester United would announce the signing of Richard Clayderman or Hinge and Bracket. It also made me rue the fact that United signed Dion Dublin in a time before he and Sir Alex Ferguson could announce the transfer with a performance of ‘Manchester United Calypso’ on the Dube.
Last summer, when Southampton signed Jan Bednarek from Polish club Lech Poznań, the signing ceremony was filmed using a pair of Snapchat Spectacles worn by the player. The innovative stunt supposedly “tapped into the desires of the fans, knowing that being in the shoes of a Premier League footballer is something few of us will ever experience”. But in reality, the glasses enabled fans to sample the deflating experience of turning up to a completely empty conference suite, before being shown into the first team dressing room (empty, obviously) where a club official explained that signing a five-year contract entitled you to a locker. I couldn’t help but feel that a ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ approach – perhaps with first-person footage of Jan blowing his breakfast across a toilet seat due to pre-signing ceremony nerves – might have lifted it somewhat.
Last summer, Everton announced the signing of Málaga forward Sandro Ramírez with a nicely produced 40 second film that took fans from the club’s Finch Farm training ground over to a villa in Spain, where Ramírez was stood alone in a room, motionless, like a Sim character awaiting instructions. Heralded as one of the most exciting young strikers in Spain – and decked out in full Everton kit – he then gave a double thumbs up and a smile to camera to confirm that the transfer was a done deal. However, the postscript to this particular social media reveal is that, after six months of disappointing performances in the Premiership, Ramírez was hastily palmed off to Sevilla on loan, from where he vowed never to return. So what was the point of it all?
This is my problem with football transfers in the age of social media. I don’t want a meticulously planned marketing campaign with videos and hashtags to announce the arrival of a new signing. I don’t give a shit about players growing their personal brands, increasing their follower counts, or becoming formidable ‘social media influencers’; I care about loyalty and whether new signings will play out of their skin each match as if their lives depend on it. I also don’t care about players uploading videos of their latest dabbing routines or Fortnite floss celebrations to Instagram. I would rather they practice defending set pieces or stringing two passes together.
With the summer transfer rumours already circulating, I’ve heard that ‘super agent’ Mino Raiola has offered Paul Pogba to Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, and even Manchester City. If a transfer to the latter takes place after only two seasons back at United, I hope that City’s announcement video is nothing more flashy than Pogba careening down a hill in a bathtub like Compo in Last of the Summer Wine, before smashing through the Etihad Stadium’s turnstyles and eventually coming to rest in front of the world’s media. Dazed and confused, a photographer will then gently hand him a club scarf so they can grab a few shots for the back pages.
Something simple, just like the old days.