Harry Redknapp leaning out of a car window, Jim White’s yellow tie, the bizarre resurrection of fax machines. All hallmarks of transfer window mania.
In recent years, a new trope has emerged, and unsurprisingly, it’s on social media. As rumours grow, supporters barrage their club’s official Twitter account with replies of “ANNOUNCE <INSERT PLAYER NAME>” as if to coax the admin into revealing a new player.
Sam Bailey, Reading’s former social media manager, laughs as I mention the trend. It is the laugh of a man who has received many such tweets. “First and foremost I’m a football fan,” he says. “I know what it’s like to be eager to see a new signing announced. You do just have to blank it out.”
“Personally, I tried not to look too much at the replies during the transfer window if I could help it”, recalls Henry Valantine, who was part of the club’s communications team for three years before leaving in April 2020. “Especially with every post being bombarded with replies of ‘ANNOUNCE’, it can get a tad boring pretty quickly. But equally, some replies on other posts are really funny and I do enjoy reading what people have to say sometimes.”
As explained by the club’s former marketing and communications executive Tim Atkins, those receiving the replies are just as uninformed as those sending them.
“Unfortunately the guy running the Twitter account doesn’t have the manager’s ear when it comes to new signings!” he says. “Whilst a football club is ultimately a pretty small world, normally we were just waiting to hear from the club secretary as to any new arrivals.
“We would see the same rumours as the fans but most people in the club were kept in the dark. Sometimes we would get a little hint that we might have someone incoming but they were very tight on preventing leaks. Any rumours you hear normally come from dodgy agents or just journos trying to generate clickbait!”
It’s also relatively unknown to supporters just how long the whole transfer process takes. The communications team may have everything ready to go, but must wait for word from above to make the news public.
“There’s always a frustration from fans when a signing takes a while to announce,” Bailey says. “But having worked at two football clubs and now for a football management agency, you realise why it does take so long because so much happens.”
Valantine learned the same lesson: “As a football fan, you hear the phrase ‘they’re undergoing a medical’ quite a bit in the transfer window but I never realised before working in football that medicals take hours! There are a lot of tests that are run to make sure players are fit to sign.”
But when a player finally does put pen to paper, it’s all systems go. Valantine describes the process: “It’s a big team effort from a comms point of view when you meet the new player, get an interview and photos done, get a press release sorted and put social media posts together all before announcing.
“I loved the excitement of knowing what was about to go out and then seeing people’s reactions in real time as we announced the signings – even more so when it’s later in a transfer window and it’s all anyone online is talking about.”
“Just seeing the reactions and excitement on social was great,” echoes Atkins. “There was always a good vibe whilst signing the contract and filming interviews because the deal was done and even if it was 10:30pm after a long day everyone would be in a good mood.”
“It’s absolutely crazy and so unpredictable,” Bailey says. “Traditionally we work 9am to 5:30pm in the week, but a player could be signing late at night and we’d be in the office until midnight. But it doesn’t feel like work because it’s so exciting. Other than a matchday, the best days are when signings get done.”
Atkins was the man behind the infamous Carabao cans teaser videos that would precede the announcement of new signings when the energy drink company was the club’s principal sponsor. They ranged from the clever - tipping cans out of a wheelbarrow to signify Mo Barrow’s arrival - to the crazy - Chris Martin’s arrival was teased with seven cans on the roof of the Madejski Stadium. Atkins recalls how the idea originated:
“I was always keeping an eye on what the fans were saying across social. On the back of a few comments joking how there weren’t enough cans to announce Tiago Ilori I decided to film a quick shot tipping a crate of cans onto the table published ten minutes before we officially announced him. The engagement on social was through the roof and we just kept having fun with them.
“Other fans and professionals in the industry didn’t quite understand as it appeared to be such forced sponsorship but it was really just us listening and engaging with the fans – almost like a joke that only Reading fans were in on. I thought I could retire after seeing one fan announce the birth of his firstborn with a Carabao teaser. I can only imagine what his wife would have said!”
The long days are not restricted to the transfer window though. The hectic nature of the Championship, which can often gift teams midweek away games over 200 miles away, leads to a job that never stops.
“To work there you needed to be completely dedicated to the club as it was very different to a traditional nine-to-five job”, Atkins says. “Tuesday night away at Middlesbrough would mean being back home by 4 or 5am and then going straight into work the next morning as normal. I work in sponsorship now and don’t envy the comms guys doing those away days all season long!”
“As part of the job, you spend a lot of time on the road,” Valantine explains. “Travelling to away matches alongside under-23 home matches as well can make for some pretty long days and nights on the motorway. You do gain a pretty solid knowledge of England’s service stations through it all though!”
For a communications and marketing department that is one of the smallest in the division, it is not an easy workload. Two or three individuals carry out multiple duties that often have their own respective departments at other clubs.
“I came from Derby County and they take 11 or 12 media members to cover their games,” Bailey says. “When I was there I had so much at my disposal, such as a graphic design team and marketing team. At Reading, it was more do it yourself. We had limited resources and a limited budget, but we worked really hard together and put a lot of hours in to make the most of situations.”
Valantine emphasises a similar story: “I can remember Swansea pretty much bringing a whole starting 11 of media to a game once. Our experience was always about making the most of the resources we had and trying to do as much as we could without exhausting ourselves in the process.”
Being part of the communications team also means working closely with the players and management staff. Atkins, Valantine and Bailey are all quick to emphasise how down to earth and friendly the Reading squad were during their respective spells at the club.
“Liam Moore stands out, he’s a great character and really approachable,” Bailey says. “Emi Martinez was first class too when he was on loan. You’d expect it from where he’s come from, but John O’Shea was unbelievable. He’ll go on and be a manager one day for sure. There’s definitely a player characteristic that Reading go for when they’re looking for new signings and that’s that they’re good people above all else.”
“I had a few players who I could always rely on,” Atkins remembers. “George Evans, Jo Mendes, Garath McCleary, Liam Moore and quite a few others! Anytime you had G and Gunts together you’d always get some entertaining content!
“If I had to call out one single player it would be G. He was always up for anything, so funny and actually really switched on with the ideology of sports marketing and sponsorship. One memorable moment was when he started trying to create his own Carabao teaser! I’m still in touch with George, Jo and G and it’s nice to have built a relationship beyond football.”
For Valantine, it was Jaap Stam who made him feel at ease at the club straight away: “I joined the club a few days before a pre-season trip to Holland. It was a baptism of fire for me in terms of meeting people and trying to get to grips with everything, but everyone was extremely welcoming and it was a great experience to jump straight in before the season.
“There was one evening where the players went out for a team meal and several of the staff went for their own evening as well, but that left me, my media colleague, one of the coaches and Jaap having dinner together.
“Having just left York City, who had unfortunately been relegated to the National League North at that point, to then being sat having dinner with a genuine legend of the game a couple of weeks later was mind-blowing to me. He made sure we were all looked after and he took a genuine interest in asking about me and my life. I can’t speak more highly of the man. He was fantastic to work with.”
But things don’t always go so smoothly, as Atkins explains: “I set up a stadium tour for one young fan which was meant to culminate in a surprise meeting with one of his favourite players who would then play FIFA with him. The player in question bailed about half an hour before the fan was supposed to arrive. I then called Jo Mendes who got to the stadium within 10 minutes. Absolute legend.”
While a game plan is important on the pitch, a social media strategy is just as vital off it. After all, in the modern era, a club’s public-facing profile comes from their online presence.
“Sometimes at other clubs, social media can be an afterthought,” Bailey suggests. “But I’ve always been all about putting social content first. You can have such an impact on the next generation of Reading fans so it’s critical that it takes priority.
“When I first joined the club, I took about a month to just sit back and look at the replies and mentions to see how fans reacted to certain things. I wanted to understand more about Reading as a town and the culture of the club.”
When Atkins took up his role in January 2016, Reading were struggling at the bottom of the Championship, before challenging for promotion the following season. He explains how the approach to content changes based on how well the team are doing:
“Throughout the 2016-17 season I was able to publish content like a penalty shootout using a car to ‘kick’ the ball or taking a couple of players around the ZedEvents zombie experience. That style of content helps humanise the players and present them as normal people rather than a blue and white shirt running around at the Mad Stad or on FIFA and I think it’s important to break down that perceived barrier.
“However we’d never be able to share that type of content if we were playing badly and results weren’t going our way. We’d be inundated with comments asking why the players aren’t training or why they aren’t focused on football. It’s a tricky balance trying to maintain positive engaging content when the team are struggling on the pitch.”
“It was a case of cutting down the number of posts when we lost and letting the message from the manager sit,” Bailey says. “When we won, you want to maximise the value of the game’s key moments, but it’s important not to over post. I feel like over time we struck the right tone.”
In terms of being given direction from those in more senior positions, Bailey stresses that it “wasn’t a dictatorship”, but that there was often a line that had to be followed: “I joined under Ron Gourlay and everyone was left to do their job, but if it wasn’t necessarily in keeping with what they were looking for, you heard about it. Nigel Howe was more relaxed and trusting in what we were doing because he knew it had been successful in the past.”
Meanwhile, Atkins adds some context to what’s been happening at the Madejski Stadium in the last couple of weeks: “Decisions tend to be made from higher up the chain and sometimes the people who really do know best are simply overruled. For example the recent situation with Mark Bowen and Nigel Howe. I’m sure there will have been more to that internally and whilst the comms team might have been recommending a more open communication with the fans I think they will have been overruled from higher up.”
It’s clear through speaking to each of Atkins, Valantine and Bailey that before anything else they are football fans. Ultimately that is why they were so successful in their roles at the Madejski Stadium - because they knew the game and knew what supporters were interested in; they always had the best interests of Reading at the heart of their work. That’s something which should be replicated in all areas of the football club.