At table 52, just as the announcer warns the countdown timer has dipped under the two-minute mark, the conversation intensifies.
After exchanging pleasantries and enquiring as to how each other’s seasons are going, the gambit from German Bundesliga Club X is to ask English Premier League Club Y how much transfer business they are expecting to do this summer. “Are there any players we have that you like?” he adds.
The two English officials glance at each other. “Just about everyone,” they say, laughing.
They then detail the positions they need to fill and the different scenarios which could lengthen their shopping list before discussing two of the players they are tracking in a bid to gain insight into their characters.
They speak about a recent signing they beat the German club to, but it is largely still an informal chat — until the Bundesliga side’s head of recruitment shows his hand.
“We really like him. Every time I watch him I think he’s a great player, but why hasn’t he reached that next level yet?”
The English officials explain his contract situation and the obstacles he has faced, but the German club want to ascertain whether they will be priced out by English competitors if they try for him in the summer.
“If he doesn’t extend and we are accepting bids, then you should be there at the table in the summer,” is the answer.
Both parties shake hands and check their phones to see what table they are due at next. This is what is known as — in TransferRoom speak — ‘planting the seed’.
TransferRoom is football’s online marketplace, where 650 clubs from across the globe can buy, sell and advertise players directly and transparently.
The people behind TransferRoom say they facilitated their 3,000th deal in the January window, having launched six years ago. Twice a year, they also host these in-person summits which allow members to meet face-to-face and this edition, held at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge, has brought over 235 clubs and 45 agents together in the same room.
Rocco Tedesco — aka Employee Number One — remembers the first TransferRoom event in 2017.
Keen to get their nascent concept off the ground, they hosted it the day after, and adjacent to, the annual Wyscout forum at the same west London stadium in a bid to secure the highest level of footfall.
TransferRoom had just over a dozen tables for those privately invited by founder Jonas Ankersen — brother of Southampton director of football Rasmus — but the clubs did not get to choose who they spoke to. That was decided by manually pairing people on a spreadsheet.
If that was blind dating on a small scale, fast forward six years and it has snowballed into speed dating on an industrial scale.
This time there were 135 tables and three floors used: one for the European Club Association’s rather fraught Q&A on forthcoming agent regulation, one for the meetings and one for lunch and networking over drinks.
The Athletic spoke to 40 clubs and agents at the event and was able to shadow six meetings to discover what really goes on at TransferRoom — the centre of the footballing universe for 48 hours.
It is 11:30am on Tuesday and the trading room, fitted with a bright green carpet not far off the length of a football pitch, is bustling with activity.
Row after row of black-clothed tables are laid out with numbers on them, and two big screens on the wall denote how long remains of the 15-minute timeslots.
The attendees were able to access TransferRoom’s portal before the event, scour the list of those attending and request meetings. The recipients then either accepted or rejected as they booked up their 33 slots, making it very much like football Tinder.
There is even a bell that rings to signal when they are into their final minute of a meeting before a new breed of business card does the rounds — not exchanged but scanned. It can bring an awkward end to the ‘date’ if the phone can’t read the QR code.
Who is being swiped right the most? Well, if you have your ear to the ground, it is clear a lot of clubs are looking to get ahead of the pack when it comes to signings from Premier League 2 (the top division of academy football) — particularly from the top six.
It is why, at table 80, a top-six club’s loan manager arrives with several pages of his academy players’ details printed out on a document. Faces, ages and details are laid out but the Championship team opposite have a list of ones they have identified as being targets for next season, selling their club’s style of play and previous success as a reason why they would be a good fit to take them.
Swansea City’s academy director Andy Goldie is doing the same job with EFL clubs keen to borrow his club’s young talents, and he has created his own literature. He pulls up an XI of Swansea players who are available permanently in the summer, denoted in white, and those available for loan, denoted in blue. For those players that League One and League Two clubs identify as being of interest, he has another graphic containing their metrics and coaching references.
“I use TransferRoom predominantly for exit strategy and loans,” Goldie tells The Athletic.
“It provides us with a really good foundation of initial information, where we can then be more targeted in what clubs we evaluate as possible options for our players. If this didn’t exist, that process could take a lot of time and money; whereas we can move straight onto looking at playing styles, culture, coach profile, and it becomes less needle in a haystack.”
Some see TransferRoom as predominantly a seller’s market. Gothenburg club IFK are in the Allsvenskan (Sweden’s top division) and their chief financial officer Marcus Hermansson does not shy away from the fact that his trip to London is to seek out which other markets can afford his squad’s top talents.
“Our whole budget for the year is around €15million (£13.2m; $16.1m), so our business model relies on producing young players and selling them to Europe, but I don’t know the exact finances of some of the big clubs in medium-sized leagues,” he says. “This is why it’s so useful to explore that.”
He meets Austrian side Rapid Vienna’s head of scouting Matthias Ringler at table 13. It is more of a fact-finding meeting and, after comparing budgets and the number of players they have to sell each year, along with a digression into how IFK are looking at Rapid’s new stadium design as inspiration, notes are taken on a couple of players with a profile different to what is produced in Austria.
Amiens, from France’s second tier, are in the same boat and they have an impressive track record of selling players for big money, including Tanguy Ndombele, who is now on loan at Serie A champions-in-waiting Napoli from Tottenham Hotspur. They have sold six players via TransferRoom in the past three years and their English sporting director John Williams has confidence the number will have increased by two after the latest summit.
Williams, who was informed at the summit by a counterpart that he is now the longest-serving sporting director in French football having been at Amiens for eight years, had a different tactic to the more proactive sellers.
“I never sent out one request for a meeting,” he tells The Athletic. “Teams know Amiens are a selling club and we aren’t under pressure to win so we don’t ask for unrealistic fees, so I want to see which clubs really want my players by letting them come to me.”
Talk about playing hard to get — but Williams had a full schedule, with English and German sides keen to pick his brains and gauge the values of some of his top talents at his club in north-east France between Paris and the Channel coast.
Will any of these 15-minute meetings grow into a concrete transfer come the summer? That is the great unknown but the opportunity to make these connections and start the ball rolling on potential deals is why so many have travelled to Stamford Bridge.
It is now a mainstream part of football business. Clubs pay a yearly subscription of between £10,000 and £60,000, depending on whether they take the regular package or the VIP one. This allows them to access an online platform where they can make their own players available for transfer, create adverts with specific criteria and pitch to clubs.
In January, the platform brokered three eight-figure deals — Brazilian midfielder Evander’s move from Danish club Midtjylland to Portland Timbers of MLS ($10m), Antoine Semenyo’s move from Bristol City in the English Championship to Premier League Bournemouth (£10.5m) and Carlos Alcaraz’s move from Racing Club in Buenos Aires, Argentina to Southampton of the Premier League (£12.1m) — highlighting how the perception of this being a vehicle for mainly smaller clubs no longer holds weight.
For those working at clubs belonging to an umbrella ownership group, the summit represents ripe pickings.
The 777 Group and the Orlegi Group have sizeable presences but when it is suggested to Genoa’s head of scouting Anthony Loviso that he will be swapping hats between Genoa and sister clubs Standard Liege, Vasco Da Gama, Sevilla and Melbourne Victory, it raises a wry smile.
Over at table 41, New York Red Bulls chief scout Sebastian Hausl — part of the Red Bull group which includes RB Leipzig, Brazil’s RB Bragantino and previously Red Bull Salzburg, until European competition rules forced them to make changes at the German and Austrian clubs to prove there was separation — meets Cercle Bruges sporting director Carlos Avina.
Belgian club Cercle were bought by Russian billionaire and Monaco owner Dmitry Rybolovlev in 2017, so Hausl and Avina have a shared understanding of the multi-club model.
Then it is into the serious stuff, discussing how their individual clubs operate and how centralised the scouting and sharing of data is. They discuss how the MLS side bought Dante Vanzeir from Royale Union Saint-Gilloise (USG) last month and how Cercle had looked at him while now-top-flight USG were in Belgium’s second division but baulked at the price.
It becomes clear they have found there is a good synergy between the clubs, particularly when they discuss their high-pressing style and how they believe they recruit players who are physically made to play in the Premier League one day.
Avina tells Hausl that their physical output metrics underpin everything they do and that they have achieved their ambition of Cercle becoming number one in Europe for high-intensity sprints, while Hausl asks for feedback on the perception of the league and the US market.
There is a particular interest in Major League Soccer at the summit, as it is a league that buys from all over and can spend big on designated players outside of its salary-cap rules. It is also increasingly being respected as a source of top talent.
San Jose Earthquakes head of scouting and player recruitment Bruno Costa — who embraces his tag as the “busiest man on LinkedIn” — is also on the charm offensive when it comes to selling MLS as a trading option.
The Brazilian previously spent a decade working for his home country’s federation so he has a rule that he only meets people at TransferRoom he does not know, in order to grow his network. High on the agenda of this year’s summit were what are considered newer European markets, where available players tend to be priced within the MLS salary cap.
At table one, a meeting between a Scottish club and an agent who works a lot in eastern Europe involves a catch-up on a player they had discussed by phone six months ago but whose price has since skyrocketed. It has focused the club’s intent on capturing these talents earlier in their development and they have come along today with the names of two players they like from a league the agent knows well.
The Scots are able to get a sense of the politics at the other club involved and the likely fee needed, which they decide is a must-do deal should he turn out to be available for that sum at the end of the season. The agent is able to offer a centre-back he thinks suits Scottish football and highlights the fact Scotland is an attractive market for agents due to its league having a low barrier to entry when it comes to Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) qualification compared to downstairs neighbour England.
At table six, just 45 minutes later, a meeting between a Dutch club and a small European agency takes a surprise turn.
The head of recruitment is clear he is revamping the squad and is looking for five specific profiles to change the style of play, including a ‘bull’ in midfield. The agent has already handed over a brochure containing a double-page write-up for every player. It would not look out of place in a high-end estate agency, but his reply to whether any of his players fit the bill is not in keeping with expectations.
“In four of the positions, I don’t have a player for you; and for the attacking midfield role, he isn’t ready for that step yet. So I don’t want to say we do have a player for you when we don’t,” the agent says. “The thing I never want to happen is for me to call you and you look at the phone and think, ‘Ah, here he is offering me another shit player’.”
The recruitment head shows his gratitude for such honesty.
Agents feature prominently at this summit now, but they were not part of the platform at the start in 2017.
“The venues are hotels or public places, so it’s not uncommon to have outside agents waiting around,” says TransferRoom’s head of commercial Frederik Broholt. “There is nothing we can do about that, but to have direct access to the decision-makers you need to be a member and that is the value proposition.
“The intention of TransferRoom was never to make it unavailable to agents: it was to provide real-time market data to customers and that they connect with the right decision-makers.
“The people here will typically receive several calls every day from someone saying they represent a player when they don’t. On TransferRoom, if an agent is on the portal then we know for sure that you are who you say you are.”
There are virtual meetings held too but the company is adding a third summit per year, to be held in South America, to help members who find it difficult to travel to Europe.
With 650 clubs signed up out of the 4,000 professional ones around the world and 250 agencies from a global pool of between 10,000 and 12,000, Broholt believes there is scope for it to grow further. The average price of deals agreed via TransferRoom has shot up from €1million four windows ago, to €3m this January.
“Some of our customers who used to go to the Wyscout forums say the experience they get here is a lot more club-to-club whereas it is heavily agency-based there,” Broholt says.
“We want to maintain a good balance between supply and demand, so we typically have 90 per cent clubs and the rest agencies. The experience at the tables is more intimate and you can’t find that anywhere else.
“Some of the clubs have travelled 10,000km to be here, but they’ve had 25 in-person meetings. They would have had to travel around the world for three weeks to achieve that.
“The last summit we had, in Berlin, was very good leading into the winter. This one is good for the summer, as from mid-April we see a big spike in the activity on the platform. In three or four months, we will be able to trace a lot of deals back to here, so if you want to kickstart your window, then you want to be here.”
(Top photo: TransferRoom)