camera lens, close upDoes the English Premier League lead the world in Tapping-up?

With the recent speculation that Liverpool will again attempt to secure the services of Virgil van Dijk in January 2018, this article examines how the richest league on the planet deals with the issue of ‘poaching’ players.

What is Tapping-up?

Tapping-up is the process whereby a club persuades, entices or approaches a player (with a view to transferring their registration) who is under contract with another club, without the knowledge or consent of the player’s current club.

Premier League (EPL) Rules

The Premier League rules could not be clearer on this topic. Rule T.7 states:

‘A Contract Player, either by himself or by any Person on his behalf, shall not either directly or indirectly make any such approach as is referred to in Rule T.5 without having obtained the prior written consent of his Club’.

Enforcement of Regulations

England’s top flight regulations focus solely upon players. The Premier League seeks to deter future occurrences with sanctions ranging from a discretionary fine upon any party involved, points deductions, to any other punishment Richard Scudamore’s team deem appropriate.

Then: Chelsea and Cole

Arguably the most notable instance of tapping-up in Premier League history came back in January 2005 when Ashley Cole was spotted meeting with the then Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, Peter Kenyon (Chelsea Chief Executive) and agent Jonathan Barnett at a central London Hotel.

The purpose of this meeting remains unclear however, given that Chelsea were found guilty of a breach of Premier League rule K3 and given a suspended points deduction, Cole and Mourinho were fined £100,000 and £200,000 for respective breaches of Rule K5 and Rule Q; it must be assumed that the meeting was an attempt by the Stamford Bridge outfit to entice the promising left back away from Highbury. The parties’ attempts to appeal against the principle of Premier League’s decision failed (incidentally, the fines were reduced) and Cole’s agent Jonathan Barnett even had his license suspended for 18 months.

Now: Liverpool and Van Dijk

The attempted poaching of Virgil Van Dijk early in the 2017 summer window differs greatly to the Cole incident above. Southampton discovered that Van Dijk (under contract until 2022) was keen to move to Anfield as a result of being inspired by Jürgen Klopp’s future ‘visions’ for the club. Quite how the player was privy to Klopp’s ‘visions’ remains uncertain.

Crucially, in this case Liverpool had not directly approached Van Dijk or his representative and despite Southampton’s formal complaint to the Premier League that Van Dijk should never have been subject to Klopp’s visions, the reds were required only to make a public apology regarding their interest in the centre-back.

What a Strike!

However, the Dutch international desperate to secure his move away from St Mary’s handed in a transfer request and is speculated to have refused to train for Mauricio Pellegrino until early September (after his Liverpool move had fallen through). The consequences of tapping-up ie, a player refusing to honour his contract and not train or play – or ‘strike’ – not only brings the game into disrepute, but it can particularly damage a player’s image and commercial value.

Players today are businesses in their own right and have become increasing accountable under their contracts to their employers.

The wholesale implementation of release clauses in these contracts would undoubtedly address the issue of tapping-up and benefit both the individual and club. Under such a system players would be afforded more control without the requirement to in an attempt to bring about a transfer, and clubs would be provided with the financial certainty of realising a pre-determined sum for their worst away star.

It’s Always Agents!

Former Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp back in August 2009 questioned the rule forbidding a Premier League club approaching a contracted player by claiming that:

“Every club lets a player know they are interested. No transfer happens without an element of tapping-up.”

In practice what typically happens is an intermediary will approach the player’s current employer and inform them he or she would like to leave the club. The club will then give the intermediary a transfer value they require for the player and this will subsequently be relayed to the club interested in signing them.

Clubs in often hectic transfer windows do not waste time pursuing an expensive and time consuming courtship without first knowing that there is a high level of interest from the player. It is very unusual for a manager or club to become directly involved in the earlier stages of a transfer without some indication that the move will happen. Intermediaries are typically in the middle of making transfers happen, continually on the phone to both parties and eventually finalising the deal.

Indirect Set Piece

Tapping-up is also not uncommon between players. Should a rumour appear in the press, the player will indicate he is keen for it to happen and the deal commences. Players are good friends (many having grown up together across various level of the game) and to assume they do not talk is ignoring the obvious. Whilst direct tapping-up hits the headlines more often for the wrong reasons, it is estimated that the majority of transfers in the top tier of English football have an element of indirect influence from the start.

Another consideration is the tapping-up process is the following:

  • Under the age of 24.
  • At the end of his contract (6 months or less).
  • Has been tapped-up to sign on a pre-contract (expiry) basis.

If the above is applicable, then the Professional Football Compensation Committee (PFCC) is required to provide a non-negotiable transfer figure that the acquiring club must pay. However, the criticism of this tribunal method by clubs whose best young talent has been accepted is that irrespective of the transfer value, these players are difficult to replace and contractual obligations (term) should be honoured.

Should the rules be changed to keep up with play?

Modern transfers in the ‘beautiful game’ now often involve huge transfer fees and generate massive commercial incomes for clubs acquiring the biggest names. It has been questioned whether any financial sanction imposed upon a club actually has a real impact given the lucrative commercial revenues that they generate from acquiring the best talent. Clubs can ultimately address this issue by ensuring players enter into long term contracts and accordingly provide themselves with security. Clubs would consequently be in a position to allow players to engage in tapping-up safe in the knowledge that a substantial transfer fee will be on the horizon should they decide to move.

Professional sport needs some system of retaining players, who in turn need the security of employment. It is impossible to stop private conversations along the lines of ‘they would love to sign you’ but Premier League chiefs with an arsenal of the sanctions at their disposal will hopefully continue to ensure that the EPL leads world football on this contentious issue.

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