There are generally five stages to a failed high-profile football transfer, those signings that are so grandly dysfunctional they become a kind of theatre in themselves, disaster-content, almost perversely, a success.
Finding the most rewarding ways to describe Romelu Lukaku’s return to Chelsea, essentiality a Belgian man walking around looking bemused while other people play football nearby, has provided more heat, light and work hours than a bog-standard success story. To the extent Lukaku himself seems somehow elevated by it, imbued with another layer of celebrity grace.
Those five stages are probably best defined as: excitement, denial, blame, grief and finally acceptance. Early signs of failure furiously denied. Scapegoats will be hoist, post-truth statistics used to suggest that this is in fact all a great success. Finally, as the cycle moves on and other causes become more urgent, we enter the world of parody and meme, an iconography of acceptance, a kind of shared healing via double-Spider-man, winking Ronaldo, Mourinho taking off his headphones.
The most striking part of Anthony Gordon’s proposed transfer to Chelsea is how quickly – despite not existing – it has already progressed to this final stage. Gordon to Chelsea for £60m: this probably won’t happen. But already mocking Anthony Gordon, laughing hysterically at his disastrous gambit, circulating clips of his failures, his paltry tally of deflected goals has become a kind of online happening.
The American novelist Don DeLillo has a character in one of his books who has a network of CCTV security cameras, and who starts realising that the sequencing is wrong, that things are happening on the screen before they happen in real life. This is how the Gordon transfer disaster feels. Do we actually need the football here? Do we need the long-form version, Gordon on the bench looking cold in a beanie hat, a much-mocked missed open goal, the Newcastle rumours? At what stage will content, eyeballs, reaction become all that matter? Can we save time by simulating all this using AI, or at the very least reducing it to a high-production musical montage?
And yet, of course, it does matter. Or at least, this one feels like it does. Gordon to Chelsea for £60m is such an extreme concept it is already causing harm simply by not happening. This is a nonexistent transfer that seems to capture so much that is transgressive about this industry, from the stupid money of English football, to the dislocation of how clubs should work, to the violent things football wants to do to the young people in its grip.
The first thing to say is that it may work out. Gordon is a late bloomer. He has a way of turning quickly with the ball, beating the press while scanning all the moving parts around him, that analysts at clubs such as Chelsea prize very highly. Also, it is only really the fee that makes this absurd. He shares an agent with Reece James. Chelsea need to manage their homegrown squad numbers. Why not?
But it is still nuts on a basic football level. Chelsea already have seven players in Gordon’s inside-forward position, all of whom are probably better at it. Chelsea no longer have an endless bank-of-dad loan fund. The fee being suggested for Gordon would be the third-biggest transfer in Bundesliga history, the eighth-biggest fee in Real Madrid’s history. Todd Boehly’s reputation is built on aggressive deal-making. Todd Boehly looks like he invented an electric car in the 1980s. But Todd Boehly is also a maverick billionaire and you’re not. Perhaps this signing is simply making a statement. The problem is that statement appears to be: I don’t know what I’m doing.
Does any of this matter? Inflated transfer fees are an everyday occurrence. But the thing about this one is its layers, the way the more you peel it, the more it stinks. History suggests this will be not be good for Gordon. For a player in a development stage he is in exactly the right place. He will play and improve. Moving to Chelsea will threaten this. This is how the story goes. Fine young players miss the chance to reach their ultimate ceiling. Fortunes are made. But the game as a whole is poorer for the talent-stockpiling model. Anthony Gordon at Everton playing every week, with desperation in his scurrying legs: this is a kind of poetry, the spectacle as it should be. Money will no longer allow it.
It is also bad for Everton. There is an idea this money might be “invested”, but far greater sums have already gurgled away down the waste disposal unit. Even if Gordon stays, Everton will have had five league matches with this noise buzzing around their best young player. And in the end the real question Gordon to Chelsea raises is the most basic one: what is the point these days of Everton football club? Is it to compete, to strive through smart moves and homegrown talent to match the top tier? Or simply to service those entities, to exist as a backdrop?
The top clubs have literally introduced this concept into the business plan for reform of the Champions League, the idea signings will come only from the lower orders, the pathway clubs. Yes, we will take what you have. But remember to leave by the side entrance.
At some point this will start to look unavoidably grotesque. Premier League clubs have already broken their own record for summer spending, are still out there operating with no controls, hiding as ever behind “the market”. And in the end this is real money, or it is now: your TV subscription, your ticket price, money that might help keep the lights on or put food in the fridge this winter. Gordon to Chelsea for £60m. This probably won’t happen. But there is an end point to all things, a state beyond simply acceptance, distraction, a weary shrug. It can’t be that far off.