Over the years, the act of actually watching football has not always been the most important part of being a football fan. Camaraderie, a sense of community and belonging, simply having something to care about—these are all important elements of following this game of ours.
Something else has become more and more distracting in recent years, and that's the increasingly scurrilous web of the transfer market.
It's an obsession that is fuelled partly by an inherent love of gossip and the way transfer news has become a packaged part of the game by the media. It's become bigger than the game, in the eyes of some.
Before the second leg of Tottenham's Europa League tie against Dinamo Tbilisi last week, Sky Sports News cut to their reporter to bring the viewers the team news, which the reporter did in a sort of distracted fashion, before noting:
"Of more interest to fans what happens on the pitch is what happens off it."
He was, of course, referring to three pending uber-transfers, with Spurs fans not quite believing that they were about to recruit the likes of Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen. All of which is very exciting for sure, and after they had won the first leg 5-0, the second was something of an afterthought, but it was a naked recognition by the media that they view this transfer tittle-tattle as more important than the actual sport.
Sky, of course, produce this hype for a very good reason, because it provides them with ready content for those dark times when there isn't actually any football to show.
Transfer deadline day, which is basically a slightly more high-profile piece of office admin, has become a landmark event, something to promote and note down in your viewing calendar. Hell, it's even something they actively instruct their "talent" to promote, like an actor might promote a film.
"Lots of people take the day off work to stay tuned and there have been calls for a deadline day to be a bank holiday!" Sky Sports News presenter Natalie Sawyer told Metro last week—and Sawyer is the more restrained half of the Sky deadline day team, with Jim White of course providing the noise and rabble-rousing. The presenters themselves have become "stars," or at least characters, with Sky showing footage of White arriving for work, much as they do for players rolling up for a match. Sawyer and White even coordinate outfits, reinforcing the impression that this is show business.
We've come to expect this from Sky, of course, and it's difficult to argue with their coverage because it's extremely successful, but even the BBC were at it on Monday—in place of regularly scheduled programming there was a deadline day Football Focus special with Dan Walker, wrapping up the frenzied hype of the day.
Websites do it as well, of course. For most, user figures are higher when there isn't any football around—people need their fix for when the actual sport isn't around. It speaks to how all-consuming football has become that even the business of men swapping one place of work for another has become so fascinating.
It's also part of the 24-hour news syndrome—TV channels have time to fill, so they will do almost anything to fill it. They sensed an interest in an area of the game, built it up and hyped it as they did with actual games, and it's now a commodity, a genuine part of how football is covered.
And here's the most impressive thing about those who have sold transfer deadline day as a spectacle—for large parts of it, nothing happens.
The "entertainment" involves watching a collection of reporters stand outside football clubs, peering forlornly into a camera. It's a mixture of vague brinksmanship, ill-informed speculation, haggling and lies, the majority of which comes to nothing. A day of hope, very often not fulfilled.
This year, Manchester United fans found themselves whipped into a frenzy, only to end the day with just Marouane Fellaini, a man they could easily have signed three months earlier for about £4 million less.
"I can understand that it's very interesting for people to read [transfers] ... But the only thing if you really love football is what happens on the pitch," said Arsene Wenger last week, via Jonathan Liew of the Telegraph.
Wenger may have been trying to distract attention from an Arsenal transfer window that was at the time floundering, but he's right. Arsene knows.