Take away the action on the pitch and it is the most frenzied public spectacle in football.

And yet, so much of the transfer window remains shrouded in mystery, its inner workings and industry secrets further adding to the mystique. Only during these fraught weeks and months can an individual unbeknownst to an entire fanbase suddenly become an obsession with as little as one social media post.

Clubs fine-tune their business operations on ‘player trading models’ and ‘finding value in the market’. In football media, transfers are invaluable in generating web traffic, selling papers and driving online engagement; the appetite for it among supporters increasingly relentless. Incomprehensible sums of money lose all meaning in the frenzy of gossip, and it even has its own language. Clubs ‘register interest’, they ‘monitor situations’, players ‘jet in’, deals ‘collapse’ – all of this over and over every day, a world of its own within the already gargantuan football universe.

As this juggernaut rolls on and on, it’s so easy to forget there are living, breathing humans at the heart of it, with an entire life outside of where they might end up playing their football next. Footballers are the lifeblood of the transfer machine, but little attention is paid to what it actually means for them as they transition from one club to another.

It may seem a ridiculous notion, but there’s a not-insignificant chance the next time the machine spits out a rumour about your favourite player, you’ll know about it before they do.

“There’s times you’ll see rumours about yourself, and just think, ‘where’s that come from?!’” says Steven Whittaker. “I remember one January at Hibs there was a rumour that Everton were coming up to watch me. People were saying they thinking about a bid. You just hear about things here and there, and wonder if it’s just paper talk.

“In football, things can grow arms and legs going from one person to the next. And it ended up that nothing happened there, so it’s a distraction that you just have to ignore.”

An age-old by-product of being a young player making a name for yourself in the game is that name inevitably finds its way into headlines. Of course, it’s preferable to see it there for football reasons than some embarrassing off-pitch misdemeanour, but it can still be daunting. In Scotland, especially in days gone by, the brightest young prospects outside of Glasgow would frequently find themselves thrown in the mix for a move down the M8.

Kevin Thomson knows all about that, a young man thrust into the limelight as both Celtic and Rangers came calling for his services in 2007. Endless words have already been committed to print on that particular saga and its eventual outcome, but beneath the smoke and mirrors and back-page speculation, there was a 22-year-old for whom a colossal life decision was feverishly debated in the court of public opinion, leaving him weighed down by the knowledge that whatever he did next was going to upset someone. What goes through the mind of someone brought up in the bubble of his boyhood club when he becomes a national news story?

Money? It’d be naïve to say otherwise. Ambition? Of course.

Worrying about the fact you don’t even have a driving licence to travel with? Well, actually, yes.

“First and foremost, every player wants to be liked, don’t they?” says Thomson. “It’s human to want to be a fans' favourite, and to make decisions that make everyone happy – but it’s impossible. I was brought up a Hibee, my boys are in the academy, and we’re season ticket holders, but I played for another club in Scotland that treated me really well.

“The emotional part for the players is difficult. Some players care, some don’t. For me, I had never known any different than Hibs since being a 16-year-old kid. We didn’t have East Mains, the main stand was portacabins while there were renovations going on, and my upbringing was jumping in cars and being with my pals to go to training.

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“Youth players and the first team were always together at Hibs at that time, so to take that leap to a different club, with different players and manager… I couldn’t even drive back then. All these things are going through your head, and it makes it so much more complex than people think.

“The perception can be that players will always move for more money, but there’s so much more to it. When players get older, there are schools to think about for the kids, your house, and travel arrangements. All these things come into players’ thoughts.”

It’s not uncommon to hear a player bat away questions on their future with some variation of ‘my agent deals with that’, which is often the truth. But having a representative to negotiate on your behalf doesn’t entirely quell uncertainty, and pleading ignorance over a mooted move is not always the smokescreen it’s perceived to be.

“You can definitely be in the dark at times,” says Whittaker. “When people are dealing with the negotiations you might hear, ‘I’ll get back to you with something by the end of the day’ – but no phone call comes, and you’re left without any information.

“Then you’ve got to reset and start all over again the next day. But that’s just part of the negotiations – both clubs want to get the best deal and it takes time, there are always bumps in the road.

“That’s probably the most unsettling part; when you think it’s happening but not as quickly as you’d like, because at times it’s not nice for the club and other players when you’re still going in and training, but they know in a few weeks’ time you’re not going to be there.”

Agents, too, can be a source of angst if you don’t have the right one. Clubs would probably rather not deal with them at all and, at the elite level, at least, the era of the agent as some sort of celebrity figure cutting a generous slice of the pie for themselves fuels suspicion around the profession.

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“I wasn’t one to change agents,” says Whittaker. “I only had three in 20 years. I left them to get on with their work. It can be difficult because there can be agents who are in it for themselves, and you’ve got to get the right balance, because, yes, they need to get paid but you need someone who will look after you as a player.

“You hear stories about people being taken advantage of, so you have to watch. The trust factor is everything, and you need your contract with your agent to be what you want it.”

It’s probably less commonplace now, but Thomson essentially became his own agent post-Rangers. The Ibrox club’s spiral towards liquidation pushed the midfielder towards a departure he wasn’t sure he even wanted, perhaps less so when his emerging options dictated he would likely be forced to up sticks and leave home.

The former Hibee eventually signed for Middlesbrough, where his skills as an amateur negotiator were put to the test in some decidedly awkward circumstances. A self-confessed ‘home boy’, there was trepidation around departing Scotland, perhaps fuelled by a miserable spell at Coventry City as a teenager.

“I was older and more mature when I went to Middlesbrough,” recalls Thomson. “But even then I was thinking that them, Newcastle and Sunderland were probably the only three clubs in England where I could still commute from home. All these wee things were on my mind at the time.

“I was playing at Rangers and earning good money, won trophies, played internationally, but I ended up with only a year left on my deal, and the reason I think was the stuff going on behind the scenes that I didn’t really know about.

“Middlesbrough offered me a four-year deal that was going to set me up for life. But my son was born in the March, and my wife wasn’t that keen on going. She was very close with her mum, we’d just had a newborn baby, then suddenly you’re looking at upping sticks and having to find a new family home to get settled in.

“Football players aren’t just robots who follow the money. Money gives you options and security, but it doesn’t buy happiness. It’s nice to give your family a good upbringing but these are still huge life decisions.

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“Once I signed for Rangers I parted company with my agent, so I did my Middlesbrough deal myself, I did the exit package myself. It was the same at Dundee, I did the deal and termination myself.

“When I came back to Hibs, I signed for free, so clearly I wasn’t a very good negotiator with Mr Petrie!

“I wasn’t sure about Middlesbrough, but at the time Gordon Strachan happened to be up in Edinburgh with his wife to see Rod Stewart. I met him at the Balmoral and we sat with a coffee to negotiate the deal.

“When I then went down the road, I did my medical and had agreed to join. But when I sat down to sign, which was the most nerve-wracking bit, the deal on the table was less than what I’d been offered by a few grand a week.

“I remember being in the office with the chief executive Keith Lamb, his secretary, my wife, and suddenly the goalposts had moved. It was so awkward for my wife having to be there while I’m in standing in front of a chief executive, Gordon Strachan, and a woman I’d never met before, telling them, ‘I’m not signing’.

“They were basically like: ‘Well, you’re not going to not sign, surely?’ The deal was still worth quite a lot of money, but I wasn’t that hellbent on signing. It became a bit of a stalemate.

“Eventually, Gordon said: ‘Take it off my wages and give him it’.

“People might call it ‘brass neck’ or ‘arrogance’, but it wasn’t so much about the money, it was the principle. If you negotiate a deal for X amount, then all of a sudden, the contract is in front of you and it’s Y, you need to stand up for yourself.

“I had a young family and was still undecided, and I know I was in a privileged position. You’re standing there under the impression that the club think you’re a good player, so you’d hope that all these things are above board.

“I was the only person in the office standing because there weren’t enough chairs, and I found myself standing with my hands on my wife’s shoulders, and she’ll tell you it was probably the most awkward situation to be in, she absolutely hated it! 

“It wasn’t an argument, but I was maybe a wee bit sweaty under the collar. These things will happen a lot, maybe a player will have the goalposts moved on a signing-on fee. Clubs can try and pull a wee fast one on the chance that a player won’t dig their heels in over it.”

Stress in adjusting to pastures new often does not end when the pen hits the dotted line, either. Settling into unfamiliar surroundings presents pitfalls, the worst of which are often outwith a player’s control. Whittaker found that out the hard when he too moved south, to Norwich City in 2012, rolling his ankle in a pre-season friendly at Celtic Park to find himself dumped onto the sidelines a long way from home.

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“I ended up missing a few months just after after joining,” Whittaker says. “That was so frustrating because having done pre-season I was in a really good place. My wife was seven months pregnant at the time with our first kid. My life turned upside down in a way, my wife had to change all her medical stuff down to Norwich, for example.

“On the plus side, I ended up spending more time in the house than I probably would have. Our son was born in October and that was probably the only benefit of getting injured.

“You’re injured but still trying to get a house, we’re having our first kid, and you’re going through all that while wanting to show everyone at your new club what a good player you are.”

It’s compelling evidence that true stability is so often elusive for footballers. You are only ever one cruel twist of fate away from, in a worst-case scenario, the scrap heap. In a world of so many variables and moving parts, even the most familiar, comforting surroundings can suddenly flip.

Thomson’s Middlesbrough career was punctuated by injury issues, and his decision to return to Hibs in 2013 while foregoing several months’ salary was telling of a player craving a return to the pitch above all else. It was, initially, a happy homecoming, and Thomson could scarcely have believed he would be out the door again a little more than a year later.

Agents, chairmen, injuries, the media – all factors and influencers in the precarious existence of a professional player. But are any of those as insurmountable as the arrival of a manager who just does not want to play you?

Thomson had no such issues with Pat Fenlon, but the arrival of Terry Butcher saw him pushed from the heart of the team into footballing no man’s land – not playing, not wanted, and not even welcome at team meetings - in what was, again, a protracted drama certainly not played out behind closed doors. Thomson found himself available for transfer in January 2014, with an unenviable outcome where nothing materialised – certainly one of the more bitter pills for players to swallow.

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“It was tough because I’d played every minute of every game, but it wasn’t just me in that bracket,” Thomson remembers. “I don’t know how Terry valued the squad, and what his ideas were to make an impact, but I think I was quite poorly treated.

“I was running in the afternoon on my own, Maurice Malpas would take me into the gym on my own. I was an unused sub for the first three games before I chapped on his door, and I tried to give the respect before I knocked. 

“To be fair to Terry, when I went to him he said he wanted to give everybody an opportunity, but I was left feeling, ‘when’s my opportunity going to come?'. It was three games I hadn’t played a minute after playing every game under Pat. At 29, I still felt I had a lot to offer.

“Everybody is entitled to their opinion. In my opinion, I had 20 team-mates who wanted me in the team. You could put James McPake in that bracket, Rowan Vine, as well.

“But there were also younger players who didn’t get opportunities either. I don’t think he specifically said to anyone, ‘you’re not part of my plans’, but he did treat people differently, in my opinion, which was a challenge.

“He would have team meetings on a Monday, and the boys who weren’t involved in the team wouldn’t get to go. To me, it was a red flag, but it didn’t change those boys’ attitudes towards Terry Butcher or Maurice Malpas – I wouldn’t have had it, nor would other boys.

“The attitude in Hibs players would be – ‘I’ll prove you wrong’. I’ve seen players down tools, and sometimes you can’t change boys’ opinions when they’re too far gone.

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“But, from the bottom of my heart, if Terry was asked, I don’t think he could question anyone’s commitment because it was a good changing room. They were all really good boys.

“I felt like a father figure to a lot of them, so I thought it was still right for me to show them the required standard; how you train, how you live your life and behave. There might be someone who doesn’t like me who says that’s ironic coming from me, but I think you could ask anyone in football about how I lived my life and they wouldn’t question my integrity.”