Got Swerved By Gallas
F*ck sake. We could have upgraded on Gallas and sent him to Ligue 2 where he belonged.
Imagine if we actually got him in. In those days it was banter defender after banter defender.
Guy asking Diaby about transfers while they praying. Elite stuffThe article from James NcNicholas is actually pretty good. He revisits various Arsenal ITKs over the years and The Athletic got in touch with AFC Bell and The Football Gerbil.
Last summer, the news that head of football Raul Sanllehi would be leaving Arsenal was broken by a gerbil.
Before the official announcement, before the newspapers, before even any serious speculation, there was the gerbil. On August 14 2020, a Twitter account going by the alias “The Football Gerbil” wrote: “Haven’t posted in a while because I don’t do it for attention. The Gerb has spoken to Raul Sanllehi and is shocked to tell you that you’ll be hearing soon that Raul Sanllehi is no longer employed at Arsenal football club.”
The rumours gathered pace overnight. By midday the next day, Sanllehi was gone, and the gerbil was raised on to a pedestal as a social media sensation, a prophet of Arsenal information. He was hailed as an “ITK” — the internet acronym reserved for those accounts deemed to be “in the know”.
It’s a strange tale, but in the world of Arsenal transfer Twitter — a world where rodents are oracles, flight plans are tirelessly scoured, cloud formations are scrupulously analysed, and where the Arabic-language updates of ITK account The AFC Bell reverberate loudly.
All football fans are hungry for transfer news, but the appetite of Arsenal supporters appears particularly voracious. Perhaps it is a consequence of the club’s thriving social media community — when it comes to online footprint, Arsenal’s is akin to one of Nwankwo Kanu’s size 15s. There may also be something in the fact that, in transfer terms, the Arsenal supporters endured plenty of lean transfer years after the move to the Emirates Stadium. Now the spending shackles are off, every detail of every deal is gleefully tracked.
But who was the gerbil? Who ran The AFC Bell account, and why were its missives suddenly stopped? Are any of these ITKs actually well connected? To answer those questions, The Athletic takes a closer look inside the wild world of Arsenal transfer Twitter.
There is quite the history of Arsenal transfer Twitter madness. As early as 2013, the account @WaleedGudluks claimed that Arsenal would complete the double signing of Julio Cesar and Gonzalo Higuain that week — “this has been confirmed by Abou Diaby at the mosque”.
In 2015, the account of Steve Woods, “an Arsenal fan for 45 years” according to his bio, appeared to post a sombre final update. It read simply: “To Steve’s followers, this is his wife Babs. Sadly, Steve passed away last night. His final word was ‘Benzema’; Make of that what you will.”
The summer of 2020, however, will surely be remembered as the golden age of the Arsenal Twitter rumour mill. Arsenal’s pursuit of Brazilian defender Gabriel was protracted due to lengthy negotiations and quarantine protocols. Consequently, fans and ITKs scrabbled desperately for clues that a deal might be complete. When the centre-back posted an Instagram video of himself in a car, Arsenal fans picked apart the vehicle model, weather, cloud formations and geographic landmarks to try to decipher whether the player was near the club’s Hertfordshire training ground.
Arsenal fans eventually managed to get confirmation of his presence in England from a gardening firm which had been tending to his rented accommodation during quarantine.
When Gabriel’s signing was made official, he cited the bombardment of messages from fans on social media as a factor in his decision.
Occasionally noise from Arsenal Twitter will bleed into the football industry. When Francis Cagigao was relieved of his duties as head of international scouting in August, a jokey tweet suggested he’d be replaced by Eduardo Hagn, an aspiring journalist and Arsenal fan who aggregates transfer news on his Twitter account. This snowballed into a rumour about his impending appointment that was shared among journalists, agents and even Arsenal employees.
There was one especially epic saga, of course, that no Arsenal fan on social media could miss: that of @TheAFCBell and Thomas Partey. The Bell spent the summer tolling for the forthcoming arrival of the Ghanaian midfielder and was ultimately proved right when Arsenal triggered his release clause on transfer deadline day.
The AFC Bell’s tweets were the soundtrack to Arsenal’s summer. They provided regular updates on Arsenal’s interest in Partey, coupled with an insistence that the deal would eventually be done. Perhaps due to the fact that the messages were written entirely in Arabic, they carried a portentous tone. Here’s one such example from August, run through Twitter’s on-board translate tool: “When we speak in the tone of those confident in the advent of Thomas Partey, this goes back to the solid foundation on which we rely on our news related to this file. Some followers and readers told us that your ‘credibility is at stake’ if the deal did not succeed. We tell them: Our source is reliable and we would not have spoken if it hadn’t been. It is a matter of time, God willing.”
Arsenal’s interest in Partey was widely reported, but the specificity and certainty of these tweets from a fan account made it stand out. Since then, The AFC Bell has also reported news on Mesut Özil, Shkodran Mustafi and Martin Ødegaard.
Speculation has run wild over who might be behind The AFC Bell account — especially when they appeared to willingly abdicate their ITK crown at the end of the January transfer window. There weren’t many clues: their location was listed as “Jerusalem, Palestine”, and despite some factual inaccuracies there did appear to be a link to the Partey camp.
Contacted by The Athletic, The AFC Bell did not want to reveal their identities. However, they explained the account was the brainchild of Abdullah, who was previously responsible for the @MrArsenicTM account — a “one-stop shop for Arsenal news”. He was supported by a team of five people from different countries: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq and Oman — Jerusalem, they admit, is merely a “spiritual and emotional” base. Originally their goal was to provide a curated experience for Arsenal fans in Arab nations, compiling match reports and news from elsewhere. They also conducted interviews with journalists and Arsenal personalities, such as the club chef and groundsman.
After a hiatus of around a year, the account returned in 2020 with a new goal: to report their own, exclusive news. The Bell’s motivation was to break new cultural ground. “Before the phenomenon of The Arsenal Bell, there was no Arab journalist living in an Arab country devoted entirely to covering the news of a European club based on its own sources or its relations with people close to the club. Since October 5 2020, there has been a viral effect of spread in various Arab countries across various platforms, which saw The Arsenal Bell experience as an inspiration.”
Those behind the account have other academic and professional pursuits — none of them are journalists by trade. “It is a hobby that appealed to us and that we were very passionate about,” they explain.
Nevertheless, their ability to build contacts showed good journalistic initiative. Clearly, there was a connection between The Bell and Partey’s camp. “We are not bound by a womb or blood-bond, of course, but there is close friendship with some family members,” The Bell explains. “We strengthened the bonds of friendship nearly a year before the deal happened, and we owe all our success and all that we have become to the cooperation of some sincere friends, as well as two other contributing sources.”
So why has the account hastily ceased updates? “The decision to permanently suspend news activities is not linked to a lawsuit filed by Arsenal Football Club or to the loss of our source inside or outside the club, as some rumours say on Twitter!,” they say. “It’s just that we wanted to focus on an important stage in our personal lives at the moment.”
The AFC Bell sounds, for now, its final note: “We hope that we have left a good memory in the hearts of our followers.”
Mike Feinberg is a podcaster and loyal Arsenal fan who lives in Washington DC. He has another identity, however. He is also The Football Gerbil. “I’ll be honest,” he tells us, “this is not how I envisioned eventually getting into The Athletic.”
Recent reports have suggested that Mikel Arteta has been eager to root out a mole in the Arsenal camp. Perhaps he should have been more worried about the gerbil.
The account first came into being in 2018. It was a year in which Arsenal found themselves embroiled in a number of different transfer sagas, involving names like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Riyad Mahrez and the Brazilian winger Malcom. The swathe of rumours led to an explosion in the number of “Arsenal ITKs”, with accounts such as @AFCArsenalHorse and @TheFootballMole claiming to provide insider updates on negotiations.
“It was ‘silly season’ beyond ‘silly season’,” recalls Feinberg. “The idea actually started as a satire on a number of self-proclaimed ‘ITK’s. In my opinion there are very few legitimate ITKs, most people are just self-promoting.
“The news they give is often highly conditional. The end result sometimes redeem them, but the timelines or details will often be wrong. This is the ITK way: to make predictions, and if any of them prove to be true, claim them as victories.
“I started a new Twitter account — for better or worse, it’s easy to do — put a picture of a gerbil holding a football on it, and spent an entire summer trying to show how ridiculous the ITKs were, screenshotting their claims and outing them when they were proved wrong.”
For Feinberg, who later mentioned being behind the gerbil account on his podcast, exposing ITKs became a bit of a mission. So imagine his surprise when two years later, the gerbil became one. “The account got old, it got tired, so I left it alone from almost two whole years.” Then, on Friday 14th August, Feinberg received a text from a contact saying that Sanllehi’s departure was imminent. “It wasn’t an inside job, nobody leaked anything to me,” he explains. “I knew someone who knew somebody who knew somebody who has dealings with Arsenal.” Of course: every source has a source.
Feinberg searched the internet to see if this news was being reported anywhere else — it wasn’t. On a whim, he logged on to the old gerbil account and posted that signature tweet. “For about an hour it sat there in the nether regions of Twitter,” he says. “But then REDaction, the Arsenal supporters group, picked up on it and it started to go viral from there.” While some took it as gospel, others ridiculed it. Twitter user @OCONNELLAFCFAN wrote: “Have a word with yourselves. You are believing a ****ing self-proclaimed gerbil with less than 200 followers has the inside track at Arsenal where only he knows Raul (is) to be sacked? Idiots.” Fair enough, really.
Feinberg went to bed around midnight in DC. By the time he woke up at 8am — around 1pm UK-time — his phone had “almost completely exploded”. Sanllehi had indeed departed, and the club’s official website had confirmed the news. The first notification on Feinberg’s lock screen read simply: “The Gerbil called it.”
“On Friday when I posted the tweet I had about 34 followers, mostly people who were friends or who knew I was doing the account in 2018, who’d forgotten to unfollow. By the time I went to bed on Friday there were about 190 followers. When I woke up on Saturday, I had more than 8,000 followers. At one point it peaked at around 10,000 — but you lose and gain followers quickly when you’re in the ITK business.
“That entire day I’m sitting on my couch, just managing and dealing with the fall-out. People were following me as if I was some kind of ‘insider god’, knowing what was going on at Arsenal, and begging me to tell them more.” Feinberg had inadvertently become the very thing he had set out to mock. He sought to try to use the account for its original satirical purpose, making a series of bold and ultimately unsubstantiated claims.
“It was a ride being the gerbil, but it was stressful actually. I have a career, I have a podcast and now I was dealing with a third thing as the gerbil.”
Fortunately, redemption was just around the corner. Feinberg’s co-host on The Gooners Podcast, Andy Roads, suggested repurposing the now popular gerbil account to promote their charity fundraising campaign, Gooners vs Cancer. The charity appeal, launched in 2017, raises funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. “It’s a cause close to my heart as my father passed away in 2010 from a form of leukaemia,” explains Feinberg. “I never intended to use the account that way, it was never a strategy. But real good came out of it. We used the account to promote our charity work, and smashed our 2020 goal, raising $21,000.”
It’s a heart-warming coda to a crazy story. What is Feinberg’s takeaway from his brief spell in the ITK spotlight? “I found something out that was more disturbing than the people who profess themselves to be ITK but aren’t,” he says. “What’s worse is realising that people just want news, and they don’t really care if it’s true or not. They just want to hear information. I would see people defending the gerbil against people who were quite reasonably pointing out my double-speak and my inaccuracies. I felt bad for them because they were standing up for me, and I was full of ****.”
So, what will he do if he gets another piece of exclusive information? Feinberg’s insists that the gerbil is extinct. “If I get something like that, I’ll ignore it,” he says. “Or I’ll tell you!”