A text message listing Emiliano Sala and several other players for hire pinged into the phone of a Premier League club’s technical director just before Christmas.
The January transfer window was approaching, clubs were getting desperate, and Willie McKay was busy touting his wares.
On his menu of France-based offerings were Adrien Tameze, Nice’s Cameroon midfielder, and Maxwel Cornet, the Ivorian forward at Lyon, as well as Sala — who Cardiff City imagined might be theirs by then.
Tributes have been pouring in for Emiliano Sala, whose plane went missing over the Channel
Cardiff City players trained before their match against Bournemouth in Emiliano Sala clothes
There were some deft touches in the McKay text, designed to protect against it being ignored. Watford were already trying to buy Tameze, he mentioned in passing. As things turned out, that player stayed put. So did Cornet.
The recipient — whose club lie in the bottom third of the table — replied with his standard response, asking McKay to put his information on an email, though he wasn’t interested.
‘Sala was being pumped around to all of us,’ he says. ‘We had the same scouting reports on him that most clubs would have, based on matches going back to 2017. They were good but he was not near the top of our list.’
The club in question still found themselves being publicly linked to Sala. It was McKay in full flow. The 59-year-old’s modus operandi was laid bare last week, when he surprisingly revealed to L’Equipe an emailed sales pitch he had sent to Sala, revealing that he had deliberately spread misinformation about West Ham and Everton wanting to sign him to whip up interest.
‘We have talked to all the clubs, including Manchester, Chelsea, Liverpool. We think you could end up in such clubs,’ he told the player. Not true. ‘We make transfers!… Didier Drogba,’ he wrote. Not true. ‘Keep me away from these lies,’ Drogba promptly retorted.
Willie McKay revealed details on a sales pitch made during the Emiliano Sala deal to Cardiff
After scoring Cardiff’s first goal of the match, Bobby Reid ran to display one of the Sala shirts
Few transfer market brokers are as relentless in their selling as McKay, Harry Redknapp’s one-time go-to man. ‘He’s like a dog with a bone,’ says one technical director.
Another source involved in acquisition for several top Premier League clubs describes receiving calls from McKay but becoming mildly irritated by him always seeming to be poolside at his one-time Monaco home when making them.
Some can’t live with him, yet most clubs can’t live without him, either because they are pathologically incapable of putting adequate systems in place to acquire players intelligently, or because they simply need his copious contacts to get them out of a fix.
Sources in France still marvel at how, when £70,000-a-week Joey Barton was banned for 12 matches and not cooperating at QPR, McKay worked his contacts to shift the player out on loan to Marseille in 2012.
There was something particularly noxious about the Sala sale, though, and not only because of the way this narrative would unfold. Where the Argentinian was concerned, even though no footballing rules appear to have been broken, everyone wanted a slice of the pie.
The Nantes owner, Waldemar Kita, most of all. His club were rooted in the bottom half of France’s Ligue 1 as usual and he was in a hurry to cash in on a player who was scoring goals and out of contract in 18 months. Kita gave the McKays’ company the mandate to find a buyer, in return for 10 per cent of the fee.
The player’s agent Meissa N’Diaye would also be getting a slice. NDiaye already had a player at Cardiff – Sol Bamba – yet somehow McKay still got in on things. N’Diaye insists that, as Sala’s long-term agent, he had to become involved to protect the Argentine’s interests when Nantes’ desire to sell him to Cardiff became clear. He says he had no involvement with the other four agents surrounding the deal and had tried at all times to find the right move for the player. He had rejected a lucrative potential move to China for that reason.
Another agent, Babe Drame, who declared on Instagram that he and McKay’s son Mark had done the deal when Sala eventually joined Cardiff, capitalised too. (McKay jnr is the registered agent because McKay snr opted not to sit the exams imposed by UEFA.)
Nantes owner, Waldemar Kita, was in a hurry to cash in on a player who was scoring goals
Both Cardiff City and Bournemouth’s players and fans observed a moment of reflection
Bakary Sanogo, who is close to Kita and agent to Tottenham’s Moussa Sissoko among others, also took commission from the deal, for reasons which remain unclear.
The player in question had no idea that such strenuous and complex sales efforts were going on to shift him out of the club and seems to have had no say in the matter, given that he did not initially want to leave Nantes for Cardiff at all.
Sala had become intimately bound up in French life and its football since leaving his home in Argentina, aged 15, for a development academy with links to Bordeaux. He initially struggled to make his way in France, though Nantes was where he began to establish a sense of self.
He loved Carquefou, the town north-East of Nantes which he made home. His friends there last week told ESPN how he could let his Labrador rescue dog, Nala, off the lead on the fields of the farm behind his house. How he liked to walk through the small vineyard across the road where they make Muscadet and cross the streams running off from the Erdre river, where visitors could fish for pike.
The local barber Jean-Philippe Roussel, whom he visited for a cut every third week, became a friend, ESPN related in a report which captured the intimate relationship between player and town.
However it was up at Nantes’ Stade de la Beaujoire that his modestly developing confidence was best witnessed. When he arrived at the club from Bordeaux, in July 2015, he was quiet and self-effacing with very modest French, though by last season he was confident enough to appear at the pre-match press conferences, which usually involve a player and the manager.
A picture of the type of plane which was supposed to deliver Emiliano Sala to Cardiff safely
Even the Cardiff City mascot was on hand to show its respects, as fans applauded the player
He didn’t like the one-on-one interviews — didn’t feel he had enough to say — though he was very often the one the local French journalists asked for. They smiled at the Spanish mannerisms in his French, spoken with a slight Spanish accent. ‘Tranquille’ always came out as ‘tranquillo.’
There was an old-world charm about those encounters. It was always his habit to greet reporters when he arrived and left — ‘Bonjour tout le monde!’; ‘Salut les mecs!’ Not many afford them such a common courtesy.
The fans loved Sala for the honesty of his endeavour. He was no world-beater and would never be a Manchester City or Liverpool player as McKay had promised. His first touch could be awkward and his running style rather inelegant, with his head deep into his shoulders as he went. He was tall and thin at first, with few muscles at first, though he did develop.
However he had an intuitive talent for scoring goals. The supporters knew that he only needed one or two chances to deliver one, with his particular penchant for fearlessly trying to score with his head. Their song about him encapsulated the work ethic. ‘Emiliano Sala, c’est un Argentin qui ne lâche rien, Emiliano Sala, Emiliano Sala, Emiliano Sala.’ (‘Emilano Sala, the Argentine who never gives up.’)
His self-effacement did not prevent him feeling that, at 28, time would soon be running out on him achieving his ultimate goal of playing in European club competition.
The chance seemed to arrive last summer, when Turkish side Galatsaray, who had qualified for the Champions League, made a move. Kita refused even to countenance discussions with the Istanbul team, who were proposing a loan move with an option to buy.
Emiliano Sala has become the tragic pawn in a sordid transfer trail that shames football
Bournemouth captain Andrew Surman walked onto the pitch with flowers in memory of Sala
Sala was disappointed, though Kita did not spare his sensitivities. ‘We always wanted to keep him,’ the president remarked. ‘Unfortunately, there are people around him who do not always advise him very well. It would be nice if he listened to us a little. We do not want to hurt him. We want to value him.’
He did so, in more ways than one. On November 21, the McKays were effectively mandated to find a buyer for Sala, who had put the summer disappointment behind him and promptly scored 12 goals in 15 games, a tally matched only by France’s World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe at PSG.
Sala seemed to accept that the only way he would reach the big stage was via a Premier League club who would pay Nantes handsomely and perhaps be a stepping stone. Even when he returned to say his last goodbyes to friends in Carquefou having joined Cardiff, he gave the sense that it was not completely sure he wanted to leave France. ‘Football is a business’, he told one. He mentioned that one of his first games would be against Arsenal.
McKay and his family suddenly loomed large in his world. Ten days after the email, Sala was in Cardiff, signing the three-and-a-half year contract that would see his salary rise from €50,000 (about £44,000) a month in Nantes to £50,000-a-week. But though many people became instantly much richer, neither Sala’s new club nor his previous one seemed willing to go many extra miles to make the fateful weekend of January 19/20 as straightforward as it might have been.
Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock looks down as he remembers his latest signing, Sala
He was desperate to say his goodbyes properly in Carquefou but, with a little more than 48 hours at his disposal to do so, badly needed a personal jet to get him to Nantes and back to the Welsh capital.
In his sales pitch email to Sala, McKay senior had promised that Cardiff were ready to ‘put a jet at your disposal tonight or tomorrow to come to pick you up, you and anyone else you want to bring.’ Yet once signed, Sala was told that the club were offering a commercial flight back to Nantes. He felt that half a day’s travel each way would leave him too little time to tie up loose ends in the place where he’d come to belong.
At 7.45pm on Friday, January 18, he was in limbo in a hotel room, still unsure how to get back. He texted McKay’s sons, Jack, a reserve striker at Cardiff who this week moved to non-League Chesterfield, who told him Willie would organise it all. How much it would cost, Sala asked. Nothing, ‘if you help me to score goals,’ McKay said. ‘Hahaha, with pleasure,’ Sala messaged. It was, of course, never to be.
Though an underwater search for the missing plane McKay hired will begin on Sunday, some very fundamental questions remain unanswered about the aircraft itself: not least who owns it and is responsible for its maintenance.
Search for answers took The Mail on Sunday to the obscure premises of Southern Aircraft Consultancy (SAC) Inc, a trust company which took over the registration of the aircraft in 2011, from a company called Cool Flourish — who may still be the actual owners. SAC take over the registration of aircraft to allow owners to protect their identity, for security or financial reasons.
Fans laid all kinds of flowers and tributes outside the Cardiff City stadium before the match
The company is based in the grounds of Earsham Hall, near the market town of Bungay, 20 miles south of Norwich. There, in a brick outbuilding which also houses a kitchen interiors firm, a bridal-wear business, a fine pine furniture showroom and Earsham Hall’s tearooms lies the secret of who has questions to answer. Faith Al-Egaily, one of SAC’s co-owners, would reveal nothing.
‘They have asked us not to speak to the press,’ she said. ‘We don’t have any comment. We don’t have anything to do with the aircraft other than the fact we registered it for them.’
The ownership questions will not recede, given that Cardiff City have privately expressed concerns about the way their record signing was flown across the English Channel and are thought to be facing a financial loss of about £14million, even after insurance pay-outs. The club are believed to have £16m of personal accident protection but the total cost of signing Sala, including agents’ fees and bonuses, may come to £30m.
Flowers were laid at the Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday for the signing they never got to see, though the game will move on. ‘We have to regroup,’ manager Neil Warnock said last week. ‘Once we get this weekend out the way we can move on. We have to come up with a formula to get points on the board.’
A unmistakable air of desperation haunts the place – and wherever desperation pervades there will be football’s middle men and brokers, preparing their next texted list of available targets.