THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

It may not be the best phrase to use around QPR, but “trigger happy” describes Milan Mandaric’s attitude to managers at Leicester. How will new boss Gary Megson fare against another man in the firing line, wonders Al Needham?

Leicester is a strange city. It’s actually the biggest in the east midlands, but it keeps it quiet. Until recently, the airport within its boundaries was called Nottingham East Midlands. It’s got a National Space Centre for no discernable reason whatsoever (unless they knitted a jumper for Neil Armstrong, or supplied NASA with space crisps) and, when you make the horribly long walk from the station to Walkers Stadium, you could swear blind you were in a rugby town. You spend most of the journey on Tigers Way (the part of the A594 dedicated to the local egg-chasers), craning your neck to see if there’s anyone in blue shirts ahead of you, and that you’re actually going in the right direction and the game is actually on.

You sweep past the Welford Road stadium, home of the reigning Guinness Premiership champions and seven of the 2003 Rugby World Cup-winning squad. Then you eventually end up on Raw Dykes Road, staring at the Crisp Bowl. Impressive on the outside (although the liberal spattering of corporate logos gives it the air of an out-of-town shopping centre), intimate on the inside, it matches the club’s ambitions to a tee: they’re a provincial club who nobody really dislikes and who want more (unless someone knows better, Leicester is probably the only city in the UK to commemorate a League Cup win with a statue, albeit with cricket and rugby success represented, too).

A decade ago, with Martin O’Neill at the helm, Leicester were in place to be the dominant club in the region. Five years ago, with Micky Adams in charge, a brand new stadium and the club going into administration, they were content to be a yo-yo club. Last season, the yo-yo stopped at 19th place in the Championship, Leicester looked on in envy as Derby County went up and Milan Mandaric swooped in, then went through three managers in seven months before settling upon Gary Megson. Yes, the Gary Megson, who helped Nottingham Forest into League One and couldn’t get them out, who hasn’t worked in football for the past 19 months. Luckily, the new era starts with a home game against a club who finished one place above them last season and who are having an even crappier time of it. It’s a big day for Leicester City. And for me, too.

For someone who has spent over a decade as a magazine writer, my blagging record is piteously poor. While some colleagues have accumulated about six months in paid holi-days, my collection of blaggage includes a handful of DVDs, some T-shirts that didn’t fit and a tin of WWF beans. Yes, I got invited to the executive boxes at Chelsea by a video-game company, but that was because they mistook me for someone from FHM. Today, however, is different. I am finally entering the hallowed realms of the professional sports journalist. I have a press pass. While everyone else is clambering over themselves to take their seats, I am being escorted by lift to the press box and being asked if I require an ISDN line. When I take my seat and the game kicks off, I’m too busy looking around for any journos I recognise and scanning my press pack to see what free stuff I get.

“Soup, pies and sandwiches will be available before the game and at half-time. Cake is back by popular demand!” says the press pack. Cor. “A ­UEFA‑standard mixed zone area has been created for you to the rear of the media suite… Leicester City players will be available after the game. Please feel free to stop and talk to them as they pass through.” Nice one. “We ask, in return, that you conduct yourself in a proper and professional manner. No football favours to be worn, or support shown for any team in the press areas. No autographs asked of players afterwards, please.” Oh, OK then. Just keep the pies coming.

I also get a printout of League Leader, the online magazine of the Football League. Its top story – The Moustache Men are Growing Strong – appears to be lifted from a Football League Review circa 1970 and is about eight Swindon Town players growing ’taches for charity. “I think Magnum is the style I’ll be going for,” says midfielder Craig Easton. There’s also more statistical information about Leicester and QPR than a person would ever need to know – even though there’s no statistic in the world that can cover recent takeovers (Mandaric for Leicester, Briatore for QPR), managerial turmoil (Megson’s debut, John Gregory’s hand on the exit door) and out-and-out tragedies (the death of Ray Jones, Clive Clarke’s heart attack).

As I finally try to settle down and focus on the match, stretching out my legs as far as they can go (simply because I can), I start to feel as if I’m in an exam and I’m still fiddling with my pencil case while everyone else is already on the second page. To my right is a bloke filing a live internet update, barely pausing from hammering away at the keyboard to peer over the laptop, ­meerkat-style. In front of me, the local hospital radio commentator is yammering away. To my left, the matchday media assistant is ticking off every throw-in, corner, free-kick, and goal. Except there’s none of the latter. The first half is all Leicester and QPR look awful – at one point the ball runs up Danny Cullip’s leg and hits him on the arse. He reacts to it like there’s a squirrel on his leg and he’s desperately trying to shake it off. Alan Sheehan misses a sitter for Leicester. QPR hit the post before half-time. I feel very grateful I don’t have to write a proper match report for this. It’s shocking.

Back in the UEFA-approved media area, the larder is stocked with FA-standard meat pies (with the Pukka Pies logo covered up by masking tape – the local company have evidently been usurped by Holland’s “Proper” Pies), PFA-quality sandwiches and FIFA-strength coffee. A huge photo of Filbert Street in the 1930s hangs over the cakes, with a Leicester Mercury “press box” (a shed with a huge hole cut into the side) in the background. The journos make small talk as they stare blankly at Jeff Stelling on the monitors. When I get back, I discover that someone has nicked my press pack and has had a good look at my less-than-copious notes. I feel like I’m back at school again.

As the second half kicks off and the journos return to their laptops, monitors, charts, grids, microphones and coffees, it dawns on me why football journalism has such little relation to the experience of the fans. It’s because however nice the working environment is, and however much contact you have with the staff, players and managers, you have virtually zero contact with the supporters. It’s not like you’re a long way from the pitch – the sight lines are nigh-on perfect – but the QPR support appear to be miles away, wedged in the corner in their away shirts like a particularly mouldy slice of pizza. The home support are nothing more than an amorphous splurge of blue. The only supporters within earshot are in the Walkers Crisps box, and they appear to be QPR fans on a jolly. I go through the entire game without coming into contact with or hearing the opinion of one single supporter. Is it any wonder that there’s such a gulf between the media and the punters, I muse, while Mikele Leigertwood lumbers into DJ Campbell like a baby elephant in the box, giving Leicester the go-ahead penalty.

Five minutes later, while John Gregory stalks the touchline with his trackie bottoms tucked into his socks like a disaffected youth, Leicester nearly put the game beyond doubt when Carl Cort stabs home a perfect cross from Iain Hume, but is ruled offside. I get handed a scrap of paper from the matchday media assistant, and am asked to pass it down the line. It’s the attendance. It’s nice to see that some things never change. And then, out of nowhere, Leigertwood and QPR finally make amends with the kind of goal that reminds you why you go to the football, a 35-yard screamer out of nowhere that made the people from the QPR website next to me forget about the rule regarding showing support for a team in the press box. The bloke next to me sits bolt upright, grabs my shoulder and says: “Who scored, mate?” “Er… QPR, mate,” I utter meekly.

When the final whistle blows, we all traipse downstairs for an interminably long wait for the managers to come out. I don’t really need to be here, but I can’t help myself. There’s obviously very little camaraderie between the journos – they seem happy to flash their passes, read each other’s papers and hack at their reports. Three hours ago, I thought this would be the perfect job. Now I’m not so sure.

Megson is first out and, by the look of him, he’s already been through about four different wringers, with his shirt collars flaring off at bedraggled tangents. He talks about the players showing drive and commitment for the first three-quarters of the game. No, he wasn’t worried about the “welcome” he was expecting to receive from Forest supporters at the upcoming League Cup rematch (none of us knows that he will be giving them a goal start). Gregory, on the other hand, exudes slicked-back confidence, in a pinstripe suit that gives him the air of a member of the Politburo. Only a nervous rotating of his glass of water as he speaks of how his side picked up in the second half betrays any nerves about the precarious situation he finds himself in – just two weeks, it proves, from the sack. “By the end, Leicester were quite happy to see the final whistle. Any more questions?” Silence. “Well, that was boring, wannit?” And off he goes, staring longingly at the last pie in the larder.

From WSC 249 November 2007

 

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