No talking back
Philip Cornwall isn't sure exactly why England's players refused to speak to the media in Poland, but after reading the papers he can find plenty of good reasons
Stood in the corner towards which Jermain Defoe ran to celebrate his first England goal, it was obvious the team wished to thank their fans for their support in Chorzow. It had been a fraught few days, a cold night and an at times awkward 90 minutes, during which, for the most part, we had kept the faith. The previous Saturday, David James had received a post-match reception that could scarcely be called mixed. But the whole team, following the example set by David Beckham when he was substituted, came over to thank us again. And we thanked them.
What many there didn’t know till much later was that this was the team’s last attempt at communication that evening. Sven-Göran Eriksson spoke, but the team did not, to the outrage of those who a) hang on their every word and b) complain about how little of interest they usually say. “And now for the bad news,” wrote Jeff Powell in the Daily Mail. “England’s footballers are threatening to resume talking next month.”
The players did not even give a direct indication of why they had chosen to let their football do the talking. Which quickly emerged, alas, as a mistake, because it allowed the media to tell us what they took to be the reason. Some reporters may have been right. Paul Hayward in the Telegraph wrote: “An educated guess is that the boycott stemmed not only from the David James lampoon but from the willingness of some experts to argue that David Beckham should also have been dropped.” If this was true – that the team regarded themselves as above criticism as well as objecting to ridicule – then they were wrong. But the media coverage of the media boycott did inadvertently give some hint that there was more at work than donkeys or egos.
For a start, there is the failure of the journalists to do their jobs professionally when England play. John Rawling in the Guardian (for me an increasingly reliable inverse barometer) wrote: “Whatever... the rights and wrongs of placing donkey ears on David James in the Sun (it made me chuckle), it was only a visual representation of the emotions felt by millions of England fans.” True. But the problem was that journalists are paid to be journalists, not to be fans.
Worse, as a donkey was taken to Chorzow, what we say in the pub or in the stands in the heat of the moment was translated, cold bloodedly, into a vindictive campaign against someone who was only an injury away from once more being England’s No 1. But in the absence of a clear statement of the reasons for the boycott, papers could dismiss a key element. After a few words from Graham Taylor, Shaun Custis in the Sun was able to ask sarcastically: “So criticism is fine as long as it is not harsh and does not upset people.”
The reports that tried to tell us what to think gave away more than they intended. Philip Whiteside’s report on the “news” pages of the Mail began: “England’s pampered and overpaid footballers were accused of betraying the fans last night.” Such prejudicial adjectives should not be in the first paragraph of a news story. Yes, you could make a case that England players are “pampered” (I agree, but so are journalists) and overpaid (I disagree – overpaid players are club benchwarmers rather than national-team stars). But Whiteside’s article opens with a simple prejudice – encouraged, enforced or emboldened by his editors – that means that it has no place on a news page.
Whiteside is also striking another theme – journalistic jealousy, or at least a willingness to play on readers’ jealousy, of “common” footballers being paid for their talents. In an otherwise irrelevant aside, he added: “James... earns £25,000 a week with Manchester City. Several of his colleagues earn £100,000 a week.”
He attempted to connect this to the poor supporters, deprived of post-match interviews. Their salaries are “paid for by fans buying match tickets, by TV rights and by sponsorship”. But it’s not the taking part in post-match interviews that bother us, it’s the winning or the losing – and those who paid for their match tickets, like me, were thanked. Week in, week out, we watch club matches and then happily read reports in which the only people quoted are the managers. Nor on this occasion did Sky or the sponsors have grounds to complain: this was an overseas international and, while press conferences are an obligation when England play at home, this was not the case in Poland.
Of course, the Daily Mail often gets things wrong. Back during Fariagate, their “news” pages ran coupons for readers to put in their windows, demanding the sacking of the manager, under the headline If not now, Sven. The back of the paper screamed Dead man walking and No escape now for cornered Eriksson. Such bias colours theirs and others’ coverage; it would not be a surprise if sympathy with the manager over a witch hunt had something to do with the boycott.
There is also the extent to which the focus on sport for patriotic pride makes incredible demands. England have four points from two away games, a total most sides around Europe would be delighted with, and in Portugal this summer for the first time the team escaped their group in a European Championship outside England; we have had a lot worse teams. For Powell, “every player honoured by selection has a duty to the nation”, which clearly includes answering questions so that he can later ridicule the answers, rather than simply performing as well as they can.
The England team are not the only sportspeople to embrace silence lately. Tim Henman refused all non-contractual interviews on his way to the US Open semi-final – his second in a grand slam event this year – fed up of being labelled a failure when he is our most successful tennis player for decades. The best responsible, intelligent, balanced writing about the England team, containing plenty of criticism, is often the work of journalists who for reasons of culture or background are not actually football or sporting English patriots.
Paula Radcliffe, who went from hero to zero in a couple of hours in Athens, said that she was used to the sports journalists – the ones who understood and cared about what she did – writing about her, but found the attention of the front of the papers hard to take. The Sun’s donkey campaign, according to the media diaries of other papers and Private Eye, was the “brain” child of Dominic Mohan, the former showbiz writer who is now an associate editor of the paper. He was responsible for “the sneers” and “widespread vilification” – as Steve Brenner, seemingly forgetting which paper he was talking about or writing for, put it in the Sun’s sports pages once the fuss had died down.
There are some people that the Sun believes are too delicate to take flak. The actor Ross Kemp, for instance, whose post-EastEnders work has been widely criticised or else ignored, except by the Currant Bun, where it is often described as the highlight of a day’s viewing. He is, of course, married to its editor, Rebekah Wade. Perhaps the only way to make Wade and Mohan realise that criticism can go too far is if a man dressed as a giant potato picketed all of Kemp’s film sets, day in, day out, demanding a chance to prove it could do a better job. Vans with “Give Kemp His Chips” banners could drive round past Wade and Kemp’s house.
With England playing twice in the week after this article goes to press, I don’t know if the players will now explain their boycott. But they could say that they fully accept that they will be criticised if they fail, but that they are the targets of biased “news” journalism; that they are abused by journalists who are not really that bothered about sport; that xenophobic anti- Eriksson bile plays its part; and that they are being called unprofessional by people who are ostensibly football journalists but become fans rather than pros the moment the England team are involved.
From WSC 213 November 2004. What was happening this month
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