If anyone ever produces a DVD tribute to former Sheffield Wednesday striker David Hirst, it ought to include clips of his efforts as an emergency goalkeeper against Manchester City on New Year's Day, 1990. It won't, though, because no footage exists. Having scored Wednesday's first in a 2-0 win, Hirst went in goal to replace the injured Kevin Pressman and made impressive saves from Steve Redmond and Colin Hendry.
Once the knee-jerk media response to the recent ruling on EU televised football rights died down, we were left with a commodity notably lacking during the broadcasts in question – silence. Predictably lazy images – grinning pub landlady pulls celebratory pints in Southsea boozer – were duly filed below celebratory headlines proclaiming Karen Murphy's "victory" in the European Court of Justice. Well, possibly.
One of British football’s idiosyncrasies is that at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, when the majority of weekend’s games are being played, there is no live football on television. The way supporters who are not at their team’s game can follow along has evolved with technology during the past 20 years or so. But live Saturday afternoon football being beamed into living rooms could change all that for good.
Ian Ayre, the managing director of Liverpool, quickly qualified his reported assertion that his club should sell its own overseas TV rights and keep the income. He now says he meant that they should be sold collectively but the income divided on the basis of a team's popularity, in terms of the number of times their games are featured. Clearly he was under pressure to modify his stance, given that even the other clubs who could have benefited from the move were against it. When Ayre heard Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck condemning his plan he must have realised he was on his own.
When the violence on the streets of north London began to spread across the country, it was inevitable that football would play a part in the discussion. Like most people, the football writer Ian Ridley watched the news and felt helpless. Unlike most people, however, Ridley thought that the game could somehow save the supposedly broken Britain.
"At times like these, you can feel helpless and peripheral in the sports pages, which always used to be known in newspapers as the toy department," said a mournful Ridley in his Express column. "Maybe football can play its part in repair and healing, however. The thugs have won a battle. Let us hope they don't, metaphorically, win the war… As the opium of the masses, it is far healthier than any liquid or substance. Or internet obsession."
While Ridley bastardised the writings of Karl Marx, Henry Winter drew attention to the teachings of that other political heavyweight, Rio Ferdinand. Without sounding at all worried about the implications of his statement, Winter claimed that Ferdinand's "voice certainly carries more resonance on inner-city streets than any politician's".
Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that those working in the football industry afford the game such importance. But it is a little concerning. Men who know a lot about kicking balls aren't necessarily going to be great at constructing government policy, as Ian Holloway proved in the Independent. The Blackpool manager used his media platform to call for the rioters to stop smashing up shops and be more like Paul Scholes, "who went through his whole career without even a whiff of an off-the-field issue". Holloway also pinned some blame on the media, arguing that "if the TV cameras weren't there and we didn't know about it I don't think the rioting would have sparked up anywhere else".
Holloway wasn't the only football manager with an opinion. The Sun carried a double-page interview with a "sad, sickened and angry" Harry Redknapp, who blamed the riots on a breakdown in family values. "When I was 12 or 13, boys would meet their football manager dressed in a blazer or at least a pair of trousers. Now some of them turn up to see me wearing a pair of jeans with their arse hanging out. They just don't care." Stan Collymore called for help: "I want to know where the musicians, actors and rappers are at a time like this?"
With the great and the good of the football universe calling for action, it was left to a man still playing the game to offer some sense. David James, writing in the Observer, wondered how young people could relate to footballers at all: "While it is true that most of us have had a council estate upbringing, most now live away from those communities, enjoying a lifestyle that is light years from the kids we are talking about… Are people really going to listen to a millionaire footballer living in a plush mansion telling people who are struggling to make ends meet on a council estate to calm down?"
James went on to suggest that long-term engagement with a community would make more sense than taking a few seconds to type "Stop the violence" into a mobile phone. With this thought in mind it was heartening to see Peter Crouch and Benoît Assou-Ekotto involve themselves in the clean-up along Tottenham High Road. Football isn't the opium of the masses and an involvement in the game doesn't bring with it statesmanlike authority. But footballers, like everyone else, can help their communities most when they're a part of them.
From WSC 296 October 2011
"I wasn't a great communicator. Things are different now because I'm trying to get into media work, but I didn't speak to the press then and that maybe didn't help my cause. The thing is that at Blackburn and West Ham, my performances were OK and spoke for themselves, but that wasn't the case here [at Fulham]." Ian Pearce, 2011.
Pearce's attitude is indicative of many professional footballers. They take the view that there is no advantage to be gained from speaking to the ladies and gentlemen of the press. The media are simply out to get them and the safest course of action is to steer well clear. But, as Pearce suggests, this belief can actually damage a footballer's career.
Of course, in a very different way, Joey Barton's recent outpourings on Twitter have challenged the relationship between footballers and the media further. In embracing social media with alarming honesty, Barton has not only served to highlight the anodyne contributions of his peers but also left journalists reporting information that many of the public have already accessed directly.
Lawrie Madden is a footballer-turned-journalist who now gives media training courses for the League Managers Association (LMA). At a Lilleshall seminar in July 2011, he said: "I still don't think football clubs, players and agents fully understand the role of the media and what it's there for. A lot of players want to deal with the media when it suits them, or when they've got a book to promote, but most of the time they don't want to know. If you want to build a career in the media it's a lot easier if you worked on that relationship when you were playing. It's not rocket science but sometimes you'd think it is."
It's not just players that need to work on their relationship with the press. As Madden knows from his role with the LMA, managers could also do themselves a few more favours. He added: "Sir Alex Ferguson bans people from press conferences just to teach them a lesson. At any one point there might be three Premier League managers refusing to talk to Sky. Some of them are missing a trick because the media can provide a career beyond football – as long as a player or manager conducts themselves correctly."
Perhaps it's not so crucial for a man such as Ferguson – he celebrates his 70th birthday on New Year's Eve and septuagenarians with knighthoods aren't known for clogging up the dole queue. But while Fergie is working from a position of strength, others can be significantly helped or hindered by the press coverage they receive when the going gets tough.
Gordon Strachan is a manager who became infamous for his surly attitude towards the press. Richard Rae, writing in the Independent last year, acknowledged: "Plenty of journalists have been the subject of an acerbic put-down, which [Strachan] accepts probably doesn't help when his managerial record is being analysed."
In stark contrast, Harry Redknapp remains notorious for his tendency to court sections of the media. Birmingham Mail reporter Chris Lepkowski recently revealed on Twitter that when Redknapp's Portsmouth defeated West Bromwich Albion in an FA Cup semi-final in 2008, one of the wags in the press room was heard to say: "Thank God the quotable manager won." Of course, maybe he's just that kind of guy. But it provided food for thought when Tottenham struggled their way through a difficult three-month period in the spring that brought just one solitary win in 13 games. While many Spurs fans were dismayed, the usually over-reacting tabloid press remained firmly in support of Redknapp.
Neil Ashton, formerly of the News of the World, demanded fans get off Redknapp's back. Charlie Wyett of the Sun – a paper for which Redknapp has written a regular column – was particularly incredulous and appeared to be seeking vengeance. Wyett went so far as to suggest that the Spurs fans who had criticised the manager deserved for the club to be relegated the following season.
Contrast this with the treatment of Fabio Capello. The Italian endured an undoubtedly disappointing 2010 World Cup as England manager. However, when the Sun is producing back-page headlines labelling Capello a Weirdo and a Jackass, it is legitimate to consider the possibility that there are other elements at work. His refusal to interact with the media as freely as some of his contemporaries is a factor that perhaps should not be overlooked.
Don't expect Capello to be tweeting the reasons for his team selections any time soon. But you can certainly expect the relationship, or lack of it, between players, managers and the media to continue to shape public perceptions for some time to come.
From WSC 296 October 2011
Journalists often see themselves as fearless crusaders for the truth, holding those in power to account. So they have a sense of entitlement when it comes to access and information from football clubs. Managers and players are expected to reveal all, and if they show any reticence or attempt to keep any information to themselves, it is implied that they have something to hide. To pick a rather tame example, if a manager chooses not to answer a question about a rumoured transfer, he will be reported as being "coy" or "refusing to rule out a move for…".
Arsène Wenger made a significant comment at a spicy press conference just after Cesc Fàbregas was sold. Asked whether he would sign Juan Mata as a replacement, Wenger said: "We will not do [a deal for] Mata. I don't have to give a reason." In the febrile atmosphere of the transfer window, most people concentrated on the first bit and ignored the second, but it raised an interesting point – why should he have to justify his decisions to journalists?
Of course, the standard line that journalists use in this instance is that "the fans" want to know, as if the only purpose of the press is to altruistically keep everyone informed – rather than to shift more papers/get more hits. But it can be argued that the fourth estate does not in fact deserve the access they desire.
On the first day of the Football League season, many reporters were locked out of grounds because of a dispute over how games were covered online. Clubs objected to the use of photographs and, of all things, Twitter, which was ludicrous, largely because their primary concern seemed to be protection of their own coverage through subscription websites. However, while media complaints were sometimes sensible and eloquently explained, it would be much easier to sympathise with the press if they didn't routinely abuse the access they're given.
Open up your morning newspaper and you'll probably find half a dozen instances of the words of managers/players being misrepresented, taken out of context, sensationalised or just plain made-up. Being surprised that those in football don't always welcome reporters with open arms is a bit like going to someone's house, treading dirt into the carpets, throwing red wine up the wall and then expecting to be invited back.
A classic case recently was the Carlos Tévez transfer saga. Earlier in the summer Tévez told an Argentinean chat show that he would never return to Manchester after the end of his contract. Of course, most of the media then casually forgot the last six words of that statement, giving the impression that Tévez was on strike and expressing faux shock when he did show up at City. But the player had already said he wanted to leave, so there was no reason to mislead when there was already a perfectly good "line" to run with.
The round of injunctions taken out earlier this year by footballers to "gag" papers from reporting on their private lives inspired hand-wringing columns about the freedom of the press, but this seemed to miss the point. If the press waste their freedom on trying to tell us who Ryan Giggs is spending his leisure time with, they really don't deserve it. It might not be ideal, but it's perfectly understandable that football clubs don't want co-operate with a group of people who are often so duplicitous. It would be unfair to assume that all journalists are like this, but they cannot be overly surprised when they are not welcomed in.
Of course, problems arise when access is denied on a whim (Alex Ferguson and Ken Bates being the obvious culprits). There is an obvious danger that clubs, or football's governing bodies, could abuse the power they have and block access when there is serious wrong-doing afoot, such as vote-rigging or bribery. However, this is rarely the case.
The central problem is that we take football far too seriously. For 95 per cent of the time football journalists are not pursuing the public interest trying to uncover corruption and genuinely important social issues – they're trying to find out who Manchester City are buying next. And, as a society, we can probably get by without knowing that.
From WSC 296 October 2011
We have all received emails that though provoking initial interest, we know to be bad news. We are tuned in enough to realise he is not really a retired Nigerian general, that millions of single women are not actually waiting online specifically for us and that, ultimately, despite the "scientific proof", it is unlikely to add two inches. In July I received such an email, this time from a "brand new TV sports channel", and it proved another which promised a lot and delivered only disappointment.
The email came from Sports Tonight Live, an online TV channel set to launch at the start of the Premier League season. "We will broadcast from 7pm-11pm every night and will discuss, debate and deliberate over the big sporting stories of the day." This sounded promising enough, but things went downhill rapidly. "We are aiming for an opinionated and entertaining discussion show, led by presenters which include Mike Parry." And kept going. "The new channel is being backed by a group of city investors, including Kelvin Mackenzie." Some sales pitch.
It landed in my inbox because Sports Tonight were in the process of recruiting fan representatives of each club to appear on the show. "We're looking for someone who is eloquent, opinionated, informed – controversial but clean cut," read the email though the appointment of Parry would suggest that two out of five would ultimately suffice.
"Ideally they would also need a bit of banter" – banter of course having become a quantifiable commodity since professional footballers began referring to people as "tweeps" and hanging out with James Corden – "and a thick skin as we aim to be controversial, with Parry at his outspoken best."
It is often suggested there is too much football on television. Perhaps a better argument is that there is not enough actual football in relation to the coverage which surrounds it. This is an argument that Sports Tonight, having outlined three aims, to be controversial, opinionated and entertaining, only further enforces. Would it pain Sports Tonight that much to strive to be informed, or accurate instead, or perhaps seek a presenter who is lauded for being intelligent rather than outspoken?
But this is the direction in which much football reportage continues to stumble, with the game itself increasingly subsumed beneath opinion masquerading as fact. Coverage of the sport is becoming less about the game on the field and more about what is happening around it, all delivered in basic cliched rhetoric. "Football programming" of this level is akin to going to the local cinema only to find that instead of screening films they are just dishing out copies of Heat magazine. Here you go, flick through that. I know it is the artistry of cinematography you really enjoy, but have you seen George Clooney's new beard?
Increasingly, and disappointingly, football comes down not to knowledge, but who can shout the loudest. Earlier in the year Sports Tonight recruited staff for its new venture with adverts featuring the line: "You will be ambitious and almost certainly yet to be discovered. Sport will be your drug and you have plenty to say but until now nobody was listening." Would it not perhaps be wise to examine why no one was listening to these undiscovered twitching football dependents? I mean, there is a bloke who sits a few seats away from me at the Keepmoat Stadium who has plenty to say and nobody is listening, but I (and anyone within ten seats) would sooner see him sectioned than behind an exciting new television channel.
The email also featured a familiar line, one which I see regularly in correspondence I receive: "We will not be able to pay people for appearing on Sports Tonight Live, but... we'll happily acknowledge and advertise your fanzine." Football bloggers are being increasingly looked on by those at the top of the media tree as freelancers with an emphasis on the "free". And yes it may be our hobby, but if Parry is being paid to trot out soundbites and be "at his controversial best" about clubs he knows little about, why should comparative experts be expected to give their time and insight for free?
Speaking to the Guardian in May, McKenzie described the venture as "Sky Sports News meets TalkSport". I cannot think of anything the game needs less and so, as you have probably guessed, I declined my invitation to be involved with his "exciting new programme". Besides, the exposure it would have brought my fanzine is nothing compared to the investment I have recently been promised in a much more encouraging email from an exiled Ugandan prince.
From WSC 296 October 2011
WSC is not alone celebrating a big anniversary this year. Desert Island Discs, the enduring radio fixture in which celebrity castaways get to choose eight favourite records, plus a book and a luxury item, is building up to its 70th birthday.
It's the silly season, and while some fundamental questions are raised about the media, police and political establishment, it is business as usual for football. The contrivances of the transfer windows mean that almost as soon as a season ends in May, the speculation and gossip about which millionaire wants to play with which other group of millionaires begins to flow. It is easy to just blame the journalists, but there is undoubtedly a public appetite for human dramas of ambition, loyalty and greed that the business entails.