Journalists make it personal, turning up the heat on Steve McClaren to create words and to protect their own interests

Newspaper coverage of Steve McClaren’s final month as England manager was both relentless and remorseless. Even in the usually more even-handed broadsheet press the tone rarely rose above the standard “Sack This Fool Now” template. “This is a black and white issue,” wrote Martin Samuel in the Times on November 12, in a column headlined Fail and McClaren has to go. For the football press there was simply no alternative.

It’s hard to see what other view they could take. The sports pages of national newspapers are seriously over-manned concerns these days. With England absent from Euro 2008, a significant number of any given newspaper’s football writers will no longer be travelling to Austria and Switzerland. Many football – and non‑football – journalists will be financially worse off, their careers less fulfilling, less enviably stellar, than they might have been. It’s a very personal disappointment.

Something else to write about is urgently required. So sacking McClaren becomes the story. And then finding a replacement. And then cranking up the word count on the thrilling intricacies of yet another new era. In the middle of which, the immediate fate of the England football team gets battered about like an old shuttlecock between the self-interest of the press and the wranglings of the FA committee men charged with finding a replacement.

The only real moment of confusion came during a brief hiatus before the Croatia game – even before Israel’s defeat of Russia – when it looked as though the FA might hang on to McClaren come what may. “Panic that McClaren might not get sacked: He’s on flight for World Cup draw even though he might not be England boss,” yelped the Sun on November 9. A common response was to demand the Wembley crowd boo the manager out of office. “FA Back Mac but fans may pass severe sentence” implored the Sunday Mirror on 11 November, noting that “a crowd of 90,000 will find itself in the role of judge, jury – and executioner”.

A public swell of support for McClaren (“There is a genuine feeling that Steve is the right man for the job,” Michael Owen told the News of the World after Israel’s defeat of Russia) drew an aggressive response from a tabloid press with too much invested already in his departure. Dave Kidd in the People produced the most personal of attacks. Now Prove You’re Not A Smug Loser, Kidd bellowed at the man charged with saving England’s qualifying hopes (or “the luckiest manager in international football… saved from the sack... through no skill of his own”). Kidd had already detected “a misplaced smugness” – more likely sour grapes at the thought of his target escaping at the last – in a 900-word “good riddance” clearly written before McClaren’s brief stay of execution and grudgingly tweaked to reflect the fact he hadn’t actually been sacked yet.

In the end, of course, he had to go. But perhaps even McClaren may take a grim satisfaction from the fact that, ultimately, his results were so poor the FA had no choice. The press didn’t get their man; he got himself. And at least he made them squirm for a few days when it looked like he might just escape.

From WSC 251 January 2008

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