Booming business

Looking at football in print, Harry Pearson discusses how the game has become more important to the broadsheet press

In the late-1980s I decided to investigate an incident that had occurred at Ayresome Park just after the Second World War. Within my family the incident was infamous, or celebrated, it was hard to tell which, because it involved my grandad’s cousin, Davey. Middlesbrough were playing Arsenal and, after a mêlée in the goalmouth, Boro’s goalkeeper Dave Cumming had walked up to the Arsenal centre-half Leslie Compton, decked him with a right hook and then marched off the field. As Compton rose groggily to his feet a group of fans had run on the pitch and one of them – possibly Davey – had felled Compton again.

To find what had actually happened I went down into the basement of the London Library in St James’s Square where they kept bound copies of the Times going back to the days of Thomas Carlyle. I found the relevant volume, thumped it onto a table and flicked through to the front page of the issue from the Monday after the game. No news of the fracas on the front page. In fact, no news on the front page at all – it was entirely devoted to classified ads. I turned the pages to the sports section. There was no comment on it there either. Perhaps that wasn’t so surprising, because there was no comment on any League football. The main match report was on a game between two public school teams, others covered the endeavours of Pegasus, Corinthians and various Old Boys sides.

In those days, I later learned, the Times didn’t pay any attention to the professional game at all. Actually, that’s not strictly true. “The Thunderer” did cover the 1938 World Cup tournament – devoting one entire sentence to it. By the time When Saturday Comes appeared on the scene the Times was covering professional football, but the percentage of actual space devoted to sport in the broadsheets had, if anything, shrunk slightly.

At that point the Guardian and the newly arrived Independent – whose journalists Phil Shaw and Patrick Barclay would bring news of the existence of WSC to many of us – contained four pages of sport, one of which was taken up with horse racing. Three pages did not allow much room for chatter or speculation. It was strictly news only. In the summer, when broadsheet newspapers carried reports on practically every game involving county cricket clubs, football was squeezed out altogether. There was little space back then for the sort of transfer gossip that now runs to thousands of words – many of them “monitoring” every day throughout 
June and July.

This situation was about to change, however. Back in the 1920s, during football’s first real explosion in popularity, newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the News of the World had started to devote around 30 per cent of their pages to football in a bid to draw readers away from specialist sports weeklies such as the Athletic News. As a new football boom approached the broadsheets took a similar approach.

The man largely responsible for this was the late David Welch, sports editor of the Daily Telegraph. In the late 1980s – when it was losing readership to the cheaper Murdoch-owned Times – the Telegraph decided to focus more on sport. In 1990 Welch launched the first broadsheet sports supplement. Originally it only appeared on Mondays, but such was its effect on sales it went daily soon afterwards.

The success of the Telegraph inevitably provoked a response from the other broadsheets. The Times launched a Monday sports supplement a few years later and in the summer of 1996 the Guardian used the pretext of the European Championship and the Olympic Games to test out its own weekly sports supplement. Sport 96, which appeared each Friday, ran to what now seems a very meagre eight pages.

Sport in general, and football in particular, was still viewed with some nervousness by those of the liberal left; there was a vestigial feeling that it was somehow fascist in nature. (“Look at all these bloody flags,” I recall a contemporary artist friend of mine remarking as we drove through Newcastle that summer. “It looks like Nazi Germany.”) Perhaps that’s why Sport 96 was described by one senior executive at the Guardian as having “an off the wall and witty approach” designed to appeal to those who “are less than fanatic about sport”.

Despite the fears of a revolt among the caring professions, the Friday supplement proved a hit, survived into the winter and gradually spread across the week until it appeared every day. There may have been unexpected factors behind this success. As my artist friend observed: “The sports supplement is great because you can throw it away without messing up the rest of the paper.”

With so much more space available the nature of football coverage inevitably broadened and shifted. There was more room for opinion, graphics and jokes. One simple and gratifying development was the publication of results and league tables from the rest of Europe, previously the province of World Soccer. Another was the tactical analysis provided by the likes of Ron Atkinson and David Pleat.

The latter was part of a wider change. When it launched the Telegraph sports section had taken the radical step of featuring ghostwritten columns by players and ex-players – previously very much the province of the tabloids. The other newspapers followed that lead. Some went even further, apparently having ex-players contribute larger ghostwritten features.

Many readers were under the impression that the players were actually writing these articles themselves, and why wouldn’t they, since that was clearly the impression given? This delusion was finally shattered four years ago, during Harry Kewell’s libel action against Sunday Telegraph columnist Gary Lineker. In court it emerged that not only did the Match of the Day presenter not write his own column, quite often he didn’t bother reading it either.

While some protested about the quantity of space now taken up by the written-for-them opinions of footballers, the truth is that this was merely an extension of changes in the way the game was reported. Back in the days when the star broadsheet football writers were men such as Geoffrey Green and John Arlott, there had been little or no reliance on “quotes” from the protagonists. From the 1980s onwards, however, “quotes”, no matter how banal, became more and more integral to football coverage. Yet while older hacks might lament the sports desk’s preference for some Premier League midfielder’s bland utterances over a bit of quality phrasemaking, the success of Twitter suggests the general public takes a different view. People want the inside view – whether it’s illuminating or dull.

Football, meanwhile, rumbles on, obliterating anything that stands in its way. Two years ago the Telegraph, once pre-eminent in reporting cricket, shed practically the entire team of journalists who had covered the county game. In the Guardian sports supplement I have in front of me, football receives roughly 20 per cent more space than cricket, despite the fact that it is the middle of July. It is hard not to conclude that at some point even the most devoted will get sick of it, and we will return to a situation when at least some of the broadsheets ignore the game altogether – as the Times once did. Though for the sake of my bank balance I hope that moment holds off for another ten years at least.

From WSC 295 September 2011