Minding the gap

Thom Gibbs knew there would be little domestic news during the summer, but he couldn't help checking anyway

Pre-season is a tough time. After the white-hot glare of the World Cup we’re left with four barren weeks to search fruitlessly for meaning in a life devoid of competitive football. So spare a thought for the media in this difficult period, which has football space to fill but very little actual news to work with. Their normal world of match reports, gaffers’ reactions and injury bulletins goes out the window, and the paucity of genuine news is especially noticeable in an internet-enabled world. Starved of anything substantial to talk about, messageboards go into overdrive over innocuous announcements such as the season’s new squad numbers, speculating wildly about the significance of the third-choice right-back’s move from 27 to 31.

In recent weeks Sky Sports News has featured clips of Rio Ferdinand gingerly hobbling down a flight of stairs to illustrate the revelation that he was going to miss the opening of the season, an endlessly repeated shot of Martin Jol putting a bag into his car boot on the day he hadn’t become Fulham manager and Roy Hodgson standing around while his Liverpool players navigated a tricky run around some cones. Scintillating stuff. Even at its most exciting, football rarely has enough actual news to fill a dedicated 24-hour news channel. Sure, Sky Sports News covers others sports, but football is its bread and butter and during pre-season the butter is spread extremely thin on cracker-width bread.

The channel’s main job is to act as a subtle advert for events being shown on Sky Sports, which explains why during the World Cup it developed a sudden interest in golf and speedway. One such rigorously promoted event was the Emirates Cup, a football tournament for people who don’t like football. It featured a ridiculous league system that awarded a point for every goal and used shots on targets as a divider when teams were equal on goals scored and goal difference. Its marketable line-up of teams (Arsenal, Lyon, AC Milan and Celtic) smacked of appeasing those whose main touchpoint with the game is playing through the Champions League group stage on Pro Evolution Soccer. Thankfully, these matches were also being shown in 3D, but it’s open to debate how many pubs were filled with glasses-wearing customers oohing and ahhing at three dimensional throw-ins during Lyon v Milan.

At least the Emirates Cup is an actual, real-life football tournament. It’s even tougher for the unfortunate people who write for clubs’ official websites, forced to fill their news sections when the main event at the training ground that day was the squad going for a bloody long run. A recent story on Blackburn’s site began: “Rovers striker Jason Roberts is excited at the prospect of playing three competitive matches in Australia.” Any journalist is struggling when that is deemed the first, and therefore most important, point of their story. Meanwhile, a photo gallery on Wycombe Wanderers’ site of their friendly against Farnborough shows players not quite committing to contested headers and celebrating goals with minor smiles and handshakes.

My club, QPR, had a charmingly bland blog from their tour to Italy. Highlights included detailed breakdowns of new signings’ karaoke performances and admirable attention to detail with passages like: “The majority of the touring party headed for the beach, with Antonio German particularly keen to get on the banana boat.” While “getting on the banana boat” may well be a euphemism for a vile sex act, it’s still some way short of anything a right-minded supporter is likely to care about.

The only problem is that I check QPR’s site every day. I lap up the exclusive pictures of Neil Warnock on his phone in a vest and sunglasses on a training pitch in Emilia-Romagna. Pre-season is the most exciting time of the year, because we’re all potential champions or outside bets for the play-offs, until a 1-1 draw at home on the opening day reminds you that the squad is basically unchanged and has the same problems as ever. The constant “news” stream provided by the web and Sky Sports News scratches our football itch, and it scarcely matters what that news is or whether it’s actually news at all. We’re football news junkies because we’re allowed to be.

From WSC 283 September 2010