Press conference

WSC’s almost annual roundtable brought together three contributors from different branches of the media to discuss trends in football reporting and a host of other relevant (and irrelevant) matters

WSC It’s often said that players these days are remote from the fans. But has the attitude of players towards journalists also changed now that many of them are so phenomenally wealthy?

Patrick Barclay Journalists need to be able to have per­sonal relationships with the players and the coaching staff and that’s becoming more difficult because it’s increasingly dif­ficult to have chance encounters with them. I find it quite pathetic the way players walk ar­ound with pained expressions as if talking to the media was something that would prevent them from doing important things. I can only think it’s something they get off on. Relations with clubs are deteriorating fast. Some clubs think that because Alex Ferguson wrapped Ryan Giggs in cotton wool and he turned out to be a terrific player that if they don’t allow players to talk to the press they’ll be as good as Giggs. These clubs should be looking for as much coverage as they can get.

Harry Pearson You’d think that as clubs become better at PR it could only help relations with the press, but it becomes a bad thing because they’re obsessed with control. Every time you write anything about Sunderland, for example, their PR woman phones up, saying “What did you mean when you said this about Peter Reid?” You start saying “Well, what I meant was…” then you think, hold on, why am I justifying myself to someone in the PR department? And at Mid­dles­brough, Steve Gibson’s attitude is that anything that has “Middlesbrough FC” written on it, they should make money out of. So you feel now that even if you talk about them you should pay the club some money.

PB There must have been some enlightened marketing person at Sunderland, though. The presentation is the right balance between razzamatazz and allowing the crowd to generate the atmosphere. It’s a balance most clubs get wrong.

HP Apart from the PR phoning you up, yes they are very good. When you go in the ground and you see the painting of Raich Carter and so on, you have a sense that they are saying “This is a big, powerful organisation with a rich history – so success will surely come”.

WSC Does the football coverage on the news pages of the tabloids make things harder for sports reporters?

PB I don’t blame the players for getting upset about some of thing the news reporters do. But man­agers and players seem to get annoyed about anything said about them that’s not nice, which isn’t how it used to be. Twenty years ago the basic rule was, “Say what you like about me, but don’t you dare double cross me and quote me off the record.” Whereas now, as Harry’s story about Sunderland shows, you’re expected to conform to some conventional wisdom.

Adam Powley From a supporter’s point of view, the perception is certainly that players are much more re­mote these days. Hugh McIlvanney said in his famous profile of George Best, that he might be in the papers hanging out with Miss World and all that, but every Saturday people could pay and have a piece of him. And I don’t think that sense of a connection applies today, when average players can get one good contract and never have to work another day in their life.

PB The one experience they don’t share with the fans now is the excitement of having to make a living. It can be horrible not knowing whether you’re going to die in poverty or not, but it’s exciting, it motivates you. It’s what footballers haven’t got.

WSC Has sportswriting deteriorated since those days?

PB There’s too much of it, for a start. It’s got more literate and less literate, because everything you want you can have. But, as with any other medium, there is only a finite amount of genuine talent to flourish, and legitimate argument to be made. So there’s the biggest load of shite you’ve ever read, and yet there are also wonderful, genuine new football writers, like Matt Dickinson, Henry Winter and so on. There are probably more good football writers under 40 than I can remember.

AP It used to be that newspapers were the main med­ium for relating what happens in football. But the fact that you can now see every goal that’s scored in this country over the weekend, how­ever many times you want, has devalued the role of the press. Radio also dev­otes that much more time to football. And, of course, with the internet, it seems that a lot of what you get now is much more opinion based. It’s not reporting.

WSC Expectations as to what constitutes success for their club seem to be rising all the time among fans and chairmen, as the Vialli saga seems to show. How much is the media to blame for that?

AP Fans’ hysteria – making unreasonable demands – comes from what the players are earning. The old com­plaints about “I could trap a ball better than that” are much more loaded when players are earning so much more than the people who are watching.

PB Journalists have some responsibility when it comes to creating expectations. We’ve all used the phrase “these fans deserve more” and they don’t. It’s our crude way of creating an unoriginal drama out of an otherwise dull piece about a particular club’s affairs. Fans don’t deserve more because if they have more success, then someone else has less. The top is the same size as its always been. The TV contract may have a billion pounds in it but the top only has room for one, in the same way as it did when Alf Common was worth a thousand pounds. Until we can make the top bigger and give prizes to everyone, that’s how football will be.

WSC Isn’t the Champions League all about making the top bigger?

AP Across the board now, whether its Champions League or promotion from lower divisions, what you achieve isn’t an end in itself, it’s a means to another end. So players who were playing in Euro 2000 are looking for big money transfers. Chelsea, starved for success for over 20 years, were not too bothered about winning the FA Cup but at least it gets them into Eur­ope. Achievement is all measured in terms of future finance. Ken Bates has said he wants to make Chelsea into the Man Utd of the south and wants Chelsea fans to buy into it to justify exorbitant prices. How do Chelsea fans feel now they’re nowhere nearer that end and are still paying increasing prices every season?

HP At Middlesbrough, the fans’ anger comes from their frustration. For years they had good managers, like John Neal, and good players they couldn’t keep because they didn’t have the money. Plus they didn’t have a ground or a fan base that was big enough. Sud­denly they’ve got all those things, but it’s still not hap­pening. It’s like that idea that revolutions come not from the really oppressed people but from those who’ve been give a little bit of freedom and want more.

WSC The odd thing is that at clubs where fans’ expectations have been dampened rather than raised, like Spurs, it doesn’t seem to affect their crowds much.

AP From a Spurs perspective it feels like a war of attrition waged against the fans. Everyone is just brow­beaten. The crowds still come along because of past successes, but I think that’s a finite resource. The next generation who’ve been dragged along by dad to see the team perform abysmally will think twice when they get the freedom to do it themselves.

PB There’s one story at Spurs now Ginola has left, and that’s the relationship between the manager and the chairman. What is Alan Sugar about? What is he doing if he’s displaying no interest in any football end prod­uct and it’s not a particularly profitable business?

AP Someone has definitely told him to keep quiet because his forte is business and as soon as he says anything about football, you wince.

PB Sugar did come up with one of the eloquent phrases about modern football when he talked about “prune juice economics”, meaning that football doesn’t ac­tually use any of the money that comes into it.

AP He’s very much an opportunist and not ash­amed to contradict himself. He precipitated the bung enquiry which highlighted George Graham’s activities at Arsenal, then a few years later he’s employing Gra­ham. His public position is that he wants some other mug to take over, but my suspicion is that he does see it as a profitable business. If pay-per-view comes in his shares will rocket. And it’s an ego thing. He wants to be seen as being successful in another line of bus­iness.

HP Like John Hall. He was well known locally beforehand, but once he got involved in Newcastle he was able to go on TV all the time, using Football Focus to give us his views on economics and social policy.

PB When you think of benefactors you think of Jack Walker and, OK, he got the championship one season, which I’m sure he felt was worth the small proportion of his personal wealth that he’d put into the club. But where are they now? They’re the richest club in the First Division but they ain’t coming out. Boro built this stadium that holds 36,000 all seated, in an evocative setting. Now that’s fine if everyone else agreed to stop building, but Man Utd’s stadium is still twice the size.

WSC But will they keep filling those stadiums?

AP When you see Premier League clubs putting a hold on season ticket prices or actually reducing them, you know they’re not doing that out of any kind of altruism. It’s because they can see the writing on the wall, they’ve squeezed it as far as it can go.

WSC Is ticket pricing one of the issues the new football regulatory body should be tackling?

PB What it should not be doing is probably what it will concentrate on. Which is, interfering in pricing of rep­lica shirts and things like that. If people are stupid en­ough to buy these hideous, gaudy things, then I’d charge them double. It’s more important for chil­dren to learn the meaning of the word “no” than for them to be given cheap football kits. Nor should they have any say in pricing. It should be more expensive to watch Chelsea than Sunderland because it’s more expensive to buy a house in Chelsea than in Sun­der­land. What the regulatory body should be doing is to keep an eye on rip-offs, the cynical selling-off of clubs for crude property reasons, which has happened in the past. Protecting football from get-rich-quick people, I think that’s what it should be doing. And above all, the thing that they don’t want to do, and that is stopping corruption – managers buying players not because they think that player will fit into the team, but because an agent is paying them to buy that player. The new body should take up this unpopular and unwelcome duty of trying to make some inroads into the rampant corruption in the game.

AP I’m with Patrick on the shirt issue. If people want to buy them that’s their choice. But I think there is def­initely scope for price restructuring. If people at the top of football are saying more and more revenue is now coming from other sources, then they should put their money where their mouth is and reward the people who are coming through the turnstiles. There are areas that can and should be regulated. Spurs, for example, are now offering a similar concession to away juvenile fans as they do to home fans. Ticket pricing, to some extent, is sorting itself out, but it’s definitely something they should be looking at. Because at any club there are a number of people who either don’t go or have to pick their games because they can’t afford it. And football will lose its core con­stit­uency unless it looks after them. But where you have clubs that are run as plcs, how much change can you actually effect? You can ask that there is representation by fans on the board, but unless they’ve got that financial power, then I don’t really see what they change. It’s just tinkering at the edges.

HP I think there’s a limit to what they can do in a business that’s always been the epitome of capitalism in a lot of ways. The market is always going to control it. If people stopped going, then prices will go down. But prices have gone up because more people have come, basically. With replica shirts, the fact that people know the shirts cost a lot of money is actually a source of pride to them. They’re like those people who buy T-shirts with “Calvin Klein” written on them. What it says is “I’ve paid over the odds for a white T-shirt”. And people want you to know that.

WSC Wearing the shirt is also to do with the way fans are presented on TV.

HP That’s something that was noticeable at the Euro­pean Championship, that a lot of the Dutch and Danish fans had become a spectacle in themselves, unconnected with the game. At the game between the two countries it was sort of marvellous in a way, but it didn’t seem to have anything to do with what was happening on the pitch.

PB I hate that.

HP Well I’m glad you do too, because I was feeling really awful for thinking “God, this is terrible”.

WSC But it’s hard to argue that the old type of fans made the experience more enjoyable.

PB No, although one thing that has improved is the fans’ knowledge of the game. I was coming back from Charlton-Spurs on the train recently and that was a pretty hid­­eous experience, because in this country everyone goes “fack” and “cant” at the top of their voices. But after a while someone said something about Ranieri. And one of them says, “Yeah, but he wasn’t no good at Roma, was he?” And another one says, “Yeah, but the president, that Bortolini, he was starving the club of funds. He was much better with Cagliari, even though they were in Serie B.” And they are now completely literate about all this.

WSC How do you see the battles between club and country developing?

PB I think that anyone who covered Euro 2000 would be aware that UEFA have no interest in international football at all. UEFA have become a club organisation that happens to run a tournament once every four years, but they don’t put in any effort.

HP Compared to the World Cup it’s like a village fete.

PB Exactly. Euro 2000 was a cheap and nasty operation. I was aghast when the proposal to have the World Cup every two years was dropped. I think that would have been one of the best services that FIFA, which is the most unfairly maligned organisation in football, could have done. The Premier League and the Champions League together don’t add up to the World Cup and there’s no way that’s going to change.

AP If people see vast riches at the end of it then we will keep seeing more proposals for breakaway club com­petitions and bugger the consequences in terms of spectator interest as long as they can sell it to TV. If Liverpool get through to this Euro League proposed by the G14, once it becomes clear that they’re not going to win it and they’ve got a midweek game coming up against Rosenborg, that will never be as much an attraction as, say, Liverpool v Man City.

PB Man Utd, to be fair to them, don’t want to throw all their powers at the preposterously titled G14. They want a reduced Champions League. The growing pow­er of the Premier League is quite good in one way, in that our clubs are saying to the rest of Europe, “You may want more European games, but we don’t.” Yet 62,000 in the middle of a fuel crisis still went to Old Trafford to see Man Utd v Anderlecht – a game that would be less competitive than Man Utd v Coventry.

WSC Should Rangers and Celtic be allowed to leave Scotland for the Atlantic League?

PB I don’t see any argument about it. I’m a Dundee supporter and obviously it was very nice when we won the league in 1962, beating Rangers and Celtic on the way. But you just need to look at the crowds now and it’s obvious that it’s not healthy for them or for the other clubs. I’d like to see them playing in England. In effect they’d be in Europe because they’d be playing clubs like Arsenal and Man Utd. The fans up there know as much about English football as they do about Scottish, though that’s not reflected in the papers. The other thing is that Ran­gers and Celtic don’t really consider themselves Scot­tish clubs. Butcher, Roberts and the others who were there in the 1980s weren’t joking when they said they were playing for an English club.

WSC Apart from Alex Ferguson, the most successful managers in Britain in the past few years have all been foreign, with very new methods. Is Ferguson the last of the breed who dominate their clubs through rigid discipline and even fear?

HP All the homegrown managers – Bryan Robson, George Graham, David O’Leary – are famous ex-players, that’s the other strange thing.

PB And it’s not always the way abroad. In the 1994 World Cup final, the two coaches who reached the pinnacle of the game – Carlos Alberto Parreira and Arrigo Sacchi – not one semi-professional outing bet­ween the two of them. Whereas we star-kiss.

HP It wasn’t always the case though. If you look at people like Bob Paisley or Alex Ferguson, they were very ordinary players. But now chairman seem to want to appoint someone who was a star player because they want things to happen quickly, as if their arrival alone will create a kind of furore which gives off the impres­sion of success. When Keegan was appointed at New­castle, the whole place just went berserk. Even though New­castle struggled to stay up that season the impression now is that after his arrival everything changed auto­matically.

AP The thing that’s always brought up about Ferguson is that in today’s climate he wouldn’t have had the time to do what he has done. He wouldn’t have got that four years’ grace. It’s true that he is an exception these days in the con­trol he has over the players. But while I’m not privy to the comings and goings at Arsenal, and it seems that Wen­ger does have that dif­ferent role there, nevertheless, everything at that club is still ul­timately geared to what he wants. All the other facets of management are directed towards him.

WSC It’s hard to see someone doing quite what Ferguson’s done again, bringing the best part of a team through as youngsters. And even now the supply lines seem to have dried up.

PB Yes, the next generation isn’t coming through, but it’s interesting how much money they make from them nevertheless. They’ve sold Higginbotham to Derby for £2 million, that would have paid for the youth academy for a few years. They must have sold about 20 players for half a million each in the past five years. Ferguson keeps wishing that people like Greening and Wilson will be the goods, but they ain’t. So this is going to be the test. But of course he’s not going to be around

WSC It is hard for someone to exert the same control he did, now that clubs have all got 20 or 25 players in their squad. There’s always going to be someone who’ll go to the Mirror and complain when they’re left out of the team.

HP But there does seem to have always been a culture like that in Spain and other European countries of the players going to the papers and moaning about the way they’re treated, but the managers just seem to say, well, they’re entitled to moan, but so what? Whereas here it’s taken really seriously.

PB Our journalism forms genres. You hear Leboeuf complaining in France that all the players have prob­lems with Vialli. But you never know whether he said it with a glint in his eye. But then newspapers paste on things like, well, meanwhile, Marcel Desailly says we never seem to play until we’re 1-0 up. But what’s that got to do with it? So we have six bullet points of things that are wrong with Vialli, but maybe only one was uttered in the context of Vialli. We’re the most intellectually dishonest press that I’ve been able to read. If you read L’Equipe during the World Cup, they weren’t trying any tricks. You read what was happening, or their opinion on what was happening.

HP They certainly are critical though. There’s a perception that we’re the only country that builds them up to knock them down, and that’s not true. When I went to the Dutch camp during Euro 2000 after they’d beaten Denmark 3-0, they were criticising the performance all the time, they didn’t seem to care that they’d won 3-0. Would Kevin Keegan have put up with that if we’d beaten Denmark 3-0? I don’t think so.

From WSC 165 November 2000. What was happening this month