The football media has its favourites

POST-MATCH interviews are very anodyne. You could almost write the script yourself. Sometimes you wonder why TV channels bother to “get a few words from…” the managers of both sides. They are never going to give anything away, rarely going to admit to seeing a key incident and will never point to a weakness in their side.

Punditry has gone the same way, full of safe comments, cliché and jargon, and the big problem we have today is the fake intimacy that pundits have with players and coaches, referring to them by their first names rather than keeping it professional. What does this do? Only makes it harder to make an objective comment about a game, because we’re all mates.

The football professionals know that without their input, much of the activity on our TV channels is wasted. So, any contentious questions are batted away, or met with a “lost in translation” response. How often do you see a coach pretend he didn’t hear the interviewer’s question when he’s asked something hinting at mistakes made by a team or players, or even the coach himself? It’s a clever tactic to diffuse or distract the course of the interview.

Love and hate

The media have their favourite managers and players, indeed teams. Going back in time, Sir Alf Ramsey could never have won a popularity contest if he tried, largely because he refused to pander to anyone. Likewise, Don Revie was never appreciated because his team was a bunch of “outsiders” who didn’t belong to the football establishment. Bill Shankly could never do anything wrong and neither could Matt Busby. Brian Clough was great copy, but he kept interviewers on their toes. They loved him when things were going well, but equally, when they didn’t, they also made the most of it. In the case of Clough, Mourinho, Revie and Ramsey, schadenfreude was definitely the name of the game.

Today, everone seems besotted with Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, although both have shown they can become very prickly when asked difficult but pertinent questions. Although both manage elitist clubs, hence success is almost a given, there is an intense fascination and a little mystique around both men. In the case of Guardiola, he doesn’t seem like a football man with his tech bro appearance and slightly aloof demeanour. Klopp is more conventional in that respect, but he has the aura of a happy, wealthy European businessman with a good dentist from a well-heeled Bavarian town. It’s easy to be fascinated with both managers.

The media have always adopted clubs and managers as their chosen partners. Again, using history as a benchmark, Tottenham’s double-winners of 1961 were eulogised about for decades by the press, often seen as the perfect team of sophisticated push-and-run experts. And their manager, Bill Nicholson, was a much respected fellow. And yet, their success was short-lived and by the late 1960s, a distant memory. Nicholson tried, often in vain, to replicate that success and between 1971 and 1973, won more trophies, but his time as an innovator was over. Mauricio Pochettino enjoyed great consistency at the club, but he never won a trophy. In fact, nobody has ever matched Nicholson because the reputation that Spurs gained for their footballing quality was built by “Bill Nick”.

Similarly, West Ham were regarded, for years and years, as a footballing team based on the principles of Ron Greenwood, who actually left the club as manager in the mid-70s. Obviously, with two trophies and a team that included the England triumvirate of Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst, the Hammers’ deserved their plaudits, but the belief that this purist approach to football continued was something of a fallacy. Anyone who watched West Ham as they struggled to maintain their first division place would testify that at times, the football was abject, even if the atmosphere at Upton Park was to be savoured.

Lucky

Conversely, Arsenal had to convince people to shrug aside their reputation for being “lucky” and culturally defensive. When they won the double in 1971, there was no great acclaim that Bertie Mee’s side was the best in the land. Arsenal were “boring” according to the press and lacked charm. This put-down went back many years, indeed as far back as the Herbert Chapman era when the great man opted for a defensive style that was extraordinarily successful. While Chapman was seen as a great innovator and intelligent operator, his style was rather cautious, as noted by the Austrian coach Willi Meisl, who frequently questioned his friend why he had opted for defence-first option. Arsenal were consider “lucky” but basically, it was more that the Gunners were extremely strategic and economical. Only when Arsène Wenger brought his European ideals to Highbury (and then the Emirates), did Arsenal become form over function in the eyes of the football public. In fact, suddenly every reporter, TV personality and actor seemed to be an Emirates season ticket holder.

The other team that was revered as much as Spurs 1961 was the Busby Babes, for obvious reasons. It would be unfair to say that this team’s legend was enhanced by their tragic demise, but this was the best side in Britain at the time. This was really the first example of a team of home-grown youngsters coming to the fore, a process that was copied later by Chelsea and Burnley, among others. The Spurs team was never as influential because by the time Nicholson’s men scooped the hallowed prize, the lure of the continent was becoming evident. You could argue the Arsenal and Leeds sides of the late 1960s and early 1970s were influenced as much by catenaccio and the Italian giants of Milan.

Busby rebuilt United and created another great side, the Manchester United of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton. Rarely had any team included such outstanding talent. United, it was said, had beautiful football in their DNA, and post-Busby and indeed the holy trinity, countless sides had this burden hanging over them. Even at the end of the Busby period, it was a trial and when they were relegated in 1974 with Tommy Docherty in charge, they had a workmanlike unit that was not averse to clogging its way to survival. United’s “style”, which had long gone, took years to return under Alex Ferguson. If playing with flair was a prerequisite, it seems vaguely ridiculous they chose to hire José Mourinho knowing his pragmatism would be incompatible with United’s mythical ethos.

In and out

On a different level, there have been managers and clubs that have been lauded for their approach even though the quality of football has been questionable. Sean Dyche was idolised at Burnley, and rightly so given his record of keeping the club in the Premier League. Nobody was allowed to criticise Dyche’s style because of that very reason, yet Burnley were not the most watchable of teams. Yet the newspapers loved Dyche and his gravelly voice, but eventually, he was sacked by Burnley and they were relegated at the end of 2021-22.

Right now, Thomas Frank is one of the media darlings, along with Klopp and Guardiola. The press don’t really know how to take either Thomas Tuchel and Antonio Conte at Chelsea and Tottenham respectively, and Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta slips in and out of favour. Graham Potter at Brighton is highly regarded and seen as the sort of character who would be appointed England manager. Steve Gerrard is seen as heir apparent to Klopp’s Anfield throne.

It’s a moveable feast, though. Managers and teams can be flavour of the month at the start of the season and move to zero status in a few weeks, such is the fragile nature of success. There are 20 managers in the Premier, but only a small number get the bulk of the attention, because outside of the top two or three, the rest are just a couple of results away from the sack. No wonder they seem scared to say anything of consequence.

Oh, Hillsborough – media reaction

FOR the families of the 96 people that died at Hillsborough, there can never be any peace. That seems to be the conclusion from the latest twist in a tragedy that refuses to deliver closure for the mourners.

At some point, it may end, when the grieving relatives either gain satisfaction or there simply isn’t anyone left to stand trial, but the acquittal of David Duckenfield is likely to keep the flame burning for some time.

David Conn of The Guardian,  who has stood side-by-side with the relatives of the 96 for years, said the verdict was another example of the Hillsborough families being let down by the legal system. He called it one of the longest and saddest trials ever seen. Duckenfield was found not guilty of manslaughter although he had admitted some of his actions had contributed to the deaths of the Liverpool fans at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium.

Tony Evans, a Liverpool fan and journalist, commented in The Guardian that the verdict “defies logic” and that Duckenfield, who ordered the gates to be opened before the FA Cup semi-final, made “a catastrophic and deadly error”. Duckenfield blamed Liverpool fans for breaking into the stadium, which Evans described as the “cowardly deceit” that set the tone for everything that followed – “the founding myth of Hillsborough”. Actually, this myth still prevails – many football fans wrongly believe the root cause was partly attributable to the storming of the gates, despite the passing of time. “Duckenfield was throwing the blame and trying to avoid the responsibility for a decision that caused the carnage,” insisted Evans. Attendees at the subsequent press conference described Duckenfield as “a coward and a liar and a disgrace to the uniform”.

The Liverpool Echo  reported the comments made by Margaret Aspinall, the chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, “I blame the system that is so morally wrong within this country, that is a disgrace to this nation. When 96 people, that say 95 but we say 96, were unlawfully killed and yet no one person is accountable. We all know who is guilty, the families know who is guilty, the city knows who is guilty.”

Interestingly, Matthew Syed of The Times reported that “Hillsborough is too big a tragedy to be pinned on shoulders of one man.”

Syed takes the reader back to 1989 and how football was perceived: “As slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people.” David Conn highlighted that Hillsborough stadium was hopelessly ill-equipped and unsafe, but people should remember that Sheffield Wednesday’s ground, at that time, was considered one of the best in the land. It was a different time with different standards.

Syed described Hillsborough as part of the “culture of neglect” that also caused the Bradford City fire and Kings Cross fire. “Fans were herded like animals into all-standing pens, crush barriers were corroded and fractured and many were below the minimum recommended height. Gates in the perimeter fencing were too narrow and too few.”

The fans at Hillsborough were trapped by the fencing deemed essential in an age of hooliganism. In truth, Hillsborough was a disaster waiting to happen, a combination of neglect, the adversarial position taken by the authorities to football fans, as well as the game’s rusting, out-of-date facilities.

Syed’s report pointed out that Duckenfield acted after being told by Superintendent Roger Marshall that someone would die in the crush outside the ground if he failed to open the exit gates. “The jury concluded – wisely, in my view – that Duckenfield’s actions, taken under pressure in the most invidious of circumstances, can only be seen as part of a broader chain of events.”

The jury felt it would be unjust to blame such a multifactorial disaster on one man. Syed acknowledged that Duckenfield had lied, but he was being tried not on the charge of telling untruths but on serious criminal misjudgements during the event. He concluded: “The greatest tribute to the memory of the deceased is not to scapegoat a retired officer, but to learn the broader lessons of one of our nation’s defining tragedies.”

Sources: The Times, The Guardian, BBC, Liverpool Echo