By Tony Attwood
In the classic approach, football is an event that is controlled by the club manager who influences the players. The players play, we have a result. It is all down to the manager and the players on each side.
But it is self-evident that the crowd at the matches has an effect. The crowd has an effect by simply being there (it is a valuable source of income) or not being there (nothing more dispiriting than playing in an empty stadium).
The crowd also has an impact by its attitude – whether it cheers or jeers, or whether it is silent.
And then there is the media. Initially the newspapers, then radio and TV, then the blogs. They started out as reporters, talking about what had happened. That notion vanished a long time ago. Now they select, in advance, an attitude and an approach to each club and their reports are based around that established attitude.
What they say affects the way supporters see football in general and their team in particular.
In the 1970s the bulk of football on TV was in the form of edited highlights shown either on the saturday evening or the sunday afternoon, and during this time several newspapers started to complain that the TV companies were giving a wholly false idea of the way that the game was being played by skillful editing.
They did this because it became apparent to anyone who looked at both the TV presentation on “Match of the Day” and “The Big Match” and the Sunday newspapers, there was a growing disparity.
This came about because TV stations obviously wanted an audience, and they were not going to get an audience by proclaiming that matches were boring, negative, defensive etc. But for most matches the TV stations in Britain only showed recorded highlights so they were able to edit what was shown, to suit their message – that this was an attractive and intriuging game, even though it ended goalless, or just 1-0.
It was the Observer newspaper in April 1974 that broke with tradition and claimed that evening TV was turning humdrum games into supposedly exciting affairs through skilful editing and hyped commentary in order to keep the TV audiences up and make the viewers tune in week after week.
Football authorities were outraged by this newspaper reaction and expressed their concern, even suggesting that press passes might be revoked if the media spread such tales. Indeed some clubs did remove the press passes from some journalists and banned them from the ground, but of course the newspaper still had the chance to make their case and publicise the actions of the club.
But eventually, and to their eternal shame, the newspapers backed off.
From Arsenal’s point of view, a turning point came on 2 December 1978 as Arsenal faced Liverpool and 51,902 people turned up at Highbury. Arsenal won 1-0.
After the game, Bob Paisley, manager of supposedly superior Liverpool, a club that at that time was the absolute darlings of the TV stations, launched a tirade against the referee for having the temerity of booking Souness for fighting. In this tirade Paisley ignored the fact that the referee also booked Brady, O’Leary and Young but as TV showed it was Souness who started the fight and should have gone off after Thompson went down faking injury having tackled Stapleton.
What then happened was unexpected for several papers questioned why TV had edited out a number of the more rumbustious tackles from Liverpool. Arsenal in particular were unhappy not just with their visitors tactics, but also the impression given by TV that Arsenal were the perpetrators of the violence, rather than responding to it.
This was interesting because Liverpool were the darlings of the media – the team shown more than any other, and the team praised more than any other. To suggest even in one game that they were masters of all the black arts, and were getting away with them in front of the referee, undermined the whole basis of the presentation of Match of the Day at the time.
Quite what happened behind the scenes after that is not clear, but if you study the reporting of games by the papers you will see that the topic is dropped, as is any suggestion that referees were being lopsided in the way they dealt with players of different clubs, or that football was suffering from the violent tactics of Liverpool. The media in fact, shut up.
It was that moment that changed the reporting of football with the introduction of things that could be said and could not. At that moment the media unified into an approach, and stuck to it.
This is not to suggest that there was some kind of conspiracy going on although it does seem that the League suggested to some papers that their press passes would be revoked if they didn’t follow the party line which suggested that by and large games were entertaining, that violence was very rare, that referees were always neutral and accurate, and that there was no hidden agenda – such as editing games for TV to make them look more attractive than they were.
Of course the advent of live games made matters a little harder to control, except that TV soon found that they could influence the viewers view of the game simply by what the commentators said and of course some skillful use of different camera positions.
So referee errors in Premier League matches are discussed occasinally only as minor affairs, and anyone who suggests there is something amiss is offered a tin hat. The question of why some referees oversee so many games, when all logic suggests that having more referees would reduce any chance of corruption is never mentioned.
And thus here we are.
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