by Tony Attwood
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One of the great problems with football reporting is that it is invariably a single-dimensional affair. The view of the journalist, the view of the player, the view of the fans… Just one is taken – and that is usually then only from one perspective.
But life if not like this. It is not uni-dimensional and single perspective. Yes the view of the journalist, player and fans might all be taken into account, but a good journalist or an intelligent fan will realise reality is more intermingled than this as each factor affects each other. Thus the view of each of those people might well be influenced not by the events of this moment, but by events in the past, by the imagined future and by the views and actions of others.
Yet that is not how football is portrayed – for football is portrayed very much as one viewpoint at a time.
Now I find this interesting because when I started working as a journalist many thousands of years ago, I wrote about rhythm and blues music – and there too the tradition was the same. Make each piece as uni-dimensional as possible. Don’t give the fans too much to think about.
And I was reminded of this vision through an article on the Athletic’s website in which an agent talks about a player forcing his way out of a club because he is fed up with his current employer. He’s under contract but he makes life so difficult for his club (including playing very badly) that the club’s management in the end has enough and sells him.
And I’m sure that happens. Indeed Robbie Savage is cited as an example of a man who “played just about every trick in the book when he wanted to leave Birmingham City for Blackburn Rovers in January 2005. He lied to Steve Bruce about aspects of his private life, turned on the tears when the two of them were talking in the manager’s office and, in what ended up being the Welshman’s last game for the club, went through the motions.”
Having listened to Savage in broadcasts I can imagine that is the rather stupid sort of thing he would do – and I can also imagine him boasting about such escapades, as I am told he has done in his autobiography.
Except, when it comes to autobiographies the story strays into my field. I’m not a football journalist, but for many years I ran a publishing company, as well as a marketing company and a printing company. Not giant corporations, but fairly well known in their own specialist areas. And I know that with autobiographies it is very common indeed for the editor to go back to the author and say, “It’s getting very dull around chapter six – can’t we spice it up a bit?”
Now we didn’t publish many autobiographies and the ones we did do were not of people who would benefit from career killing stories of the Savage type, but I saw it happen all the time. Minor events, arguments even, blown up into major earth-shaking moments to help the sale of the book – which (and this is most important) appears when the player’s career is done and when he’s now promoting himself as a TV personality.
Believing what is said in a modern footballer’s autobiography is like believing what’s in a political manifesto or the lyrics of a pop song. You can do it if you wish, but it says more about your credulity than the player’s ability to make stuff up.
The fact is that if a player really makes a huge fuss, refuses to play, plays badly etc etc while at a club, the first thing the buying club thinks is, “If he can do that at club X he can do that again with us. Don’t buy him.” And that means that the player’s value will drop like a stone – because when the player plays those tricks to get out of a club a SECOND time, everyone knows it will happen a third time.
The three companies I ran didn’t have a turnover remotely in the range of a Premier League club, but we had around 45 staff, and there were always difficult buggers in the team. The aim or our personnel department was to nudge them into line, and if they wouldn’t do their job, move them on as fast as possible. I’m sure its the same in football.
Indeed in writing the daily Arsenal History Society blog I often focus on the history of players who have now retired. Some played at just a handful of clubs, but others went from club to club, never playing more than a few games, never settling down. And yes there are some company directors who think, “He won’t try that on with me,” before finding out that the player will, the player does, and the player has to be moved on.
So yes there are some such cases, but not as many as the Savage tale would have us believe. And here’s the problem. Football journalism has become the journalism of the sensation, of the ever bigger and bigger story in a world in which 97% of the tales told are fake. And yes, sadly, a few very simple folk start to believe that the whole thing is real. That they are bigger than football, that “they’ll soon see who they are dealing with,” that “I’ll show them,” and so on.
Thus the Athletic’s article, “Deliberately playing badly, refusing to go on tour and threatening to score an own goal – there are many routes to a club’s exit door” seems, like many other pieces it publishes, to miss the point: there are difficult people in all walks of life, but most of them quickly sink to the bottom, because you can only play tricks like that once, or at most twice. Employers can recognise story-tellers and excuse-makers a mile off – and if they can’t they quickly stop becoming employers.
What the Athletic is missing in most of its pieces is the simple fact that the key problem with football is the journalism. It is the journalism that has become ever more sensationalist, as crazier and crazier tales are told as if true. To gain an audience each new story has to be wilder than the last. If it is not, the media quickly lose interest and seek out today’s even wilder storyteller elsewhere.
Of course it is quite amusing that some of the players have learned how to con the journalists – but on the other hand, doing so is not that hard. In the end it is all a little bit silly.
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