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Why you can’t believe all you read in the football press

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.”

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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.

10 comments to Why you can’t believe all you read in the football press

  • Nitram

    People want to be entertained, amused, shocked, emotionally moved. Unfortunately, or more likely fortunately, as much as we all have those moments in our lives they are usually few and far between. Or at least they would be from anyone outside looking, or reading in.

    Most humour/excitement etc. within a persons life is by nature very personal. To actually lead a life that is exciting to others is very rare, but it does obviously happen.

    I actually read lots of biographies and auto biographies, almost exclusively about rock/pop music icons, music being a massive part of my life.

    Now I must admit as I read them I tend to believe, without question what I am reading. Firstly because it is interesting, amusing, fascinating, shocking, all the things we want from a book.

    But secondly, and perhaps more telling, because I want to. Why would I sit and read through a book of my heroes simply to say, well that’s rubbish, that never happened etc.

    I want it to be true.

    And as sad as that may or may not be I think it is from that stand point that most people read almost anything.

    The fact they pick up Savages autobiography is surely because they like him, his attitude and behaviour. They know what they want to read. Savage knows what they want to read. It’s a kind of symbiotic relationship.

    I have recently read a biography by a rock/rave artist called Moby, that has some pretty radical claims in it. When I read it I was like WOW. For me it was a fantastic read. I saw no reason to disbelieve it.

    That was until certain stories were denied and Moby’s version utterly discredited.

    At which point I was not surprised at all.

    The fact was what I was reading was pretty unbelievable, but because I wanted to believe it, I did.

    And this is what so much journalism prays on.

    They know their audience. They know what they want to read. They give them what they want to read. Their audience believes what they are told.

    I mean why would you subscribe to Athletics website if you didn’t want to believe what they write? Most people don’t pay for something, at least not more than once, to simply keep saying ‘well that’s a load of ****’.

    Most people buy the daily Mail because they are of a right wing persuasion and are almost certain to believe every derogatory word written about my trade union without question.

    As you me and others have said many times Tony, what has happened to WHY?

    The answer is the media do not ask WHY because they do not want to know WHY.

    And the reason they don’t want to know WHY is I believe because they, rightly or wrongly, don’t think their readership even care as to WHY.

    And when I chat to my mates at work and try to raise some of the concerns we try to address on untold, their response tells me they are right, they don’t care.

  • Gord

    In an effort to bring back things Mom might have had in her youth (she started working for a living at age 15), I’ve mostly been playing music from the 50’s. And when driving the truck listening to the radio, I often here newer stuff there. To listen to every DJ gush about how wonderful every single current artist is, is annoying (same thing on the Golf Channel, every player is the best player who ever lived, …).

    But, on music. To listen to much of modern music, I would need to see the lyrics un order to understand the words in the songs. For the most part, modern singers seem to slur their words together (poor annunciation). It could be because the lyrics don’t actually rhyme, and so they morph the words. Other problems with modern singers, is the ones that screams or whisper songs.

    And then I listen to some of this older stuff: Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra come to mind. Most of their songs are easy to listen to and understand the lyrics. But, just because someone is a good singer, doesn’t mean they are a good person.

  • Chris

    @Nitram,

    I can see where you are coming from. In France, with the whole strike/social violence that went on last year and now keeps going, listening to what people ‘believe’ is astounding. Like the weekly hundreds of millions of Brexit lore.

    Panem et circences…. our civilisation has reached the same inflexion point as the Roman Empire. Whether it is games as in the ‘western’ world or ‘consumerism’ as in China, the elites are feeding the masses, manipulating them and the so-called press are just complicit.

    Pentagon papers, All the president’s men, Spotlight, those were real reporting stories done by real reporters. Interestingly the FIFA leaks are already forgotten…yet there would be so much to tell.

  • Nitram

    “Whether it is games as in the ‘western’ world or ‘consumerism’ as in China, the elites are feeding the masses, manipulating them and the so-called press are just complicit.”

    Spot on.

    “Pentagon papers, All the president’s men, Spotlight, those were real reporting stories done by real reporters.”

    And it is with that kind of journalism in mind that I concede, despite my inherent hatred of the media, that it is a necessary evil.

    When you see and hear how the elite, the rich and the powerful operate as it is, can you imagine for one second how badly they would behave if they didn’t, just for a moment, have that little suspicion that maybe, just maybe, someone is watching their every move?

    Alas the media are more interested in catching the likes of Jack Wilshere having a sneaky fag than they are in catching blatter pocketing a sneaky million.

  • Chris

    @Nitram,

    I must admit I do not agree with the ‘necessary evil’. In my opinion it is rather : thank God these guys did their job, for the Boston Globe even in this millenium. Any country that denies the press freedom is headed for dictature. Italy and the UK, with their respective government headed for control of their respective national TV stations are an example of sorts…. As for football, the money ‘press’ earn from advertising etc acts as a magnet and justifies any contorsion with truth. Considering how reporters risk their lives to report all over the world, this is just shameful. Hemingway ? Pulitzer ? Arnett ? Capa ? They’d have to google them. Not even able to report on a (stupid…) football game from the safety of their pressbox and the comfort they are being offered by the system. It is just pathetic that they call themselves reporters. They are external PR and nothing else.

  • Chris

    @Nitram,

    just by chance, this piece on the Guardian… nothing to to with football, yet…

    https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/jan/24/bbc-fergal-keane-to-step-down-after-revealing-he-has-ptsd

    I guess we all can agree that he is a reporter right ?

    So the whole scribblers writing or talking about football are what ?

    Does one gets PTSD promoting AFTV and reading an AFTV OUT sign on a wall ;=)))

  • Nitram

    Chris

    “thank God these guys did their job”

    Yes, when they do that, as opposed to when they propagate the Wilshere rather than the Blatter story.

    Investigative journalism is something to admire.

    Sensationalism, misinformation and complicity are something else altogether.

    But overall I think we are on the same page.

    The media is necessary, evil or not, to impose checks and balances on society, in all it’s guises.

    Unfortunately, it seems to me they have far too many vestige interests to allow them to carry them out.

    In short, the media have their snouts so far in the football trough to ever see, or even care, as to what is really happening.

  • Chris

    @Nitram

    we agree

  • ben

    Did anyone see the news doing the rounds of a disgruntled fan setting up Dial Square FC based in Addlestone?

  • Gord

    Maybe that AFTV person will play for them, and get his leg broken.