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Why football journalists should learn from their political colleagues and start asking questions

by Tony Attwood


It is rare for journalists to be banned by football clubs.

It has happened in a few cases in the old days when local newspapers held sway in provincial towns, and could often have sports sections that were highly critical of the local club. and I seem to remember Ken Bates serving one or two banning orders in his time.

But it is quite rare.  Normally where football journalists get into trouble it is for being politically incorrect – such as Richard Keys and Andy Grey whose notoriously sexist approach to football briefly embarrassed Sky Sports.  I’ve not followed their careers thereafter but I think they seem to have turned up on TalkSport, Al Jazeera, and beIN Sports and the like where such issues are of no consequence.

The key point here is that they, along with a few other commentators have been removed for being incorrect in a political sense rather than for being critical of, for example, referees.   The one person who has criticised refs constantly was Alan Green until one day he suddenly stopped.  Listen to his commentaries in the last five years and you don’t hear much about referees.  Go back ten years and the most common phrase was “How could the referee not see that?  I mean, how could he not SEE it?”

There is criticism of referees in the media – the Guardian this past weekend ran the headline (tucked away inside a general review) which read “Refereeing farce at Reading show it’s time for a change”.  It was for a women’s game.   That sort of headline is not seen for matches run by PGMO.

The problem we have however is not just that the media will not ever indulge in criticising referees, it is that they have taken the issue a lot further.

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The figures that Untold produced around the Burnley game which compared the number of tackles, fouls and yellow cards for just four PL teams generated a lot of commentaries -although one of the most extraordinary things from that piece was not mentioned: the fact that no one had produced those figures before.

Now I know there is a sort of anti-maths anti-intellectual tradition within football journalism (as if numbers are somehow intellectual!) and there is an absolute ban on considering the politics of who is allowed to attend press briefings, but refusing even to look at three columns of figures is pretty weird.  Especially when those figures showed such strange things.

Yet this refusal to consider such matters is only seen in football – and that surely tells us something.  Indeed I was reminded of this fact big time this past week when political journalists boycotted a government briefing Monday after the Prime Minister’s office started selecting who could attend and who not.

The notably free-thinking or occasionally left-wing publications such as the Daily Mirror, the i, HuffPost, PoliticsHome, the Independent and others were removed from an official government briefing.

Football journalists could and should have taken note of what happened next.   The rest of the journalists – the ones from the publications that the government felt were ok to have in Downing Street, walked out en masse, rather than let the government choose who gets a briefing.

Those leaving including representatives from the BBC, ITV, Sky News, the Mail, the Telegraph, the Sun, the FT and the Guardian.  I don’t have much good to say for some of those publications, but their employees certainly knew when to stand up and be counted at that moment.  Good for them.

Now, if only they would go and have a word with their football reporting colleagues….

What was so weird about the figures we did for tackles, fouls and yellow cards is not so much what is in the figures (and the numbers really are very strange) but rather the fact that a) those figures take a little bit of finding (they have not previously been gathered together in one place as far as I can see) and b) it was down to a private blog run by a handful of supporters to find them and publish them at all.

And that is the issue that many who did comment on the figures missed.   Why are these figures not published elsewhere, given that the results are so weird?  Why have they not been debated and the issue of why they are so strange not been resolved?

If you are a regular reader you may have noticed, this is a question I like to ask, because it is a question that gives us an insight into information that may be of interest.  Not always of course, but sometimes.

It is like asking why PGMO employs so few referees when it would give reassurance and help ensure that match-fixing was not taking place if each referee only took control of each PL club twice in a season.  Or why referees are banned from giving interviews, unlike in some countries.   These are good questions – and the issue is not just, “what is the answer?” but also “why is no one asking these questions?”

I will be producing a complete Premier League analysis of tackles / fouls / yellow cards as soon as I get time, unless someone would like to do it for me (email Tony@schools.co.uk) just to see if there are any other anomalies (I have no idea what it will show, so it may come up with nothing of interest – we shall see).

But in the meanwhile, I would refer football journalists and commentators back to their political colleagues and ask one question: why are you allowing PGMO, the PL and FA to determine what you discuss?   Go and talk to your political colleagues – they’ll show you how independent journalism is done.

2 comments to Why football journalists should learn from their political colleagues and start asking questions

  • Gord

    One source of commentary, used to have counters for treatments, just like for fouls and offsides. This was all treatments, not just the serious ones where a player might be lifted off pitch on a stretcher. They no longer have those counters, and most sources of commentary don’t even mention serious treatments any more.

    I think treatments should be part of the numbers, just like the set you’ve dug up.

    It is possible for a player to require treatment through no action by any opponent. But it is more likely (as football is a contact sport) that treatments are the result of contact. And this includes delayed response (such as knee into hamstring, and a short time later player goes down with hamstring problem).

    To me, if a player or team commits a lot of tackles or fouls, has some bearing on such concepts as being dirty, it is NOT sufficient. The dirty player or team, is the one whose actions cause injuries. Which means such talk as Ramsey broke his leg goes away. Ramsey did not break his leg, Shawcross broke Ramsey’s leg.

  • Les Martin ( LeMmy )

    Really would like to see this issue and other issues concerning the cosa nostra pgmo received by a wider audience.

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