In football journalism there is no race to the bottom, we’ve always been there

by Tony Attwood

There is an article in The Atlantic in which a reporter tells how she created a new identity on Facebook, clicked “like” on the official Donald Trump page, and waited to see what happen.

Now before you rush away because I’ve posted an article on Untold which should be on some fanatical far left pro-EU website that you maybe think I run in my spare time, hold on because this article belongs here and does relate to football – and particularly Arsenal.

The writer of the article in The Atlantic goes on to say, “There were days when I would watch, live on TV, an impeachment hearing filled with damning testimony about the president’s conduct, only to look at my phone later and find a slickly edited video—served up by the Trump campaign—that used out-of-context clips to recast the same testimony as an exoneration. Wait, I caught myself wondering more than once, is that what happened today?”

Now this maybe won’t surprise you – we know happens in football.  Don’t we?

Imagine that you were working in a newspaper back in the late 19th century in the area of south London where the Royal Arsenal workers lived when the initial great football explosion happened.  At first several of the local newspapers that covered the area refused even to mention football, finding it a coarse and unworthy topic to report.   Within two years the managers of the papers were complaining that there were more readers comments about football being made, than on any other subject.  They gave in, and football became a topic.

Now that moment was important, because not only did those newspaper editors have to decide if they were going to recognise their readers’ leanings and make football a topic that was reported, they had to decide there and then how to cover it.

At first it was detailed factual reporting of what happened in a match, nothing else.  But It didn’t take long for the local media to find their way – unless their local team was doing very well, (and of course that normally only meant about 5% of the clubs, and even these didn’t win every match) – they would be criticial, reporting what was wrong and telling the hopeless management and directors, how to put it right.

So, in the late 19th century the tradition was started – but it wasn’t just the start of the tradition of telling the manager and players where they were going wrong, it was the launch of the notion that said that the solution to the club’s problems was easy to find.  So easy to find that a man with no background or experience in football could see what was wrong and describe exactly how to put it right.

Of course there was nothing particularly unusual about this in journalism – local and national papers did it all the time with politics.  But in the 19th century there was still a certain level of decorum in the way a lot of politics was written about, with our leaders being treated with respect even by papers that opposed them.   But with football, that could all vanish.  A new way of writing could be evolved in which the newspaper writers, with no knowledge or expertise, could appoint themselves experts.   Not, we may note through extra knowledge, not through being a football professional, but because he was published.

In doing this however there was a side effect.  Criticism from a person generally with no qualifications or experience in the game, opened the door to every supporter with no knowledge of anything in football, to criticise.

Now that criticism had to be simple; simple for the writer who had no knowledge of what playing football, running a club or managing a team was all about, and simple for the reader who might well come from a background of a modest education and a world view that emphasised simple “common sense” answers.

What this meant was that the more insightful approach to football analysis never had much chance to get going.

As a result it is hard to find a media organisation that thinks that publishing transfer stories, 95+% of which are totally unfounded, is a way of doing football journalism.  Just as it is impossible to find a media organisation that has not abandoned the child sex abuse in football clubs stories or Fifa corruption stories.  Just as it is impossible to find a media outlet that criticises the FA over anything – and certainly impossible to find one that says that of all the organisations in the world that could put in a bid for England to host the world cup (if there should be such a use of public money that is) the one least able to handle the issue is the FA.

And what is particularly clever is that this approach to football journalism doesn’t even have a name.  It is not the same as Blair rebranding his party New Labour, or the Trump supporters coming up with the name “post-libertarians,” because to give such names you have to have a concept of development and change.  In football journalism there is none of that.  It just is.  A set of fantasy reports pretending to be related to the real world.

What this style and approach brought was simple statements to explain why this team was not top of the league.  And when the internet came along the meaning was simplified even more to meet the new simplified view of the world.  110 players who were going to sign for Arsenal each summer and would have done if the club had not been so slow and the directors so stupid.  That’s the story.

Thus simplicity became normalised.  The evidence of my own eyes was evidence.  Read in one way these commentaries and match reports sound like jokes – as if anyone could see how to make this team win.  But it happened every day, constantly and ultimately it sounded as if they were not joking at all.

Any attempt to bring proper statistical analysis into the conversation was derided.   Even on public service broadcasting criticism and negativity was the order of the day and as the phone-in became a major part of post-match experience the message was given that the views of supporters who had no expertise or experience of management in football, was as valid as the views of the professional club manager.

Desperately the radio stations, who loved the phone ins as dirt cheap to run and so easy to present, tried to balance the unbalanced – the notion that the opinion of the person phoning in was as valid as the commentary of the “expert” presenter – while at the same time justifying the notion and indeed the very existence of the “expert” presenter.

And then, with the rise of the football blogs, the journalists and broadcasters who had themselves taken control of the narrative when the narrative started, lost it to the simplistic bloggers.  After all if an unqualified journalist can hold forth with an opinion backed up by no evidence, why can’t an unqualified blogger or person phoning in to a radio station?

So the bloggers took control of the narrative and instead of fighting back the journalists whose narrative was based on a false premise that they knew what was going on, had to let them in.

Thus we had a race to the bottom.  Instead of denouncing the ultra simplistic transfer rumour based narrative of the blogs as the mindless gibberish it is, the newspapers took them up, each anxious to have their own stories from ever more unbelievable, previously never heard of, sources.

But elsewhere something had changed.  In the 1930s there was clearly one dominant team: Arsenal.   But read the newspapers of the day and you will find criticism of Arsenal, and Arsenal players.  It was ceaseless and resourceless and only brought to an end by the outbreak of war in 1939.

Post war various teams rose to the top, but for many years none dominated as Arsenal had done in the 1930s.  Portsmouth, Man U and Wolverhampton Wanderers all won the league two seasons running but none could manage the third season, or stay in the race for a decade.   Wolves for example after their two titles gained and second and third place, but then faded out of contention.  Leeds got a top two finish in six out of eight years but only one of these was the title, and somehow Leeds as a city didn’t have the cache of a city of champions.

But when Liverpool got their third post war title in 1973 the attitude changed.  Liverpool was officially a good thing by then – the Beatles had had their 17th number 1 hit in 1969 and represented a musical fight back against the dominance of America.  The Beatles and Liverpool, by media consensus, were not to be criticised, and if their music was officially a good thing then so was their football team.

Winning the league in 1973 meant for simple journalism Liverpool was good.  It was good because of 17 number 1s followed by eight seasons of Liverpool in the top two in the first division.  And after a one year break another 10 years of Liverpool in the top two.

Sports journalists who had started with a modicum of cultural authority lost it all – there was no attempt to remain neutral in reporting different clubs.   Liverpool were winning everything so Liverpool were the gods and no one was going to start criticising Liverpool, no matter what they did because Liverpool was the home of the Beatles.  Which then meant no one was going to start considering dubious refereeing decisions, or the number of goals the club got between the 88th minute and the end of injury time.

Any attempt at cultural neutrality vanished.  Just as the Beatles were good in the way that the London based Rolling Stones and Who were very clearly not, so Liverpool FC were good because Liverpool was good.

Even the 1985 Heysel Stadium riot couldn’t shift the image, for if Liverpool fell from grace so must everyone – all English clubs were banned from Europe, not just Liverpool not least because week after week it was Liverpool that was seen on Match of the Day,  one of the very few football programmes that TV ran.

Had just Liverpool been kicked out of  European football then there might have been a balancing up, but with no English clubs in Europe Liverpool were given free rein to continue their media built image as the cultural capital.  Even the conviction of 14 Liverpool fans of manslaughter didn’t affect the club’s image, in an era when the media were perfectly capable of generalizing outwards from a base of one or two.

Thus when in 1984/5 Liverpool was challenged not by a southern team but by Everton, meaning that when we got seven years of the league being won by either Liverpool or Everton, (a run ended by Arsenal in 1988/9) few journalists were in the mood to ask if this domination was actually good for football.

Liverpool culturally was officially good, and 39 deaths in Brussels was not going to harm that image.

As the fans began to have their own opinion expressed via social media, the broadcast media tried to keep up by giving the fans a voice on phone ins, but have subsequently found that they were simply trapped in a system in which one group of people with very limited knowledge of how football worked (football journalists) were sharing a platform with another group of people with very limited knowledge of how football worked (fans).

The journalists had created the narrative and the fans accepted it, simply taking it to further extremes, in valuing opinion without evidence above everything.  All opinion is of equal merit since we never bothered with evidence anyway.

Social media (although most people who use it don’t realise this ) is based on patterns – movements of ideas.   Make an idea move fast enough and there is no limit its impact can have and this is what happened to Liverpool.  Liverpool from football to music was officially “good” and the deaths at Heysell rather than changing that opinion, were not going to have a long term impact.

What social media did was hand power to the social media companies that gave the populace free reign.  That didn’t cause a shift in what the media talked about from facts to opinions because football already had nothing but opinion.   As those who ran social media realised “Boredom is the enemy.”   Sentences became shorter, full stops replaced commas.   Analysis more or less ended.

So as the news sections of newspapers and radio stations started to get rid of their fact-checkers they found that they already had a whole section of their work that had no fact checkers – football reporting.  At a moment when football reporting could have been challenged by having fans check the facts the media had never been interested in, the fans found that the media now reflected the vision of the most ardent ill-informed fan.

Just as social media worked on the basis that “if it gets shared, it’s quality” so football found it was ahead of the game.  Opinion was everything because that was all the media had ever given the football going public.

There was no race to the bottom.  We were already there.

24 Replies to “In football journalism there is no race to the bottom, we’ve always been there”

  1. Once again, Mr Attwood, you’ve brilliantly written about a subject that fills me with part anger and part despair. Keep it coming, dude.

  2. Hi Tony.
    The problem for the print media is that newspapers are increasingly irrelevant to the average sports fan. Live broadcasting, streaming etc means that sports writers are no longer needed produce a match report as it will not be read until the next day at the earliest. By which time their product is fit only to be used as a wrapper for fish and chips.

    I’ve no idea how much of the “information” printed is based on fact, although I suspect most is largely speculation.

    A look at the recent transfer window shows that despite the number of players clubs were said to be looking to sign, or sell, only a dozen or so significant transfers went ahead.

    It’s not all bad news for the redundant sports writers, I understand that Uber are looking to expand their force of drivers.

  3. Our friends in the north have long lived a special status and have avoided criticism for the actions of their Cheeky Chappie , Tarbuck like fans . I was in a bar in Spain as the Heysel incident occurred , the media their were less squeamish about showing the charge of red wearing supporters and the wall collapse. I had to apologise to the Dutch and Spanish people my wife and I were with. It was obvious where the blame lay.
    Move on to the more local tragedy in Yorkshire anyone that stood on terraces duing the 60’s and 70’s had a very good idea of what happened . Their fans were renowned for charging turnstiles , late arrivals steaming into grounds as the pubs emptied . Yet they somehow managed to put the blame on everyone else .
    They are not universally known as the victims for no reason.

  4. Brave man, porter.
    As you say, the ‘scally’ element of which you speak was indeed in evidence at Highbury, many times in the 60s/70s.
    I remember one notorious incident when, 5 minutes into the match, a great surge of drunken northern yobs pushed into the packed North Bank from the side nearest the steps up from the Gillespie Road turnstiles and scattered us. I got separated from my pal Vince and was unable to find him until the second half, by which time the police had come in en masse and formed a line down the middle of the terraces. I unfortunately had ended up on the ‘wrong’ side of that line and had to endure the nasal whining of these idiots, who plainly considered themselves authorities on the play, the pitch, the floodlights, the London police etc etc.
    On the way out, we saw wooden doors on the turnstiles torn off their hinges and learned that just such an occurrence as you have mentioned had happened.
    Never witnessed quite the same degree of trouble with the hooligans of any other teams.
    And as for Heysel..”We woz just runnin’, didn’t mean any harm!” I heard one scouse thug justify what happened that day.

  5. Hi Tony, hope you don’t mind, Man City fan (old) here. At first I was a little sceptical even though we seem to be the main target as their current biggest threat, but your thoughts take pace on further reading.
    I have always wondered why ex footballing pundits follow the line they and we are fed even though they must(?) have football knowledge. Even our own ex players seem to follow it. Given the teatment of Leeds recently when they sent someone with a pair of binoclulars to spy on Derby and the punishment recently of J Henry’s other team in baseball, it can only support your ideas when no action was taken against Liverpool when they hacked our systems repeatedly in 2013 and has only just come to the FA’s knowledge. Now given they have broken Data Protection laws and there could be criminal procededing, why have the FA decided to take no action.
    Why did City take the settlement (god knows we dont need the money) and not take it further?

    I don’t give a monkeys really. I was only ever interested in what went on, on the pitch and they have taken control of that now. I hate how they ‘weaponise’ us against each other with lies though. Stadiums are now more hateful for it.

    Thanks for your interesting take on it.

  6. Paul, and thank you for your comments: and particularly that final point that we are all being weaponised against each other by the media for their own benefit – that is to say to get more readers. That is a most interesting perspective, and one that (for all my labours in writing about the football media – a key theme on this blog) I have not considered. I am going to take it up, and will of course acknowledge your creation of the notion – and hopefully do it justice. Again, thank you.

  7. The media speaking from the ditch of lies has been doing this for years and years.
    The so called ‘trusted elements’ of th media are no different from the tiger that says it wont eat you.

  8. Snowden I agree – but I think that Paul Ogden is right as well – that the media has now taken this further and further and is now weaponising the fans, encouraging the fans to be ever more hateful, ever more angry. I think that is a most valid point and one that has never struck me before. They are endlessly turning the fans into the story, but for that story to keep going they are making the fans more and more angry.

  9. I think the media recognise clubs that try and do things properly. Like growing organically, growing by being run properly, investing in the right players and developing their own. Over decades. Building up romantic history in that time. Having fabled fans that are part of the club and its history and traditions. Clubs like Liverpool, Man Utd and your very own Arsenal.

    I completely get why the media don’t recognise achievement when it’s “bought”. A bit like at Man City. They are owned by a sovereign oil state trying to airbrush their reputation internationally. Instead, they are under investigation for blatantly cheating. This is why the media as a whole do not cover their “achievement”. It’s the reason their players get overlooked for every player of the year award or ballon d’ore award. Everyone knows.

    As for Hysel, I’m not sure how old you are or how much research you did. But isn’t it surprising that for a set of fans that supposedly “ruined” the UEFA showcase final that the same UEFA refer to them as “European Royality”.

    Also, have you ever wondered why one of the best managers in the world, who was 17 at the time of Hysel, a European, and a humanist, wanted to manage Liverpool, at a time where they were constantly finishing in 7th or 6th place. He described them as “a romantic club”.

    If journalism was fair and balanced, then surely those that were interviewing Gaurdiola after the FA cup final would have followed up the question about whether he was receiving a 2nd undeclared income from his employers. A question which Gaurdiola side stepped.

  10. Hi Harry,

    I know there is little chance of changing your opinion of City, won’t really try. My take on Tony’s article is that we as suppoters are being weaponised against each other with propaganda. Yor example of City being owned by a sovereign fund has no basis in reality and that City have bought success (if we have a bottomless pit why don’t we use it?) when we don’t hold any transfer records? We had to start from further back.

    I loved watching the old Arsenal side that took us to the cleaners at Maine Road once, they were brilliant with some fantastic signings. After the Littlewoods money came into Liverpool they built a proper dynasty which was fantasic to watch. We are being told what really matters, and it’s not football. You are having a fantastic season and deserve the title. If history tells us anything, it’s that football comes in cycles. Maybe it’s the start of yours.

  11. OT: Everton 3 1 CPalace

    Fouls were 12:12, yellows were 0:1. Coote is the PGMO twit for this game. CPalace inflict a treatment on Everton at 21m (punishment for an assist?). Sargent Coote Schultz sees NOTHING. Three minutes later, that person needing treatment is substituted. Everton inflict a treatment at 60m, and this player is substituted. Sargent Schultz sees NOTHING.

    Bang up job by the PGMO in this game. Both teams got players banged up; and not a smidgen of discipline in sight for this.

  12. Paul, I agree the Arsenal side was fantastic to watch. I remember when they played Liverpool, it was the only time part way through the game I stopped being a Liverpool fan and was instead a football fan admiring their football.

    In relation to the Littlewoods comment, the Moores family were local and invested in both clubs in the City. Their support for a local team is not even on the same planet compared to what’s happened at City.

    You don’t hold the transfer records it’s true. But I think that might be a way of being under the radar as far as FFP is concerned. The fact you can throw £50m at full backs you don’t use is an example of the recent money has been used on the tier below the elite players. In addition, the very best players may be motivated by other factors apart from just money. Which might be the reason they haven’t come.

  13. As for Hysel, I’m not sure how old you are or how much research you did. But isn’t it surprising that for a set of fans that supposedly “ruined” the UEFA showcase final that the same UEFA refer to them as “European Royality”.

    Heysel as I said I watched it live where the event was not airbrushed and If it really matters I am in my middle seventies.
    As for European Royalty , I think you will find that quote followed your win in Istanbul and even if it was about the club , I very much doubt following the death of the Juventus fans any Eufa official would have said it about the fans.

  14. Tony, your article is conflating the argument that the fans are part of the club and the two are inextricably linked. Therefore I doubt UEFA who banned the club and the fans together after Hysel will have disassociated the two with their “European Royality” comment. Which, when I heard it for the first time was the draw for the quarter finals in 2018.

  15. For those that keep on peddling the myth that MCFC are the biggest spenders – Liverpool under klopp have actually spent £424,000,000 on players including breaking the transfer record for a CB in VVD for £75m – whilst City only spent £62m on a much younger Laporte.
    Yes, city spent on fullbacks but how is that different from breaking a transfer record for a goalkeeper as Liverpool did – yet somehow that’s seen as brilliant business?
    Manchester United have spent EXACTLY the same amount of money as City over the last 5yrs and continue to break transfer records (mcfc do not hold a single record) including a ludicrous 145m for Pogba………
    Since MCFC won every domestic trophy last season – I’d say they spent their money very wisely……..

  16. I remember listening to accounts on the radio from the 2007 Champions league final where Livepool fans were ringing into Radio 5 with stories of how they used fake tickets, or simply ran as a crowd through security that day to get into the final.

    Soon after it emerged that fans with actual tickets were left outside and actually dispersed with tear gas as the ground was shut half an hour before the match as it was aleady full.

    Later Uefa described Liverpool fans as the ‘Worst behaved in Europe’.

    I just sat there listening to these fans bragging about how they snuck into the game and realised that no lessons have been leant from Heysel or Hillsborough.

    I expect some sort of national outage or certainly a backlash against match going fans but it all went quiet vey quickly. Almost as if the press didnt want people to talk about it.

  17. Paul Ogden

    “Your example of City being owned by a sovereign fund has no basis in reality and that City have bought success (if we have a bottomless pit why don’t we use it?) when we don’t hold any transfer records? We had to start from further back”.

    Paul, I have enjoyed reading your posts and I think you have made some interesting points and made some kind observations, but I think you are deluding yourself with the above denial.

    To deny Man City have ‘bought’ their trophies has no basisin reality.

    The following is City’s spend on transfers over the last 12 years:

    Gross = £1.5 BILLION

    Nett = £1 BILLION

    That is a NETT LOSS on transfers of ONE BILLION POUNDS. That is mind blowing.

    If that isn’t a ‘Bottomless Pit of Money’ I’d hate to see what you’d spend with one.

    Whether I think that is right or wrong is irrelevant, we can all have our own opinions on that, but to deny the spending of that money has got you where you are somewhat undermines your credibility I’m afraid.

    As for the 2 teams, both recent City teams and the current Liverpool team are 2 of the best teams to of graced the premier league and are definitely the closest anyone has come to our very own invicibles.

    They are both a pleasure to watch.

  18. It’s a myth that City are 1, “State owned” and 2, have an “endless pit of money”. City have been self-sustaining for around 7 years now. Both Liverpool and City are 2 of 15 clubs worldwide that have spent over a billion (net spend is irrelevant, it’s still spending big) in the last ten years. I’ve lost count of how much silverware City have won since then….I can count on one finger what Liverpool have won. Why was it OK for Liverpool to be invested in in the 60’s, but it’s not ok for City now? City didn’t start it….they just got the best and managed it better. By the way…the Henry Moores is from Eccles.,…back in the 60’s, that’s like foreign for Merseyside!

  19. Hi Nitram,
    Sorry if I wasn’t clear, but I didn’t deny spending that money, just that other clubs have done so for ever. Although the amounts over time are relevant to that particular moments in time, many have done it. The point I was trying to make was, we are being given reason to hate each other and in turn our clubs, as these issues were not important at the times.

    You don’t hear anything being said about Barcelona’s debt or Madrid’s. You don’t organically grow 750m in debt. But fine, if they can borrow it great – there is nothing I can do about it but support and focus on my team, until the time we drop 3 divisions and it’s about the team again.
    Sunderland in the 50’s (even before my time!) were known as the bank of England club, and look at them now. They are a proud club and hopefully come back to former glory. There is always someone with more money and more clever than you or more importantly miss manage a club. Look at Utd. I have family and friends who are reds and I feel a tad sorry for them (not lots obviously). The richest club in England with the biggest wage bill but their squad doesn’t reflect that. They took their eye off the ball – but they will be back.

  20. Mark L Roberts

    “net spend is irrelevant, it’s still spending big”

    How do you work that out?

    It is massively relevant because Nett is just another way of saying loss.

    “City have been self-sustaining for around 7 years now.”

    Of course they have.

    “Why was it OK for Liverpool to be invested in in the 60’s”

    To compare the relative levels of investment of Liverpool in the 60’s and yours now is ridiculous.

    “but it’s not ok for City now?”

    Where did I say that? My biggest issue is with the denial that you are even spending it. At least Paul isn’t…….

    Paul Ogden

    “Sorry if I wasn’t clear, but I didn’t deny spending that money, just that other clubs have done so for ever.”

    They may well have done, but to nothing like close to the level city have done.

    Your average transfer Nett spend (or put another way, loss on transfers) per season, for the last 12 years, is over £80 Million per season. I know it wasn’t you, but for Mark L Roberts to claim that City’s a) Nett spend is irrelevant and b) City have been making a big enough profit to cover that loss (even taking into account the trophies you’ve won, being donated a stadium and the creative stadium sponsorship), is fanciful in the extreme.

    It’s true Chelsea were also donated a lot of money but their nett spend is still only about half of what you have been spending.

    And yes, your neighbours spend a lot of money but they too have a nett spend around half yours, and what’s more they actually DO earn enough to cover their losses, and some, given their still massive World wide marketing. The fact they are currently being run like an East End market stall is irrelevant.

    “You don’t hear anything being said about Barcelona’s debt or Madrid’s. You don’t organically grow 750m in debt”.

    Don’t you? Tony has done a few articles on those 2, but no of course you wont of heard anything from the media, just as you hear very little about your spend from the media, and in any case, what happens outside the premier league is irrelevant.

    “But fine, if they can borrow it great”

    Are you claiming that what you are spending is a lone?

    “There is always someone with more money and more clever than you or more importantly miss manage a club”.

    Yes there is. That is not my point.

    My point is by how much, where it came from and how it was acquired.

    Now to be fair you don’t seem to be denying how much you spend, but you are insinuating others have spent (relatively) or are currently spending similar amounts, which is absolutely untrue.

    You also seem to be claiming it’s a loan, which again is clearly untrue.

    To finish I just want to touch on your main point, which I think Tony has picked up on in a subsequent article, and that is:

    “The point I was trying to make was, we are being given reason to hate each other and in turn our clubs, as these issues were not important at the times.”

    I do not hate City or their fans. I have always had a soft spot for City ever since the days of Bell, Summerbee, (Not sure about Lee) and Hartford.

    As I have said, I love watching City and agree they are a wonderful team to watch.

    What does annoy me though is City fans:

    -Denying the sheer magnitude of the money you have been gifted and subsequently spent.

    -Trying to claim others have spent the same. (show me?)

    -Trying to claim City’s turn over covers an £80 Million loss per season and has done for the last 7 years. (Show me?)

    So no, I don’t hate you, or Mark or City.

    I don’t like it when fans deny what has happened at City, and even when they don’t deny it, try to claim other clubs have done the same, which they clearly haven’t, at least not to anything like the same degree.

  21. Wonderfully written and a good read. How the newspaper has lost its place is in some ways sad but still the electorate are influenced by the page 3 sales. The TV has also played its part in influencing thinking and sport has had lots of exposure to the standards of lies and damned lies.

    The fans that steam into grounds have not entirely died out but the new turnstiles and security systems have played a part in calming things down.

    The Heysel riot had both sides doing as much damage to the game and should have been equally punished. Our PM at the time, having sold the ‘family silver’ took it upon herself to blame the English fans and rob all other teams of the opportunity of European competition.

    This allowed the formation of a power house away from the capital that led to the PGMOL and the corrupt phone book and the 80 second minute.

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