When match reporting becomes hot news
So what would life have been like last night for the English journos abroad? As the European phase of the World Cup qualifying programme entered not a crucial stage but, for the poison pens in the tabloids and broadsheets alike, a nonetheless pivotal moment for acerbic comment. If it was required.
Without doubt, the most disturbed of the travelling UK hack pack with England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would have been those from England. Even though the match against Poland was postponed due to torrential rain; even though they had no game to report on.
How do two, probably three, representatives from each national newspaper out in Warsaw fill the six to eight pages that they will have been allocated long before kick off? Believe me, that panic will have been multiplied a thousandfold back in the offices in London. Just what can occupy those huge blank spaces?
It is when the ingenuity of both journo and office kick in. Ideas will be frantically bandied about via mobile and email and, hey presto, there will be a good read this morning. Instead of fevered narratives about Roy Hodgson in/out or Wayne Rooney a Messiah/demon, it will be anti-Polish rants about how the joint-Euro 2012 hosts could not get it right.
Why, with the early weather forecast so grim, was the roof of the 500-million-Euro state-of-the-art stadium not closed? With both sides having to agree to that course of action, why did Poland reportedly refuse? And why did the hosts allegedly not want to play today at 4pm, when the fixture will now be restaged?
Enough copy there, surely, to fill a few gaps on the pages. Yet many scribes will still have been inconvenienced, having had to suddenly switch from writing their incisive match reports or “colour” opinion pieces to news articles based on what they know, at the time, as fact. It is not an easy art, especially when the truth is confused and conspiracy theories abound.
I have not been in this situation. Never have I attended an international match only for it to be postponed. But once, on an entrancing isle, the weather was so atrocious that it was astonishing that the match finished. We could not fly home that night, such were the hurricane-like conditions, and we had to wait until the next day.
Rebooking into the hotel that we had left just hours earlier was a logistical nightmare comparable to filing huge amounts of copy on a match that hadn’t happened. I recall sleeping in little more than a cupboard; it was all that was left. But you cope, you have to, and it was back to Blighty when the monsoon had abated.
Reporting on Northern Ireland, the Republic and Wales would have been relatively straightforward last night. For the North, it would have been a torrent of brave, battling, heroic cliches as they drew 1-1 with Portugal in Porto. And the Irish had led 1-0, too. What headlines would have followed back in Belfast had they held on to that advantage? Almost orgasmic.
The knives that had been sharpened for the Republic manager Giovanni Trapattoni, after the 6-1 surrender against Germany in Dublin, will have been put back into their sheaths after the 4-1 stroll against the Faeroe Islands in Torshavn. Some critics will have said that they should be thumping little more than a bunch of fisherman but Trap has just about earnt a stay of execution. Until the next game.
And Wales, having lost 2-0 to Croatia in Osijek, will just get the same old, same old treatment. Their 2-1 Gareth Bale-inspired victory over Scotland was just an aberration, a now-and-again freak result, before normal service was resumed. Let’s get back to rugby union, in which we have a real shout in every match – even against the All Blacks, the all-conquering oval-ball equivalents of Spain.
Scotland’s 2-0 defeat against Belgium in Brussels was not entirely disgraceful, facing one of the widely touted emerging forces of European and possibly world football. Yet with their World Cup qualifying campaign all but over, manager Craig Levein will be getting a severe battering this morning. The Scottish Press can be as vicious as their counterparts south of the border and will have aimed straight for the Levein jugular. It is not nice but, well, par for the course.
Of all my colleagues abroad, though, I would not have liked to be among those covering the 1-0 England Under-21 victory over Serbia in Krusevac. The 2-0 aggregate success was simple to review but that will have paled into insignificance at the final whistle and will have merited only a footnote.
English players appeared to have been racially abused, Danny Rose was harshly given a red card for reacting to it, individuals from the opposing squads scuffled as they headed for the tunnel and objects were thrown on to the pitch. A major news story had erupted and, please, do not blame the Fourth Estate for scandalising the issue. It happened. Open your eyes.
Monkey chants? I’ve heard them before on many trips into Eastern Europe, some of the home fans seeming to exist in the Dark Ages not far removed from when the wheel had been invented. And to have talked to the black English players afterwards, after they had been shredded professionally, culturally and emotionally, was not a pleasant experience for anyone.
At the end of one match in the Balkans, me and my colleagues in the Press box were insulted verbally – thankfully, I did not understand the native language – and were spat on as well as pelted with coins, marbles and bottles. It was not that conducive to writing pristine copy to a fast-approaching deadline. And the home team, with a late equaliser, had only drawn. Goodness knows what mayhem would have ensued had they lost.
So where would I have preferred to have been last night? Warsaw, Torshavn, Brussels, Osijek, Porto, Krusevac? An emphatically easy choice. Exactly where I was. At home.