Interview? Flash that cash
Interviewing a footballer at length, in the good old days, used to be pleasurable experience. Club press officers barely existed back then and the local journo could just turn up unannounced at the training ground, go where he needed to and chat to whoever he wanted.
Alternatively, you would ring the player – phone numbers were readily given out by most – at his home or agree to meet him there. And on matchdays, you could regularly travel on the team coach. Perhaps not with the top-flight clubs but certainly with those in the lower divisions.
There was rarely a “Them and Us” issue and, anyway, if the reporter made an error – inadvertantly or otherwise – it was usually sorted out over a beer or two or by a quick chat after training. Misunderstandings were swiftly settled, grudges rarely held.
No more. Those days are long gone and, sadly, to the point where it is almost impossible to arrange an interview with a player unless you go through the press officer – some of whom are utterly obstructive – put down your request in writing, probably in triplicate, and then are prepared to wait for up to two to three weeks for a decision. Even though you have already stressed that the article is to appear in this Saturday’s edition.
“The decision” is often made by Mr, Mrs or Ms P Officer. Sometimes they might pretend to speak to the player but don’t bother because they have already decided that the interview is “not suitable” – whatever that means – to the club at that time. Next up, probably contact the agent. Could be a tough cookie, that one, but if his “client” is young and up-and-coming and needs the newspaper exposure, he’ll probably agree.
Even if The Decision is left to, say, the celeb midfielder – assuming that word has somehow filtered through from the various other avenues you have tried – it is likely to be turned down on the gounds that, really, he just can’t be arsed to do it. Too much trouble.
Nowadays, however, flash the cash and eyes light up. Promise a mention of the player’s latest boot deal, shirt sponsor or charity – with, even better, a photogrpah – and both agent and player will suddenly be amenable. And Ms P Officer, whatever her protestations, might no longer have any say in the matter.
And what of the interview? Well, I have endured the lot. Among the best are bright articulate teenagers from poor backgrounds with a story to tell and they’re not afraid to tell it. Usually fascinating stuff that will do quite nicely, thank you, for a 900-word feature slot. And the boss and readers will love it, too.
Foreign players, especially those originally out of Africa, are usually good, too. They feel less uptight than their British team-mates and less intimidated about revealing personal details to, let’s face it, a complete stranger. Many also exude a genuine desire to have the sit-down tete-a-tete, a warmth often lacking in their UK-born colleagues.
But there are also the interviews from hell. I once turned up at a Midlands training ground to speak to an England star in the making. “Don’t ask him about that trip abroad that went wrong,” I was told by his agent. “Don’t mention his dodgy dad,” said the PR assistant. “And don’t dare ask him about his England prospects. We want to play that down,” said the club jobsworth.
“I have 800 words to fill,” I replied, utterly frustrated before I’d even met the player. “Is there anthing I can ask him?” And do you know what one of them said? “Ask him about the game on Saturday.” The fact that he was suspended and couldn’t play on the Saturday – and that the piece, anyway, was supposed to be a general study about his life on and off the pitch – had eluded them entirely. God give me strength …
More recently, I attempted to do an interview with a young player who constantly looked at and played with his mobile phone. He was clearly unable to function without it being switched on. After ten minutes of a prospective half-hour conversion, I’d had enough. “Expecting an important call,” I said. “Nah, just one of my mates,” he replied. I gave it five more minutes, just to get enough to form my article, and got up and left with hardly a second glance. Rude little sod. And I take great pleasure in that he never made it big time.
Unfortunately, “Them and Us” is here to stay – for ever – as the gap widens between footballer and journo, especially at the elite level of the game. The player lives in his own bubble and the hard-pressed hack is now frequently forced to exist on crumbs. If only the good old days would come back.
Then again, flash that cash and all is possible.