When football hacks earn their corn
When is a football reporter not a football reporter?
When he attends a football match and a major news story suddenly breaks out. When the match report becomes secondary, if not irrelevant; when a player lies in a heap on the field of play; and when it quickly becomes apparent that he is not nursing a minor injury but is seriously stricken.
As happened at White Hart Lane on Saturday, when Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton Wanderers midfielder, suffered a heart attack. Most, if not all, of the “live” copy already written by the hacks – about Gareth Bale’s own goal, about Kyle Walker’s equaliser for Tottenham – was consigned to oblivion with a tap of the “delete” button.
And from writing about the magic of the FA Cup, crunching tackles and missed chances, the bewildered journalist is transported into the world of life and death. This is where he earns his corn: how quickly can he separate the wheat from the chaff? With fact merging with fiction in a frantic swirl, how quickly can he establish the full story?
Not easy. For the young scribe making his way in the profession or for the seen-it-all old-timer. And with deadline fast approaching – remember, it was an evening kick-off – their mobile phones would have been ringing crazy as the sports desks demanded to know what the hell was going on in North London.
Most desks will have been watching on television and will have heard the sombre tones of the usually hyperventilating presenters. And with many of the “talking heads” referring to Muamba in the past tense – he “was” a nice guy, not he “is” a nice guy – they will have immediately feared the worst. But who could verify anything for certain as the wild and, mostly, inaccurate rumours circulated?
It might sound harsh, objectionable even, but obituaries would have been hurriedly prepared. It had to be done, just in case. And even when it was later confirmed that Muamba had survived but was in a critical condition, the obits would have been kept, just in case.
Have a look at some of the “background” articles written about Muamba in the Sunday newspapers, those informing the reader of his inspirational journey from the Democratic Republic of Congo to England. Change the tense from present to past and many of them read like obits. But that is the mantra of the newspaper world – Be Prepared.
And believe me, there is nothing worse than writing a glowing appreciation of a sportsperson as if he has passed away when, in reality, he is still very much alive. I was once asked to do this when a footballing icon was fading fast and, after three hours’ research, began to write.
But I just couldn’t stomach it and gave up after two paragraphs. It felt ghoulish, disrespectful, shameful. I told the office that I’d finished it but would hold on to it until it was needed. Thankfully, it never was. The icon recovered. Had it been needed, though, I would have had to write my swiftest copy ever … or be found out and reprimanded.
To have been among the Press at White Hart Lane on Saturday would have been horrendous – not only because of the grim nature of what was unfolding in front of you, much of which was unclear, but also because you would be expected to produce supposedly sensitive words amid the ever-changing chaos.
And those among the pack who have never received a day’s news training – nowadays, quite a few – might have struggled to compose anything beyond the normal sporting cliches. Even those with decades of experience could have been overcome by the enormity of the events.
I once spoke to a veteran journo who had been at Hillsborough in 1989. So many years on, he still felt unable to talk about what he had witnessed that tragic day or what he had written. In fact, he had never once re-read what he did write. Whether it was brilliant prose or dismal dross, it was too painful to return to. He didn’t care to go down that angst-ridden route.
Spare a thought, too, for our cousins in TV and on the radio, who would have been expected to offer to microphone instantly on the state of affairs at White Hart Lane. No time for discovering what is actually happening/has happened; no time, like the journos, to press “delete” and start again; no time for considered reflection. “Just tell us what’s effin going on,” their bosses back in the studios will have tersely instructed.
One horrible thought did cross my mind, long before the truth was out. It may have occurred – I don’t really know but, if it did, I perhaps don’t want to know – but what if one of the many players-turned-pundits now in medialand had been in action on the frontline and was solely responsible for bringing the breaking news to the world.
Some of these poachers-turned-gamekeepers are good at their new jobs, mostly on the airwaves, and are well liked by the long-serving and fully trained members of the Fourth Estate. They are humble and willing to learn. Others are reviled, not only because they consistently refused to talk to the media during their playing days – and now earn big bucks from the same outlets – but also because they are essentially useless at what they now do. They are little more than pompous prats.
Imagine the outcry if these pseudo-journos were panicked into their normal buffoon-like narrative, full of factual errors, mispronounciations and incomprehensible babbling. “Incredible, John. Muamba’s just been carted off on a stretcher.” Or: “Patrick Mumbai. He’s just gone down like he’s been shot.” Or: “When is Howard Webb going to get this game going again?”
I’m sure that didn’t happen but – in similar circumstances, one day – it will. And those who so readily employ these jumped-up know-nothing numbskulls will pay the price.