Let us, please, just write about football
Every football journalist goes to a football match to write about football. It is your job, your first focus and, at the end of the day, the be all and end all. It is what you are paid for, what you live and breathe, what you have done all your career. Everything else is just subsidiary nonsense.
It was … but not any more.
Long gone are the days when a journo would go to a game, chronicle the action and, if anything happened away from the pitch, it would just get a brief mention in despatches. Should there be a crowd “disturbance” of any kind, it would perhaps merit a throwaway line two-thirds of the way through your report. That’s the way it was.
Nowadays, all change. The match summary remains the prime objective. Tell it, the 90 minutes, as it is. Yet the peripheral stuff, the rubbish outside the white lines, now has to be catered for. Big time, too. Not just given a cursory check in the match report but as a separate news story, designed to set the agenda of the next day and give the reader plenty to chew on.
Rio Ferdinand getting struck by a coin in the closing minutes of Manchester United’s 3-2 derby victory over Manchester City last Sunday is a prime example. The blood streaming from his forehead will have drawn a gulp from the journos because the angle, suddenly, had changed.
OK, most national newspapers will have had three writers at such an important game. So the match reporter and colour feature writer will have had to only dress in a few observations about Ferdinand’s red brow. But the No.3, the news guy, will have moved into overdrive. Instead of just simply detailing the players’ and managers’ quotes, he will have been launched into full investigative mode, expected to tell all about the ramifications of Ferdinand’s injury and the airborne two-pence disc.
It is no easy task getting hold of a Premier League or FA spokesman on a Sunday afternoon. To discuss the incident, to ponder what may or may not be done if and when the perpetrator is caught; to also work out what on earth the game is coming to when a player can’t celebrate without being effectively assaulted. To complicate matters, the answers from the spokesmen are likely to be utterly non-committal. No surprise, at such short notice, really.
So the No.3 writes what he can from what he knows, ramps it up a bit into copy appropriate for “Rio Bloody Hell” headlines and his job is done. The match writer and colour guy do their bit, too, and an overall impression of the fixture – and the off-the-field mayhem – is formed. Oh, though, to have been able to just write about the football.
The ultimate – and most horrendous – example of news interfering with the beautiful game is the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. Humble football journos were thrust into the frontline like never before and I recall being told that that one very experienced member of the corps was so traumatised by the events unfolding in front of him, he was left unable to file any copy at all. It was not, thankfully, held against him.
That day, I was at a late afternoon/early evening social event at a beautiful countryside mansion, which was attended by many national newspaper journalists. I kept creeping out to find out the latest news from Sheffield on my car radio and, as the body count rose, so the journos made their excuses and left. However many beers they’d already consumed, work came first.
The event that should have been a memorable affair, fizzled out. With people having died in droves at an FA Cup semi-final football match, no one had the stomach for it any more. Even from a huge distance away, as I and my colleagues were, it was the most extreme case of a game having degenerated into not just a tack-on news line but a monstrous tragedy.
Had I been there, how would I have coped? I shudder to think. I would have been in the first flushes of my youth as a national journo and would like to think that I would have been professional to the nth degree. But I doubt it. Player X tucking the ball into the empty net is easy to write. But how do you sensitively compose a sentence about Fan Z drawing his last breath?
Years later, I did go through my own personal nightmare. In a Press box in the capital of an obscure Eastern European country, not long finished with months of cross-border death and destruction, I was spat on, had objects hurled at me, had stuff strike me and was verbally abused – along with all my English colleagues.
This, of course, did not merit a mention in despatches. Who cares what happens to the Fourth Estate? No one. But should Rio sustain a cut eyebrow, should a player be racially abused, the world goes mad and column inches have to be filled. To be fair, in this day and age, that’s the way it should be.
Even if, honestly, all we want to do is write about football.