How to keep your head at the World Cup

By Harry Harris

A NATIONAL newspaper’s chief football writer trudged along the beautiful Sardinian beach, sweltering under the midday sun, suited and booted and struggling with his luggage.

Along with the entire media corps, of around 300 journalists, radio and TV crews, he had been sharing the gorgeous Forte Village resort, just three miles from the England team’s base. We had been living in the lap of luxury for three weeks and the World Cup was still two weeks away from kick-off. Not too shabby.

But for one reporter this was far from idyllic. He looked a bizarre sight as he plodded along, plunging his heavy size-10 brogues deeper into the golden sand, purposefully making his way towards my sun lounger. He wanted to thank me for all the help I had given him, compared to other writers who had made his life hell. He said he couldn’t take any more and the pressure of filing live during such a big tournament had taken its toll and he was going home. With that he turned, and walked off as I squinted in the intense sunlight until he disappeared.

I have never set eyes on him again.

By all accounts he suffered a nervous breakdown, and did not want to show his face again because of the inevitable stick he would get from his fellow football reporters. By no means is this an isolated incident. I’ve seen a football writer cowering under his bed, having called me out in the middle of the night declaring "someone is out to get me".

Other football writers have been mugged in the middle of nowhere as they took late-night taxis in Eastern European footballing outposts. One returned from a late night on the tiles having been struck by an ashtray across his face.

One football writer was so upset with one of his rivals that he waited for his adversary to get out of a taxi one evening and punched him in the face.

Not all of these incidents took place in or around a World Cup, but they highlight the enormous tension that surrounds the coverage of major sporting events, the stress some journalists find themselves under, brought about by the pressure from their offices removed from the intricacies of being there.

It might seem glamorous. And, yes, at times it is.

First-class travel – unless the bean counters are making the usual economies – five-star accommodation, because you need to be near the action, and the team hotels are always in the best locations. Then there’s the games, the excitement, watching the players, listening to their interviews, studying the managers.

But there’s the downside. The raised blood pressure when deadlines approach, the palpitations if your main rivals get a big exclusive, the sometimes bizarre requests from the office to sneak into the England hotel and steal the team sheet. There are probably thousands of wannabe football writers in the media who are envious of the journalists who will be going to Germany this summer.

With the lifestyle, comes the hassle. The two are never far apart. For Italia ’90, England were based in Cagliari, the theory being it would be easier to contain the hooligans on an island (wrong), the Forte Village was the media centre, with sponsors laying on big screens to watch games, a free bar, and facilities you would only dream about. Bobby Robson was the England manager, noted for his eccentricities, and it typified the divide that existed between the England camp and the media.

After a Sunday newspaper exposé on a gorgeous, young and single hostess and a couple of the England players, the training ground virtually became a no-go area for the press.

The players had previously co-operated, and, however reluctantly, had been part of a rota system of interviews in the laborious build-up to the games.

Now, the players were on the coach and leaving the camp before Robson had finished his press conferences, which he was obliged to do by Fifa.

When a handful of the younger press brigade, fit enough to chase after the team bus, got within shouting distance of the players, a couple of reporters were spat on. No prizes for guessing that one of the charming players concerned was Gazza. It can be a delightful job at times!

I have covered five World Cups and the media has mushroomed beyond belief. At one time there was the chief football writer, and maybe the No2 who was the quotes man. Now there’s the No1, No2, the columnist, the feature writer, the colour writer, the diarist, the news reporter and two or three photographers.

When I travelled to Mexico with England in 1986, we were on the same plane as the team, and stayed in the same hotels, and there was a closer affiliation with the players — they often trusted certain journalists. The FA didn’t actually want the journalists with them, but the newspapers paid the travel bills, so the FA didn’t have to cough up.

Glenn Hoddle’s New England, with his alternative thinking and techniques, was partly responsible for calling a halt to the previous cosy co-existence.

He argued that his players increased their fatigue by sitting on planes waiting sometimes up to an hour for the media to arrive for the charter flight. We were always as late as the last man, often a photographer struggling to wire the final picture.

Coverage is now dictated to by an FA communications department that has increased in volume almost as much as the media.

The media are press conference obsessed. Every day, the manager and one or two players are on press conference duty, while other nations usually have open house where the media can talk to just about the entire squad. The FA has also tried this method but only use this rarely as the players don’t really enjoy it. Paul Scholes, for example, was so shy he hardly ever gave an interview. And Paul Gascoigne flatly refused to co-operate at times — little wonder he was the target of some front-page scandal ranging from wife beating to kebab gorging.

The upshot is that nothing will keep the media at bay apart from results. Good results equal a good press and good sales, bad results lead to uncontrolled mayhem in the camp. The further the England team goes in the competition, the more newspapers are sold. The Mirror put up 250,000 extra copies a day when England reached the semi-final of Italia ’90.

Good news for England is good news for sales.

It’s hard to gauge reaction back home, but every World Cup there is a siege mentality that usually grips the England camp once the adverse publicity kicks in.

Graham "Do I Not Like That?" Taylor had a major showdown with Rob Shepherd, a chief football writer at the time, who turned out for the manager’s press conference looking as though he had just walked in from the night before — no doubt he had.

Shepherd was a good footballer in his own right, at least for the England press team, was a great enthusiast for the game, and knew as much about the game as most managers. He had queried Taylor’s team selection and Taylor turned on him. "I don’t want people here with a face like yours, Rob."

Shep bit back and told Taylor it was no surprise he looked like he did because he had no faith in his team, and he turned out to be right. Taylor hired his personal PR to try to protect him from the hacks, but there is no shield from bad results.

Hoddle himself was undone partly for writing a World Cup diary. He was savaged by a media that preaches freedom of speech, yet believed that the England manager should not be divulging secrets of the dressing room.

The Mexico World Cup in 1986 was my first as the senior football writer on the Mirror, although as a boy I watched all of England’s games, including the Final in ’66.

I have covered all the World Cups since, except for the last one in Japan and Korea in 2002. The sports editor Bill Bradshaw and I felt that, with the time difference, I would be better positioned over here making calls to find out what was going on behind the scenes. On one occasion I got a tip from an agent, who told me that one of his clients inside the Irish camp had phoned him to say that just before he left the bar at midnight, Roy Keane had come up and said he was leaving the next morning, so if he didn’t see him again, ‘goodbye’. It was a great story.

As the huge media entourage actually at the event slept, or partied, I checked out this incredible story.

Keane’s agent was the highly respected lawyer Michael Kennedy. I called his London offices. "Not true," he told me with great authority. Of course, he pointed out, if all I had said about a row with McCarthy over training facilities, and a threatened walk out the next morning was true, surely he would know about it. And he didn’t.

As it was pretty late here in England before they wake up in Japan, I really needed to be 100 per cent sure of my facts to go with this story in our first edition, which went to the presses at around 8-9pm.

I went back to my source, who told me that the player concerned was a sober type and had not been excessively drinking that evening, was highly intelligent and would have related the conversation with Roy with incredible accuracy. That was good enough, I felt, to go with the story, and Bill backed me up — as usual.

Bill’s vast experience as an on-the-road journalist gave him an astute insight into how these kind of stories can never be guaranteed, and on occasion you have to go with your hunch.

As a back-up, I began making calls to the Irish team hotel at the crack of dawn. I rang and asked to speak to Mick McCarthy. He declined to come to the phone, but sent his assistant to speak to me.

I put the facts to him, and although he didn’t deny them, he wouldn’t confirm them either, but pointed out that meetings were on-going, and they hoped to persuade Roy to stay.

Fine, so trying to convince him to stay, meant that he had threatened to walk out. That was confirmation in my book. We were already running the story as the back-page splash and added the comment for the later editions.

Our rivals first got wind of the story when they saw our first edition, and then the Irish team hotel was bombarded with calls.

Roy was persuaded to stay, albeit for just a couple more days, before he eventually packed his bags — just as we said he would do.

From the day of our story, for weeks, months and even a year later, that story set the sports pages agenda. The whole episode has even been transformed into a West End play and earned the Express and myself the Sports Writers Association Sports Story of the Year 2002.

For Germany, my hope is that England will end the 40 years of hurt since they won the Cup back in 1966 and that I am there for the Final. Before I hang up my notebook and pen, my greatest wish is to see England win the World Cup again.

Harry Harris is group chief football writer at Express Newspapers Group . 

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