First and foremost they are supporters.
Then they are reporters. They are not on our side. They answer to an authority higher than their editor’s command and obey a calling greater than mere journalism.
They belong to that best-read of all newspaper breeds – the sports writer.
They are clannish and hunt in packs, they operate a Mafia-like adherence to the code of omerta only shared, perhaps, with the similarly cosy kennel club of parliamentary reporters.
Want to know why Andrew Flintoff’s pedalo prank was the first the two-faced British public learned of its cricketing hero’s alco-comic capers? Blame the boys on the games desk who knew all along that Captain Marvel, bat-wielding king of the bold pull and push, was also chuga- lug king of the Old Bull and Bush.
Freddie’s fellow topers, the lads of the travelling press circus, understand and enjoy the way drink fuels the ensuing off-pitch misdemeanours after a dry old day in the field. So does the sports-loving public, which enthusiastically applauds the UK’s greatest participation sport: drinking.
Sports journalism, like its mainstream brother at the front of the book, has long strayed from the righteous path of straight reporting along a winding, wicked road of promoting and protecting its fighting cocks as celebrities.
The glory-hungry British public demands and expects no less. The reporter who so much as hints at an athlete’s human frailty is angrily accused of invading the player’s privacy – until, of course, one of our boys’ own heroes falls from his perch atop the gilded pedalo and the inquest begins.
As Kipling might have styled it: And it’s ‘Flintoff’s drunk and England’s sunk!’And ‘Fred must take the blame”.
But it’s ‘Thank you, Mr Flintoff’When he wins the bloody game!
Celebretism is not an entirely recent phenomenon, nor is it restricted to extended cricket tours or, indeed, to the red-top print media.
Loveable and popular British heavyweight hero Frank Bruno’s instability and pre- and post-fight excesses were an open secret never shared with readers.
As long ago as the ’70s, Frank McGee, then the Mirror’s voice of sport, resigned via Telex from his ringside seat at Muhammed Ali’s ‘Thriller in Manila’bout because word had got back that ‘one of those bloody news subs'(me) had combined his big fight report with Reuters and freelance copy to construct a story about Ali’s bust-up with wife Belinda ‘and splashed it all over the bloody news pages”.
Years later, presenting my Sunday morning breakfast programme on London’s LBC, I was astonished to hear the three-minute sports report finish without a single reference to the latest Paul Gascoigne ‘fifteen pints and four pizzas before an England game’story which was splashed across the front of the Sunday papers.
‘I don’t dabble in people’s private lives,’sniffed the owlish sports presenter, by way of explaining why he was ignoring the day’s biggest story in either news or sport. No wonder wise editors insist on sending along a visiting fireman from news on big sporting assignments – when the late, great Mirror news editor Dan Ferrari launched his investigation into allegations of bribes surrounding England manager Don Revie, it was not to the sports-steeped experts on the games desk he turned but to star news reporter Richard Stott.
Sports writers, I fear, will always show allegiance to their idols until just after the final whistle has been blown – by news – on some sportsman’s feet of clay, at which point they will deluge their editor with offerings of countless regret-laden ‘I Told You So’stories.
And it’s ‘Flintoff’s pissed’and ‘Fred’s a lush So don’t give HIM the ball’But it’s ‘Fred’s a bloody hero!’When the wickets start to fall.
(More apologies to Kipling)