When your team's in turmoil

There is a saying in footballing/ circulation circles that there is nothing worse than mid-table mediocrity.

What really gets the fans going, and livens up newspaper sales, is a winning streak with a chance for silverware or a battle to stave off relegation.

If you add in a juicy football scandal then the bonus looks in the bag… or does it? With a host of footballing scandals just behind us, I thought I would gauge the views of some newspaper editors to see the effect on sales – and whether there was any backlash from fans for seeing their team in the doghouse.

Starting with Leeds – well, where do you start with Leeds United scandals? Having gone from being serious premiership challengers with a chairman who was the darling of the press and the fans just a couple of years ago, they now seem to lurch from crisis to crisis.

Most recently, new signing Jody Morris was arrested in the city on a serious sexual assault allegation – and the local Yorkshire Evening Post was the first to name him.

Editor Neil Hodgkinson spent a restless evening with some law books before persuading the company lawyer it was right to go ahead with its front-page revelation.

He said: “We weren’t doing it to be glory-hunters, but when you are the local paper you should have the best contacts at the club, which gives you a much fuller picture of the facts surrounding the event.

“That helps you make an informed decision as to whether you should publish or not.

“The police were concerned about identification – and we did not picture him – but I was convinced there was no legal reason not to name him. The rest of the media soon followed suit.”

Hodgkinson also dispels that irritating myth that editors, particularly of hard-hitting metropolitan evening newspapers, are gung ho – preferring to publish and be damned than consider the consequences.

During my years in that role, big stories would no doubt cause excitement in the newsroom, but much agonising went on behind closed doors as to exactly what to publish – and what effect it might cause.

Interestingly, Hodgkinson and his team have got so used to handling United’s scandals that they tend to take them in their stride now.

“Along with the club and the police, we have got a fairly polished approach when these things happen. In all honesty, our relationship with the club has probably strengthened over all of this. They know that 90 per cent of the time we do the run-of-the-mill ‘aren’t Leeds great and up for it’ stories – but that we can’t ignore the scandals.

“And although the players would prefer not to see their name connected with them, most of them know we back their testimonials, etc, but we have a job to do. The secret is to be straight in your dealings with the club at all times.”

The YEP has seen these types of stories shift sales at a time when the club is not performing on the field, but probably not to the extent you might imagine.

Up the A1 in Newcastle-uponTyne, Evening Chronicle editor Paul Robertson points out that the recent scandals have not made any discernible difference to sales.

In recent weeks, the paper has had Newcastle United’s Kieron Dyer releasing a statement denying any direct involvement in the Grosvenor House rape inquiry, Craig Bellamy’s conviction for thuggish behaviour, rumours that manager Bobby Robson was on the verge of quitting after a string of disappointing results which also saw them crashing out of the Uefa Champions League, and massive fan arrests in the Netherlands.

Robertson, a lifelong Newcastle United fan, is as disappointed as most with the recent events, but he admits: “As an editor, I think they are great stories, but we have to handle them incredibly carefully.

“We know whenever we have a negative story about a player on the front page, a vociferous minority of fans throw abuse our way. The conviction of Bellamy and the trouble in Holland are just two examples.

“Equally, we walk a fine line with the club, although to be fair it fully accepts if a player is in trouble they will get coverage.”

He echoes Hodgkinson’s policy of telling it as it is: “There may be occasions when we will do a comment piece or seek fans’ reactions, but generally we try to tell it straight.”

But what about the team we love to hate – Manchester United.

Never far from press coverage, even with David Beckham’s departure, the club probably did not expect to be hitting the headlines over a player’s drugs test no-show.

I listened to Five Live’s phone-in the next day and the handful of people supporting Rio Ferdinand and the club were Man U fans – so how does the local paper walk that fine line? The Manchester Evening News’s Paul Horrocks splashed with the story – but was quickly able to add other details, such as the claims that Ferdinand had tried to get the test done two hours later.

With backs against the wall, and allegations of previous cases being treated differently, it would have been easy to come out in support of the club and player.

But Horrocks’s leader the following day, under the headline “Drugs Tests Have To Be Rigorous”, pointed out: “Because footballers enjoy riches and fame, they are role models.

“It is incumbent upon them – and the clubs that have a duty of care – to exercise the responsibilities that come with that territory.”

Horrocks also pointed out that his paper would have taken a dim view of the England players going on strike – a move apparently spearheaded by United’s Gary Neville.

This view was shared by editors at Newcastle, Leeds and Liverpool, whose teams all had players in the squad.

Hodgkinson wrote a scathing comment piece on the prima donnas, and Robertson points out: “If only all players conducted themselves off the pitch like Alan Shearer, Michael Owen and the like, then we wouldn’t be put in such an invidious position.”

So football scandals may cause great excitement in a newsroom and a modicum of elation in the newspaper sales office, but they are more likely to add to the grey hairs in the executive suite.

And any managing director or football club chairman who thinks that editors are either chomping at the bit to sensationalise risky stories or kowtow to the fans, can think again.  Alison Hastings is a media consultant and trainer and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle. E-mail her at ajh@alisonhastings.demon.co.uk.

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