You're not singing any more

It didn’t take long this year for Press Gazette to start reporting on fallouts between regional papers and football clubs. Anyone working in the industry will know this is an all-too-familiar scenario as relationships have deteriorated in line with the amount of money at stake for both businesses.

Football – notably good wins, exciting signings and player scandals – sells papers. But over the years the clubs have realised that there is extra money to be made in areas such as photographs, programmes, posters and magazines, and have demanded a slice of the action.

As the people running clubs have become more important and richer, their quest for total control has intensified – as has their irritation when they open their local paper to find themselves being criticised.

One solution, which I know has been discussed by at least one Premiership club, is to consider buying the local paper. But even though football does not necessarily attract the brightest buttons, even they realise this would ultimately be futile.

So the next best thing is to ban a paper’s representatives from the press box in the naive view that this will (a) prevent a match report appearing in the paper and (b) starve the paper of any sales.

These bans happen on a fairly regular basis and are usually great fun for everyone involved – although the sports reporters covering the team day in day out can get put out if theirregular source of stories is cut off.

However, the two skirmishes reported so far this year show to what depths relationships have plummeted. The first, involving Hull City FC and the Hull Daily Mail, does follow the usual trend – but with a twist. Chairman Adam Pearson banned the paper from attending a match because of a story on star striker Stuart Elliott. Nothing new there – apart from the fact that the article had not yet appeared and was a triumph-over-tragedy piece on the footballer, which he had co-operated with. No scandal on drunken Christmas parties, Spanish brothels or gambling rings there then. The concern by the club, apparently, was that the interview had not been sanctioned by manager Peter Taylor.

So this positive piece on a player resulted in the paper’s sports reporter paying to get in to the ground (something that always appears to foil clubs in this position) and getting pictures from sister paper the Bristol Evening Post for the Hull v Bristol Rovers game.

Clubs also seem to underestimate the Dunkirk spirit this brings out in newspapers who, even if they are not related, are always happy to help, as there but for the graceÉ Hull editor John Meehan was commendably restrained in his comments over the affair, using words and phrases such as “disappointed” and “hardly in the club’s interests”, which should have shamed both Pearson and Taylor.

The matter has now been resolved but Meehan summed up: “We cannot agree to allow the football club to decide what appears in the pages of this newspaper”, which is the crux of the matter, because that is, of course, exactly what the club wants to do.

The other row is more serious and ultimately more concerning, and involves the Newcastle Evening Chronicle’s veteran sports reporter, Alan Oliver, being assaulted by a player. At this level, everyone accepts that tempers do fray, and Oliver has been the victim of many a private and public tongue-lashing from the manager of the day.

But he should rightly not expect to be set upon by a player in the press room, or anywhere else for that matter, and be left bruised.

The fact that Newcastle United has not taken the matter seriously and apologised – even though it is well aware of what happened as two of their players and a club official had to pull Laurent Robert off Oliver – is depressing. If a journalist had physically attacked a player, I doubt so little would have been made of it.

Footballers often take their lead from the men at the top. If the matter is left there, it looks like this sort of assault on journalists is condoned and acceptable – which it is clearly not. Some footballers (Alan Shearer springs to mind) seem to rise above criticism and just get on with the job in hand – playing good football and earning staggering amounts of money on a weekly basis.

It’s the same with managers. Kenny Dalglish gave the impression of reading every word written about him during his tenure at Newcastle, and would ring me to berate the paper for its views. The fact that he would be shouting in an incomprehensible Scottish accent always made the calls a highlight of my, and anyone within a 50-yard radius’s, day.

When he was replaced by Ruud Gullit it went very quiet and it become apparent he didn’t read the local papers, which was insulting in its own way but made for an easier life.

When there is so much at stake for both sides, relationships will inevitably become strained but in recent years clubs have underestimated the value of their local paper and overestimated the value of their share price. With big clubs feeling the financial strain, and small clubs notably struggling after the ITV Digital collapse, it will be interesting to see if the penny drops and things start to improve.

Sticking with footie, I have always thought the similarities between working in the beautiful game and working in newspapers striking. At the top of both businesses you have the chairman/managing director who is concerned with the financial side of the business and may or may not be a fan. You then have the manager/editor who has to get the best performance out of their team – motivate and discipline them and put up with the fact that everyone around them thinks they could make a better job of it.

A large part of their job will be looking after star players/writers who may have big egos but are vital to success. (How many hacks have had their boss throw things at them over the years?) But the biggest similarity is between the fans and the readers. They are the ones who consume the product, to use business speak, and are passionate about their club or local paper.

It’s has been interesting to see over the years how both businesses have been influenced by the City. Many clubs and newspaper groups are now PLCs, and have to spend time thinking about shareholders and share prices. The people at the top have to convince institutional shareholders, as well as staff and readers, that their plans and figures are sound.

You only have to look at Leeds United this season, and see chairman Peter Ridsdale admitting to selling off stars to balance the books and please the City, to realise how serious this aspect of the business is. Ridsdale has gone from being one of the most respected chairman in the Premiership to a figure of fun – both nationally and with his own fans. It doesn’t take a genius to see that there are clearly lessons for us to learn from episodes like this. n

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 She’ll be back in four weeks.

lNext week: Chris Shaw

Alison Hastings

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