Much as it pains me to bring this up, I want to discuss the aftermath of Saturday’s North London derby. As enjoyable experiences go, I had more fun the following morning when I stood in the driving rain for two hours until soaked through to the underwear acting as stand-in coach for my son’s under-9s mini-soccer team. And the kids, cold and soaked as they were, showed more guile and gumption than the bunch of 5ok-a-week professionals I’d had the misfortune to observe impersonating a top-flight team at the atmosphere-free zone that is Arsenal’s Emirates stadium.
Although I should correct that last remark. So bad were Spurs in every department, from formation to tactics to application, and so great was the humiliation heaped upon our sorry heads, that even the Emirates was rocking – this time without the aid of the cringe-inducing Elvis karaoke they use to try and gee the home support up with at the start of the game. With the start of the working week comes the traditional derby dessert of dealing with the smugness, and let’s be honest, ridicule of the other lot’s supporters – and this time it’s all been given extra spice by the Robbie Keane affair.
Big mouth strikes again?
Before the game, the Spurs captain was widely reported as saying Spurs had a better squad than Arsenal, so in the aftermath of Saturday’s shocking showing the word on the street is that the big-timers of Tottenham have proved to be Charlies once again after shooting their mouths off. Or as The Guardian put it, “Talent trumps ego”. But let’s take a look at that story.
As the derby approached, Robbie Keane was one of the players put up for interview by the club. What he said translated into headlines such as “Tottenham’s squad is stronger than Arsenal’s, says Keane” and “Tottenham ready to overtake Arsenal, says Keane”. But if you look at what Keane actually did say, it’s not quite so sexy. “If you look at the two squads, you look at us and think, ‘We’re definitely on a par,’ but that will only be judged at the end of the season.” And “We have to believe now that we are as good as the teams that are up there.”
All of which seems perfectly reasonable, and far from the “baseless boast” Keane was accused of making during a weekend of widespread ridicule. But what was Keane supposed to say? “I think they’re better than us, we haven’t got the same quality in our squad”? Imagine the reaction – he would’ve been slaughtered.
Angling for pearls
The truth of it is, the papers looked for an angle and played it up – that’s what journalists do. The headlines weren’t exactly wrong, but it could reasonably be said that they weren’t entirely accurate either. Of course the headline was never going to be “We might match them but let’s see when the season’s over” – but having cranked up the angle it hardly seems fair for the press to be hammering Keane so hard for the angle it came up with. Although Robbie’s manager Harry Redknapp didn’t exactly help matters by saying “I couldn’t really agree with him” after the game. Not before, you’ll note, but after.
You can bet there won’t be any “Spurs manager says Arsenal are better” headlines worked up from Harry’s quote, and that’s because Harry, very much like Terry Venables before him, knows how to play the media. And here lies the point [cue relieved sighs from readers]. Many footballers and managers complain that the press manufactures stories and stokes controversy by pumping up innocuous statements into big issues. That accusation is not without foundation, as I hope I’ve shown above. I’d also offer the recent spattete between Wigan’s Roberto Martinez and Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson, and the ongoing attempts to inflate the bad patch being experienced by United and England defender Rio Ferdinand into a career-crushing crisis. But in an age when football’s top names either demonstrate a disdain for the press or attempt to micro-manage every mention of their beloved ‘brand’, thereby reducing most coverage to bland PR, the press needs to get its headlines somehow.
What we’re left with is a vicious circle. The clubs’ attempts to control the way they are portrayed means most of what is approved or allowed is dull, so the press is forced to spin hard, which in turn aggravates the clubs. And yet it needn’t be like this. Most sports reporters don’t want to stitch anyone up, they just want a decent story. The reason the likes of Redknapp and Venables are so popular is that they provide original insight, for example when Redknapp spoke recently about watching a young Frank Lampard at West Ham out pounding the streets on a Friday night when his mates were out pubbing. At that stage, said Redknapp, he wasn’t the most promising prospect, but he was prepared to work hard on his game and the commitment he showed made his coaches sit up and take notice.
It wasn’t the Watergate tapes, but this was a routine football press conference, not a rendezvous with Deep Throat [not the movie ;-)]. It gave a nice little insight, challenged a few preconceptions about ‘modern footballers’ and gave the press a good angle without giving anything away. No need for hype, no one gets hurt.
So would it be too much to expect that, in a leading club press office somewhere right now, the assembled communications geniuses may be thinking about a revolutionary new strategy? One where, instead of flaunting the strength of the ‘brand’, monetising every mention and sucking the soul out of any conversation, the media strategy focusses on providing genuine insight and access, and trusting that this improves the quality of the conversation? I’ll probably be dismissed as naive, but wily operators such as Redknapp and Venables, to name but two, have proved the value of such an approach.