It is not often that you see a confrontation between a journalist and a former player/manager on TV. It is even rarer for the journalist, who happened to be a woman, to out-smart and somewhat embarrass the ex-professional. Melissa Reddy, from The Independent, praises Mikel Arteta’s revolution at Arsenal on a discussion panel for Premier League Productions. Tim Sherwood intervenes. He raises a finger; it seems that Sherwood is flushed with frustration at Reddy’s comments, confusedly hurt by Reddy’s defence of Arteta. He calls out the “written press”, questioning whether they would praise Arteta had he not won the FA Cup. It seems a fair point to make. Arsenal came 8th last season, a disastrous position to finish in. The former manager of Tottenham patronisingly keeps his finger up. His round eyes stare deep into the eyes of the Reddy. Sherwood now talks about Emery’s misfortunes: “If they would have won [the Europa League Final], then everyone would have been singing through the rooftops for Unai Emery” (as they would have made Champions League qualification). Another seemingly fair point to make. However, Reddy intercepts his monologue. She denies his statements. “No, no, no”. She raises her finger, smiles and says “most journalists probably would, I am not a scoreline journalist. I understand processes.” There, she had the whole studio silenced.
The underlying discord between journalists and ex-professionals might be more common than we all realise. After all, writers with university degrees compete with retired professionals for jobs in media and journalism, so it may be natural for there to be certain jealousies from both sides. Writers might envy the level of on-field experience at the highest level of football, whereas ex-pros’ critical thinking, writing or oral skills, among other skills, might not match that of individuals with more advanced levels of education. In other words, neither side is entirely perfect. Each individual’s skills and experiences can be utilised for specific roles or contexts in football. It is also crucial to notice that not every ex-pro is deficient in critical thinking skills or in education, and vice-versa. Nevertheless, overall patterns can be drawn out.
It is fairly comical to hear Martin Keown, an Arsenal man by heart, blurt out “you won’t see a better goal this season” when Aubameyang scored against Fulham. Keown was on the punditry role when on commentary for BT Sport. It was a hot-headed thing to say in the first game of the season. Keown’s hyperbolic statement provoked a jibe from The Athletic writer, James Horncastle. Other ex-pros who have struggled and been called out for poor punditry famously include Michael Owen, Graeme Souness, or perhaps even Roy Keane, who seems to be employed by media companies solely for entertainment purposes.
Equally, it is worth pointing out that the opinions of trained writers may not be as valuable when reacting to on-field matters. Other than specific writers, like Michael Cox, opinions on tactics will likely not be suitable, since the press has less experience of playing or coaching football. Thus, the reaction of a journalist with a university degree to a goal is probably no different to the reaction of any football watcher on twitter. Michael Cox, for one, writes on tactics the day after important matches, only after he has rationally evaluated the course of tactics in a game. Therefore, hearing the voices of the likes of Rio Ferdinand or Jamie Redknapp after a match, a.k.a the “scoreline journalists”, may indeed be more useful than writers’ post-match reactions.
The possible incompetencies of certain individuals who were ex-pros, as mentioned, are not always hard to notice. However, within the set of the written press, certain discrepancies and problems may similarly be figured. Simon Jordan, a vocal TalkSport journalist who used to be the chairman of Crystal Palace, clashed with Martin Lipton, The Sun’s deputy head of sport. After Greenwood was arguably witch-hunted for inhaling nitrous oxide, Jordan attacked Lipton for not producing ‘honest’ stories and for not reporting news correctly. Jordan has also, by the way, criticised ex-pros’ critiques on off-the-pitch football matters: ‘talking heads on tv not having a clue what they are talking about’.
Simon Jordan presents one way in which the press has not always been fair in England. The tabloids have particularly been in the limelight for this problem. They may be held accountable for the turmoils surrounding the England national team in the last 20-30 odd years , inciting scandals like that with Sven Goran-Eriksson. They have also been accused of fuelling racial biases, as Raheem Sterling justly pointed out.
The Football Writers’ Association’s Player Of The Year award also seems to be partly inessential and needless. Although it might be important for the press to be able to inform the public of their choice of the season’s best player, as they are able to closely follow football games, it does not seem to be an award that is necessary for writers to decide. It appears as an award that is too subjective for a select cohort of writers to decide. Moreover, some of the choices in the last decade and a half have tended towards a slight British-bias. For example, it is hard to believe Scott Parker won the award in 2011, ahead of the likes of Carlos Tevez and Nemanja Vidic. This year, Henderson won the award, over the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Alisson Becker. John Cross, an established football writer for The Mirror, was one to pick Jordan Henderson. One of the reasons for his decision included Henderson’s outstanding charitable work with regards to starting ‘PlayersTogether’, an initiative from Premier League players to donate to NHS charities. Henderson’s initiative should be commended, but it has nothing at all to do with him being the best footballer for the 19/20 Premier League season.
Also, football writers and newspaper companies may not always be orthodox and consistent with sets of principles they seem to support. The Guardian, as a left-leaning newspaper, released scathing attacks against Frank Lampard and his apparent ‘blue privilege’. In a recent article, the chief sports writer at The Guardian called him a ‘tory boy’, a manager who has been ‘greased and hurried along’, and assessed Lampard’s successes as a player to have essentially been due to ‘favour and patronage’. This unfair and potentially misguided attack on Lampard, whose own journey to becoming a manager is barely different to other successful managers such as Zinedine Zidane or Fabio Capello, might not reflect upon The Guardian itself too nicely. Only one female sports writer is employed by the newspaper, as opposed to 18 male writers, who are predominantly white males either way. A more stark sense of privilege fervently shines beneath the words of the highly respectable Barney Ronay.
So, the battle between football writers and ex-professionals is palpable. Separate problems in each corner at ringside are also perceptible. Ex-professionals are likely better suited to the football chat you get at the pub: discussing players, who might be more likely to win in a certain match, occasionally tactics, etc. For example, watching Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher talk football techniques and tactics on MNF is always an exciting watch. Some highlights include ‘no one grows up to be a Gary Neville’, Neville criticising Mignolet for not saving a Jagielka thunder-strike shot and Klopp discussing tactical shapes with Carragher, as well as analysing a video of a defensive mistake he made in his playing days. When they discuss other related topics, such as how much a team spends, then the sighting of the programme becomes a bit more worrying and less credible, despite Gary Neville himself being heavily involved in the running of Salford City. In other words, ex-pros work nicely with click-bait articles, providing controversial opinions on football and producing more nutrients for the growth of the “(Football) Culture Industry”.
Football writers, on the other hand, are perhaps best suited to drawing out patterns in clubs’ projects, expose the workings behind football, share alternative stories that are ingenious or that are hidden in the past… and more. Football writers should not be stripped down to discussing baseless subjectivities. Whereas Sherwood treated the Arteta debate as an open conversation in which it is arguable that Emery could have been destined for success at the Emirates if a certain 90 minutes had gone his way, Melissa Reddy treated the debate as a structured argument . Her reasons for her defence of Arteta were rooted to valued judgements and rationale. This rationale was one which transposed football from a mere game of 90 minutes to a game decided by patterns and ‘process[es]’.
As well as main stream press sources- The Times, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Athletic, etc- there also exists other important football writer institutions. One of them is fanzines, such as TalkChelsea and United We Stand. They are absolutely crucial to the football community as they are not acting against clubs’ interests, but rather support, promote and ameliorate them. The media machine can often be hostile towards certain clubs and communities, and not serve to help them function in any way. Fanzines, or other fan-based accounts, give fans more specific club-based information, and react to the club’s actions each day. @Arseblog, a blogger who supports Arsenal, launched a detailed attack against his club’s owners for announcing that 55 staff would be made redundant. This article exemplifies the spirit of fans to scrutinise decisions owners take that work against the football community. Despite Arsenal FC not performing a Boris Johnson-esque Cruyff U-turn on the decision to fire 55 long-time workers, the article serves as a demonstration that fans’ voices do exist. Fans, especially supporters’ trusts, have been particularly effective in making clubs reverse decisions. Tottenham’s Supporters’ Trust pressurised Levy into not putting Tottenham Hotspur staff members on furlough.
Perhaps most crucial to football writing are stories that tend towards being literary pieces, rather than simply being factual or “low-brow”. They often might share historical stories, discuss the current state of football in beguiling ways or explore the game in innovative ways. This is where football academia lies. This includes magazines such as Wilson’s ‘The Blizzard’ or Saleem’s ‘These Football Times’, as well as football books like Bellos’s ‘Futebol: A Brazilian Way Of Life’or Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’. When creating ‘The Blizzard’, Wilson questioned whether there was a way ‘that was neither magazine nor book, but somewhere in between’. The books or articles in the mentioned magazines (and there are many more which are equal to those mentioned) reveal unseen views and ideas. They avoid telling us plain facts or opinions. Instead, they let us learn of times in the past, expose the reasons for the current state of football in the present, and provoke thoughts on how football can change for the future. The Blizzard glorifies itself as a magazine ‘for the thinking football fan’. In more generic terms, the writers for these kind of magazines/books/media accounts are football’s undervalued heroes.
Where do I fit in? I am 18 years old, going to university in 2 weeks time to do an English literature degree, and writing on football like thousands. In the month and a half since I have launched this blog, I have written boring articles, articles on issues that bother me, and articles which relate to my own interests and affections. In the future, will I write as a ‘scoreline journalists’? Could I write like the writer-heroes? Where will my future even take me? Nothing is certain, but for the meantime, I’ll just write. I’ll merge the best elements of football writing together. I’ll try my best to defend the best interests of devoted fans, and make my stories different. But if you disagree, you can raise a finger [to your keyboard on your device], smile [secretly to yourself] and say [via the comment section or Twitter] “what you have written may be too ‘scoreline journalist’ for me”.