Saturday 7 December 2019

Truth can be hard to swallow when you feed on soundbites

Nothing happened last week that wasn't a lie. The image of this deceitful week was David Beckham with the green and gold scarf representing the anti-Glazer movement wrapped around his neck.

The green and gold campaign is perhaps the most gloriously subversive movement in modern football.

The refusal of the leaders of this campaign to be satisfied with Premier League titles is the most uplifting aspect of their organisation. It is common to hear radio presenters who feel they must contribute in some way when handing over to the sports bulletin to ask. "What more do Manchester United fans want? They've won the league three years in a row." What they want is simple: they want their club not to be owned by leverage kings. They want a sense that their club belongs to them.

Just as Manchester United did commercially in the 1990s, the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) have quickly turned this feeling into a worldwide movement.

United have been rattled, banning their players from talking about the protest, ejecting a fan who refused to take off a scarf when appearing on MUTV and sacking a steward who handed back an anti-Glazer banner to a fan. Soon MUTV will have to stop showing footage from their early years of Premiership dominance as some of their finest moments were in the green and gold they revived that season to commemorate the centenary of Newton Heath's entry into the league.

As football experiences a downturn, questions are being asked about what clubs mean and whom they belong to, especially in the case of clubs like Portsmouth who have been owned by quite a few people in the course of one season.

This is not Mary McAleese embracing the hair-shirt but a recognition of football's importance. MUST have established that English football clubs can have a soul that transcends commercial imperatives and even the trophies Manchester United win. They would not want to resist the possibility of being associated with Beckham. Perhaps it made sense that the green and gold scarf was the picture everybody printed ahead of shots of Wayne Rooney.

Rooney is one of the greatest players the English game has produced, but destroying a Milan side that is a parody of their great teams was not a test. Last week, we were told that English clubs would face tough examinations in Europe when this was clearly a lie. Arsenal may have trailed Porto but their subsequent victory was no surprise. It was reported that it was a substantial achievement but only because the same reporters had been trying to sell an Arsenal victory as something historic beforehand. None of it was true.

Nobody is interested. The media occasionally complains about the pr bumph they are now fed or the sanitised quotes they line up to collect, but most are happy with it. Former players are wheeled out to talk about a game because they have played for both clubs and are therefore "uniquely placed". They would be more uniquely placed if they managed to say something interesting. And they probably wouldn't be asked back.

Clarence Seedorf was on the BBC last week and when asked if Beckham still showed the same dedication he had when he was young and stayed behind after training to practise free-kicks, he answered, in the most diplomatic fashion, that no he doesn't, none of them has the time. This went unremarked. Beckham had created an agenda and nobody wanted to dispute it.

When he was asked after the game if this would be his last appearance at Old Trafford, Beckham seemed startled and could only mumble "possibly". His last appearance at Old Trafford or Wembley or wherever is another week's arc. Last week's narrative was about his return and he wasn't going to be shifted off the agenda by one loose question.

Most of the time, everyone is happy to go along with the pre-planned script. There is as much originality and daring in most sports reporting as there is in the banter between presenters at the Oscars. The agenda is set out and if the mob are in pursuit of an outrage, all the better. They go along for the ride, displaying their fearlessness only when they ask Rafael Benitez a few tough questions.

Benitez was accused of being "unhelpful" by Craig Burley after Liverpool's spineless defeat to Wigan because he gave short and despondent answers to the ESPN interviewer. Giving out about pundits like Burley is like shooting fish -- really, really stupid fish -- in a barrel but as they keep setting the agenda it is always necessary to have some ammunition at hand. Add to that, the idea that what is needed is more eejitry in the form of emails and texts from members of the public and the media in general deserves nothing more than soundbites. The only shaft of light was jockey Robert Thornton's statement that he would not be conducting any post-race interviews at Cheltenham because they were "cringeworthy. I just don't know what they expect you to say except 'I feel wonderful, thanks'."

Thornton didn't need to graduate from journalism college to know that the only question they ask at these moments is, "How do you feel?" Thornton won't be interviewed on his horse this week, telling them how he feels or even telling them how his horse feels.

"I think it's a shame," Nick Attenborough, the PR executive for Racing for Change, whatever that means, said. "We hope the vast majority of owners, trainers and jockeys can see the value in communicating the thrills of winning to the millions of TV viewers that love the sport."

It would have been nice to have seen Attenborough taking Lester Piggott aside and explaining "the value in communicating the thrills of winning". Lester saw little point in communicating the thrills of winning to owners and trainers, let alone anyone else. There is no mental image of Lester in a tearful embrace with Vincent O'Brien singing 'Ole, Ole, Ole' and wrapped in a tricolour. To the long fellow even Frankie Dettori's flying dismount would seem like a vulgar extravagance.

When Lester came out of retirement and won the Breeders' Cup on Royal Academy, the peerless Brough Scott had the job of asking him to communicate the thrills of winning. He didn't ask him, "How do you feel?" He asked him "How did you do it?", a transcendentally different question. "You never forget," Lester said. He was dealing only in the truth.

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