Move along, post-match interviews, nothing to hear…

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Pic courtesy of ElizabethAOwens

I call them Crusoe moments. As sweet to behold as that famous footprint in the sand: the sudden realisation that it’s not just you.

So it was when I joyously read this well-argued plea in Vice Sports that maybe it’s time the post-match interview was going the way of the supporter’s rattle.

Boy, is Will Magee pushing at an open door here. I can’t remember how long ago it first dawned on me that all that huff and puff to be first with the reactions bore little relation to the calibre of end-product but it’s measured in years, not months.

Has anyone in TV and radio land twigged yet; or is it the realisation that dare not speak its name? Mix testosterone and adrenalin, stir in frustration and anger and garnish with the still-fresh echoes of a baying crowd and you have just about the worst environment possible for incisive analysis.

I don’t care if you’ve bagged Oscar Wilde and Sir Peter Ustinov simultaneously for your post-game ‘exclusive’, if they’ve just spent 90 minutes putting bodies on the line in a local derby, what follows will still fall some way short of their best work.

Were it simply players who momentarily had mush for brains, the exercise would be almost futile but its fate is sealed by interrogators for whom there are no such excuses.

In my days working in football, I always knew when an interview was being forced. I would find myself not so much asking questions as getting players to react to my statements. Sadly, this is almost par for the course these days, even with national media, accompanied by its bastard twin, the fatuous statement tarted up as a question.

“How important was it that you broke that losing streak today?” is four seconds of our lives that none of us are getting back.

In a perfect world, there would be a perfect time for the post-game interview. Roughly 18 hours post-game. Envisage a mid-morning magazine programme, called, Now That Everyone’s Calmed Down, in which reporters around the country pop in on key protagonists from the afternoon before to ask for their reflections on the game over coffee and croissants.

Picture Wayne Rooney, roaring fire, kids playing happily at his feet. Colleen playfully ruffling his hair as she deposits a cheeky little Danish on his plate before heading off to the sauna.

Yes, even Wayne Rooney might surprise you in those circumstances. Relaxed, expansive, maybe even offering the occasional hint of whimsy.

In the less-than-perfect world we’re stuck with, however, we must make do with simple damage limitation. Know this, interviewers – unless your question boils down to, “We couldn’t see from the grandstands: what happened?” It’s probably not worth asking.

So don’t bring us your brain-fried, your surly, or your reluctant for pathetic stabs at after-match enlightenment. Just bring yourself: yes you, Mr/Ms broadcast journalist. You’re trained in articulation, you’ve watched football for years, you spend all week immersing yourself in little else. Tell us what you made of it all, instead. Would it really be so less enlightening than the musings of a painfully shy full-back, high as a kite on hormones?

And who knows how it might play out, were Mourinho & Co to find dark, empty spaces where there were once galaxies of flashbulbs and a forest of microphones. Maybe it would be a tiresome weight off their shoulders after all, as their body language so often suggests.

Or maybe, just maybe, there might be a few little feelers put out from media managers at Premier League clubs, several months down the line. If the editor can spare you, just a friendly little get-together over lunch with the gaffer, maybe?

You know, to build some bridges…

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I wish I’d written that…

The ultimate compliment from one scribe to another: an occasional tribute to nice lines that stood out from the noise…

“Golf, more than any other sport, is supposed to offer its legends a graceful path into AARP*. Football is cruel once you’ve lost that first step, baseball sends fastballs rushing by, basketball mocks the player’s surrender to gravity. But golf, well, a great golfer can still show up in his 40s, maybe even win a tournament now and again, and at 50 he is given the keys to a whole new tour with old friends and easier golf courses lined with adoring fans who remember the good old days.” – Joe Posnanski for Sports on Earth: Tiger faces the hardest question of all

*American Association of Retired Persons

Superbowl mustn’t become bitter-sweet for Patriots

New England Patriots at Washington Redskins 08/28/09
Tom Brady (pic courtesy of Keith Allison)

I know only the bare facts of ‘Deflategate, and the sense of enduring injustice it has instilled in the New England Patriots and their nailed-on Hall of Fame Quarterback, Tom Brady.

On the other hand, I know only too well how quickly the moral high ground  can be abandoned, once people start acting like they own it, and I spy a potential eviction this evening, should a Patriots win in Superbowl LI open the floodgates on the grievance that has driven their season.

Has there ever been a Superbowl like this among the previous 50, I wonder, where the contest’s most talked about  head-to-head involves one man who won’t even be suiting up, never mind playing a down?

The sight of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell – who banned Brady for the first four games of this season, for his alleged complicity in the affair – handing the championship trophy to the Patriots’ owners, while Brady and coach Bill Belichick smile the smiles of avenged men in the background, has acquired the status of the Promised Land in the eyes of many Patriots’ fans.

If Goodell thought he would effectively torpedo New England’s season with that ban, goes the Patriots’ narrative, he will, at that moment, be forced to concede a humiliating defeat.

It’s a line I can understand but at the same time, I don’t get it. Assuming Goodell has merely followed due process in both investigating and passing sentence for the doctored footballs (although I suspect books could be written on that aspect alone) the fate of a team and its quarterback who have done their time shouldn’t bother him in the slightest. He’s there merely to apply the rules: what happens after that is down to the game itself.

No, others can worry for Goodell. It’s the Patriots I’m worried about. You only have to see how NFL players succumb to near-religious ecstasy after a mere sack or interception, to fear for how some Patriots might react if tonight’s game does indeed settle a festering score in a manner straight out of Hollywood.

In the heat of such a moment could lie the acid test of whether Brady and Belichick possess Hall of Fame character to go with their Hall of Fame numbers. There are too many nose-holding moments in professional sport. Another one this evening would be tinged with genuine sadness.

Just to be on the safe side, go Falcons.

Point of order as Edwin Pope departs

popeRightly, there were fulsome tributes aplenty as former Miami Herald sportswriter Edwin Pope took his leave last week, at the age of 88.

Made sports editor at Georgia’s Athens Banner-Herald in his mid-teens, Pope vindicated his precocious beginnings with a distinguished career that saw him cover 47 Super Bowls and be honoured by both the professional and collegiate football Halls of Fame.

“Edwin could write funny or angry or wistful or worshipful. He respected people and their stories, even if he judged them harshly. He didn’t pound that typewriter because he thought it was the road to TV. He might have been wrong at times, but he never wrote anything he didn’t believe.” – Mark Whicker, Orange County Register

One tribute, however, ironically from the paper where it all began for him, threw out this jarring note.

“Coaches and players unfailingly hold the notion that media types are not qualified to write about sports because they never experienced actual “combat.” Does this mean that theatre critics must be performers before they can evaluate a stage production?

“When Dan Jenkins, one of the giants of our time in sports journalism, asked Frank Broyles, then the coach at Arkansas, a question about his counterpart at Texas, Darrell Royal, Broyles said: “He (Darrell) has done more for the wide tackle six defense that anybody in coaching.” Jenkins, who happened to be a good friend of Royal’s said, “Frank who gives a (expletive) about that?”

“The truth is that sportswriters don’t know X’s and O’s, but who said they have to in order to write insightfully about the glory and beauty of the games we love? Edwin Pope belongs in the pantheon of those writers who were truthful with their readers…”

Hopeless at every sport to which I ever turned my hand, no-one relies more than me on the analogy of the effective theatre critic who never trod a board in anger, but it’s not a hand I overplay. Who says sportswriters have to know their X’s and O’s to write insightfully? I’d say the law of averages does. You try and get a handle on as many technical nuances of your sport as you can and even if most of them are indeed too mundane ever to see the printed page, somewhere down the line there will be one nugget you’ve filed away that helps you do your job as a writer – to see, where most of your audience merely look.

While a huge name himself in this business, Dan Jenkins’ dismissive sneer in the above extract hints at one of the worst traps that I think sportswriters can fall into: imagining that breathless prose gives you a free pass where learning a game’s nuts and bolts are concerned.

But then this is the same Dan Jenkins who got into an unnecessary spat with Tiger Woods in 2014, over a tongue-in-cheek article he’d written that wasn’t remotely worth the hassle: a lightweight piece so glib, I wondered where it had come from.

I’m a little clearer on that score now.

Reflections on Graham Taylor

Graham_Taylor
Pic courtesy of Clurr

1. That documentary was the making of him

For some, it fit perfectly the narrative of a village idiot in demise. For me, though, it destroyed a perception I’d developed over the previous decade of an earnest, provincial civil servant who firmly believed that there is a point to ironing your pyjamas.

Whatever the language and bathos of those 50 minutes, here was a man with hot blood coursing through his veins, after all. From behind the Acacia Drive exterior emerged someone I could finally imagine enjoying a few beers with: after hours, with the bar curtains drawn tight and guilty smiles on our faces.

Someone’s image nose-dived all right, on the evening of January 24, 1994, but I think you’ll find it was Phil Neal’s.

2. Class, in all its forms, is permanent

The obsession with success for the national football team, seemed oddly irrelevant today. With just an occasional nod to the truism that international football was probably a bridge too far for Graham Taylor, even the tributes on that savage free-for-all called Twitter focused tightly on what he did accomplish: being a proficient club manager at the highest domestic level, while never losing his soul.

This was not a case of death buying the dead some restraint. The tributes were fulsome and uninhibited, and a lesson for all of us. Whatever your achievements or failures, your character will outlive them all in the consciousness of others.

“In a way, the world is a great liar,” Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan once wrote. “It shows you it worships and admires money, but at the end of the day it doesn’t, not really. The world admires, and wants to hold on to, and not lose, goodness. It admires virtue. At the end it gives its greatest tributes to generosity, honesty, courage, mercy, talents well used, talents that, brought into the world, make it better. That’s what it really admires. That’s what we talk about in eulogies, because that’s what’s important. We don’t say, ‘The thing about Joe was that he was rich.’ We say, if we can, ‘The thing about Joe was he took care of people.”

3. Enjoy these particular tributes while you still can

So many eulogies have focused on Taylor’s common touch and ‘everyman’ persona. There was talk of daft letters he nonetheless answered, or the conversations with fans in which you’d have thought he was merely a fan himself.

Just six months ago, working on the coast for a magazine feature, a colleague of mine found himself being watched by Mr and Mrs Taylor, on holiday at the time. My colleague being a football fan, the conversation took an inevitable turn, yet while Mrs Taylor politely made her excuses and walked on with the dog, her husband hung around for another 10 minutes, happily talking ‘shop’, as if stumbling upon a kindred spirit was the highlight of his vacation.

Now think of Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and the rest of the ‘smoked glass’ generation, casting crumbs to the masses from behind their phalanx of PR people. How differently might their obituaries eventually read, do you imagine?

4. The Buggles lied

Video did not kill the radio star. Against the backdrop of shallow, shouty television, he is the counterpoint that became ever more precious. With neither looks nor special effects at his disposal, he stands or falls on his speech alone, and the calibre of thought to which it gives voice. Graham Taylor could spout the occasional commentary booth inanity with the best of them but in the main, he was one of the better analysts, rarely given to verbal excess and frequently telling me something I hadn’t already figured out for myself. That I will never again hear that reassuring Lincolnshire voice on a Radio 5 Live commentary is the part of today that is hardest to take in.

That perceived civil servant of 30 years ago has come a long way. Today feels like I’ve lost an uncle.