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.

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Reflections on Graham Taylor

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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.

The US Open and every freelancer’s worst nightmare

OpenIf you’ve always known the security of an employment contract, you might want to move on to the next story. This one may strike you as cheeky, perhaps borderline naughty, but you’ll probably wonder why I’m digging it up after almost 15 years.

If you’ve ever worked for yourself, on the other hand, and known periods of your life when no pay cheque could be taken for granted, you may well share my view that the naming and shaming should never stop when it comes to the biggest pile of steaming dung ever put in front of those of us who ply our trade in the creative sphere.

“We can’t afford to pay you as such but it will be good publicity for you.”

Whenever they find a freelance journalist/photographer/entertainer et al with a smoking gun in his hand, standing over a motionless body, rest assured those were probably the deceased’s last words.

Every freelance creative is spun this line, especially early in his career, when he pitches for work. They see you coming a mile off: young, hungry and probably desperate enough to fall for anything in order to get your foot on the ladder.

In time, you learn to employ one of two ripostes to this flagrant try-on…

1) “If publicity paid the rent, I’d sprint naked down Bond Street.”

2) “The companies providing your business with stationery, electricity etc – you’re paying them with publicity too, right?”

The sting of being played, however, is a scar on the memory that might fade but never vanishes. So whenever you hear that this ruse remains alive and well, you’re like an old war horse that starts pawing the ground at the sound of distant drums.

The United States Golf Association should have been beyond such a graceless stunt when they looked to hire a course architect for the 2002 US Open. Their ‘mark’, designer Rees Jones, would have certainly considered it to be a thing of the past for a man of his stature, with more than 20 golf courses on his career portfolio by the time the USGA’s executive director David Fay approached him in the mid-1990s.

For the 2002 renewal of their flagship tournament, the USGA had chosen a municipal as opposed to private golf course for the first time in Open history. Designed in 1936 by A.W. Tillinghast, one of golf architecture’s greats, Bethpage Black was a daunting monster of a course which carried its own health warning alongside the first tee and which clearly had Open potential. Heavy public use over the years had stripped the course of much of its shine and definition, however, and the USGA wanted Rees Jones to restore both.

Master storyteller, sportswriter John Feinstein, recounts how the job was pitched, in his book Open, which is where it recently came to my attention.

“Jones…was a bit nonplussed when he and Fay – good friends for many years – sat down to discuss the project and negotiate the fee.

“Because it’s a public golf course and I know you guys are picking up all the costs, I’ll give you a discount on my normal fee,” Jones told Fay. His normal fee was about $1 million.

“Damn right you’ll give us a discount,” Fay said. “I’m not going to pay you.”

Fay laughs as he retells the story. “Once he picked himself up off the floor, I think he got it right away,” he said. “I told him it was already going to cost at least $3 million just to move all the earth around. Plus, I said it would enhance his reputation not only…because this was the ultimate redesign project, but because he had been so magnanimous in donating his services. It would be great PR for him all the way round.”

Oh my. But then that’s what friends are for, right, David Fay?

Now, in fairness, it should be added that in agreeing to take ‘publicity’ to the bank, Rees Jones was playing the long game. Bethpage cemented a career niche that has earned him the label ‘Open Doctor’, as the USGA’s go-to guy for similar course restorations on the Open schedule, an arrangement which I’m sure has rewarded him many times over for this initial forbearance.

And I have every confidence that David Fay, like any other businessman, would have gladly given away a million dollars of his own time for the betterment of Society, had only someone asked.

Nonetheless, it is a salutary reminder to any freelancers reading this, whatever their own field, that there is no stone so lofty that the dreaded ‘publicity’ ploy won’t crawl out from beneath it and attempt to work its grubby magic.

[Sits back…slowly unclenches fists…breathes…]

It’s the product, Formula 1, not the window dressing

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Pic courtesy of Roderick Elme

New owner, same misplaced enthusiasm. That was the conclusion I reached as I read of Formula One’s latest proposals to sex itself up.

While additional American centres will help (after the way it spat in the USA’s face in 2005, the sport is lucky it still has a foothold there at all) I fear a triumph of hype over cool heads when I read about the vision of Super Bowl equivalency and plans to make each Grand Prix a week-long ‘event’.

This sounds like a fixation with brand and placement, when it’s the sport itself that is turning people off. Anyone who grumbles about soccer’s Premier League being a closed-shop is clearly a stranger to F1 – a form of motorsport where overtaking in the hierarchy is now as rare as it is on the track.

So underwhelmed was I by the nature of the “radical changes” being envisaged, I shaved and showered one morning last week while mulling over a few radical changes of my own. I warn in advance that I’m usually hopeless at devising Grand Plans – my enthusiasm for the bigger picture nearly always blinding me to snags with the small print – but what the hell. I throw this out there: shoot it down in flames if you will – I’m just happy to get it off my chest.

I propose essentially just one radical change – that Formula One drivers go from being employees to freelancers. Teams continue to design, build and refine cars. They take two to every race and at the start of the week, a draw is made to decide which driver gets which car.

One proviso – no driver can race for a team more than twice a season. Match the number of drivers and cars to the number of Grands Prix contested each season and everyone gets to drive each team’s car. Points are awarded as they are now to drivers and constructors alike, the champion in each category being those who made best use of the same resources as were made available to everyone else.

Three objections I have already envisaged: first, driver’s remuneration. I propose that each team pays into a salary kitty at the start of the season a sum equal to twice the average F1 driver’s salary in the previous season ( with an inflation top-up, if appropriate). Each driver is entitled to draw a guaranteed base salary throughout the season ($1m, $2m?) – the rest is divvied up after the final race and awarded proportionally, each driver collecting an additional amount directly linked to where he finished in the championship table.

Secondly, cockpit requirements. I’m no engineer, so I acknowledge that this could be an insurmountable problem, unless it’s possible to build a cockpit surround tailored to each driver’s build, which can then be fit into whatever car he is drawn to drive.

Third, new driver intake. I’m thinking here of a system similar to that in professional golf, where the top 125 or so in the money list at the end of each season are guaranteed what are known as Tour cards, which grant them entry to the next season’s tournaments, while a limited number of additional Tour cards are competed for by those outside the top 125, along with newcomers to the pro ranks, at a tournament known as Qualifying School or ‘Q-School’.

Translating this to F1, say the top 16 points finishers in the Drivers’ Championship qualify to compete in the  following season’s events. The bottom six take their chances with those newcomers eligible for an F1 licence at F1’s own version of ‘Q-School’, held over several days during the close-season, when each driver takes turns to drive 10 or 15 laps in the same car, with the six fastest aggregate times earning an F1 ‘card’.

All sorts of commercial and vested interests will ensure that my proposals are never more than that, of course. After all, they would bring to the sport concepts that no self-respecting big business can countenance – surprise, uncertainty and all the entertaining possibilites of a level playing field. It’s the logistical objections I’m interested in. What  practical objections did I miss in my bathroom musings?

Over to you.

Fault – tennis and bastardised English

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The impossible dream? Roger Federer – pic courtesy of Yann Caradec

If I blogged every instance of people in professional sport talking nonsense, I would never be away from my laptop, but I refuse to let tennis off the hook for the garbage it continues to spout when discussing its four biggest titles.

Roger Federer can win another Grand Slam, says former coach Paul Annacone. Oh he can, can he? Win the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open all in the same calendar year? That would be some achievement, undoubtedly, from a 35-year-old.

Only that’s not what Annacone has in mind, of course. In reporting his opinions, the BBC is simply falling into line with the imprecision common to everyone involved with pro tennis, it seems – applying the term ‘Grand Slam’ to a mere component of a Grand Slam. Annacone simply thinks Federer has one more big-four title in him.

So why not say so? Golf has found a way of avoiding such mangled nomenclature, by referring to each of its own principal championships – Masters, US Open, The Open and USPGA Championship – as ‘a Major’ (collectively as ‘the Majors’). Why on earth couldn’t tennis adopt this same label (as occurs elsewhere in the article, ironically) and save the term ‘Grand Slam’ for when it is actually warranted?

We have grown sadly accustomed to the ‘all must have prizes’ mentality seeping into Society. This ‘all must have the ultimate prize’ presumption, however, is a distortion too far.

New words, please.

Blur of managerial merry-go-round no longer hides the real villains

Bob Bradley c/o Doha Stadium Plus Qatar
Bob Bradley (pic courtesy of Doha Stadium Plus Qatar)

As always, much chatter accompanied the dismissal of yet another football manager, yet in the spare time now available to him, Swansea City’s latest ex-boss, Bob Bradley, may reflect that there has never been a better time to be fired in his line of work.

For more and more these days, the chatter revolves around those behind the gun, rather than the hapless soul in front of it.

What on earth passes for due diligence at Swansea City? In a era when senior recruitment is an industry in itself, awash with gurus and number-crunchers, how can a multi-million pound organisation’s grasp of research and strategy be so abysmal that they are showing the door to a manager just 12 weeks after attaching his name to it?

Who checked this man over and how and why did that person arrive at the conclusion that Bradley was the best man available to take this team forward, in conjunction with the three- or five-year plans so beloved of pontificating ‘suits’ these days?

But maybe I get to the gist of this fiasco with that last sentence, for such long-term vision, I suspect, is the sole preserve of those clubs at the opposite end of the league table from Swansea City right now. The Welsh club currently belongs to that nervous enclave for whom the long-term is measured in weeks rather than years. Were it otherwise, Garry Monk, their manager just over a year ago and now doing admirable things with Leeds United, might still be at the helm and the club in calmer waters, his bosses doubtless congratulating themselves on not letting fickle form blind them to enduring ability.

That such steadfastness seems rather archaic nowadays reflects poorly on a professional game that has allowed the stakes to become too high. Relegation used to be a maddening inconvenience but it has become something seen as tantamount to the fall of Pompeii; an enforced separation from the Premier League’s money-engorged tit, that simply cannot be contemplated.

We have all become so giddy with this notion that were any chairman to declare such belief in a new manager that not even a relegation season would threaten the latter’s job, it would be a race as to who threw the first stone at him – fans, media or the club accountants.

So erratic and scattergun has the managerial merry-go-round become that the kind of boardroom shenanigans in the game’s Latin quarter that once amused us so greatly are now moving dangerously close to home. Remember Atlético Madrid’s hothead owner Jesús Gil? Thirty-nine managers in 17 years? How much longer before he might have begun to feel right at home in the Premier League?

First we see Crystal Palace stump up heaven knows how much in severance pay to be shot of Alan Pardew, only to replace like with like and now this farce in south Wales, an indictment not only of those who purport to ‘run’ the clubs concerned, but also of those who preside over a league that has lost all sense of perspective.

Enjoy your weekend, Bob Bradley. You’re well out of it.