Football: Post-match tension and the managerial art of putting the press in their place

MIKE ROWBOTTOM ON A FOOTBALL PHENOMENON
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The Independent Online
I made a joke once. It was a couple of years ago, after a match between Coventry and Southampton where the referee realised he had blown the final whistle too early and called the players back for an extra couple of minutes.

Southampton's manager subsequently suggested the referee should get a new watch. "It makes a change from new glasses," I quipped. One or two colleagues were good enough to laugh.

Why did those Beano-type words come out of my mouth? Because, I now realise, I was in a post-match press conference.

This phenomenon - without which no football match in the country, be it England versus Italy or Rochdale versus Doncaster Rovers, is deemed by Her Majesty's Press to be officially over - involves unwritten rules. And Humour, Appropriate Use Of, forms an important category.

The guiding principle here is tradition - say nothing that has not been tried and tested many times before.

Thus references to the blindness or incompetence of referees, or to balls coming down with snow on them, or to the likelihood of a few beers being consumed later in the day, are all OK.

But would-be wags should remember that, generally speaking, the managers do the jokes. Not that they are any better.

The managerial comic tradition relies heavily on menacing understatement. "I had a few words with the lads at half-time", accompanied by a grim smile - that sort of thing always goes down well with assembled scribes.

It is feature of such gatherings that common-or-garden phrases repeated by managers bring forth disproportionate merriment among listeners. Ron Atkinson, that master of the rehearsed quip, has had hacks convulsed in merriment with observations such as: "They've got two chances of beating us: slim and none.''

Managerial ascription of bias to the referee is normally prefaced with the phrase: "I'm not going to comment on the referee, but..." This is only unintentionally funny.

At some point, post-match discussions usually stray into the technical realm. "What exactly was your thinking in replacing Smith with Jones?", for example, is a popular form of words which hints at acumen in the questioner while inviting the manager to impress with the acuteness of his own tactical vision.

Often successful. But it is important to sound another cautionary note here. Only last week, I heard Harry Redknapp being asked to explain what had made the difference between his West Ham side playing so badly against Arsenal and then so well against Liverpool four days later.

The questioner - let us call him Brian, since that is his name - was rebuked. "Well," said Redknapp with a sour Cockney grin, "I read your article, Brian, so I knew I'd been playing David Unsworth too wide on the left.''

Other managers are less humane in their response to journalists deemed to have stepped beyond their bounds. "Who did you play for?" is a brutal variant which I once heard used to - well, brutal - effect by Kenny Dalglish.

The Newcastle manager is in a Premiership of his own when it comes to putting the Press in their place. His stopper phrase, which can be deployed against any form of offensive, is: "You saw it. You write it.''

For the reporter, the words "You must have thought" are indispensable for introducing almost any topic, as in "You must have thought you were never going to score" or "You must have thought they were never going to score".

If the manager responds with either a yes or a no, hey presto, the quote. "I thought we were never going to score...''

For the rookie reporter, however, there are hidden perils at these ritualistic gatherings. After a Saturday match, there will be two rounds of questioning. Quotes for the Sunday paper will flow from the formal press conference. Follow-up quotes and stories for the Monday paper writers are usually gathered behind a closed door - any door will do, so long as it is guarded by a stony-faced man in a club blazer.

Manager and Mondays slip away together like lovers with a secret assignation. These post post-match lines are jealously guarded, particularly by the tabloid men for whom fresh quotes are essential.

Once, innocently straying into a huddle of scribbling macs, I was rounded upon by the mac closest to me. "You Sunday?" he growled. "I'm both," I said. "These are for Monday only," he said, turning back to the business in hand.

Thinking about all this reminds me of Ron Atkinson's old press conference line about his hyperactive midfielder, Remi Moses. "We call him dogshit," said big Ron beamingly, "because he gets everywhere.''

God, that was so funny. Well it seemed funny at the time.

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