Football: Smooth talkers ease pressure on men in the muddle

Why it's good to talk
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So, Stevenage were finally put firmly in their place, but to use a phrase beloved of footballers, full credit to them. The non-League side had third-round whipping boys written all over them when they came out of Graham Kelly's hat; as it turned out, whooping boys would have been more appropriate, since they justifiably milked their big moment.

But in my opinion the real losers were Newcastle United, and especially Kenny Dalglish, cast as villain in this footballing soap opera. The episode did neither Dalglish nor his team any favours. Since Kevin Keegan left the Toon, Newcastle, once the nation's champions elect and darlings of the media, have fallen dramatically from grace. Predictable on the pitch, and a manager who has become public enemy No 1 off it; if ever they needed the footballing equivalent of Max Clifford, it is now.

Instead Newcastle have got Dalglish, who is to public relations what Anthea Turner is to marriage guidance. Things might be different were Dalglish able to communicate with the press and public as well as he once could (and probably still can) with a football. That he is now appearing in an advertisement for the Bristol and West Building Society instead of for BT - like signing for Manchester City from United - says something about his popularity.

In Dalglish's defence, it is not necessarily in a football manager's job description to be an expert in public relations. But while some (like Martin O'Neill, Harry Redknapp and Ron Atkinson) can be relied on for obliging soundbites, others are more likely to bite your head off, and (with Dalglish in particular) it is a case of once bitten, twice shy.

The idea of media training courses for managers has been repeatedly mooted and is something the League Managers' Association is "looking into" (let's hope they finish looking by the time Gerry Francis returns to management). Most managers would no doubt claim they have quite enough on their plates already. Nevertheless, football clubs are no different to any big business in having to work at maintaining their images. After all, they fill more column inches than most, both back and front pages.

For that reason (and not before time, it has to be said) most top clubs now employ a press officer of sorts to "promote their club to the best effect to the most appropriate target audience". Their background vary as much as their remits - some are media trained; others only ever trained on a football pitch, like Rangers' John Greig - but all have, at times, an unenviable task. As Arsenal's press officer, Claire Tomlinson, says: "You can't legislate for what a manager or player might come out with in the heat of the moment. You can't just step into the fray and stop them."

But Paul Mace says that its not the aim of press officers to act as a barrier between managers and players and the press. Mace has been trying to "build bridges" between Leicester City and the media for six years now, and believes relations are improving: "Managers are getting younger and are more adept at dealing with the press."

That is not to say the press officer has an easier lot these days. Filbert Street's press box used to hold 40 people and was only occasionally full; today, 84 seats are seldom enough. Plus Mace gets at least 12 magazine requests for interviews each week, on top of the daily calls from national, local and international television and radio. "A good press officer can save his manager and players a lot of time," Mace says. "When Matt Elliott got called up by Scotland we were inundated with calls, but we guaranteed the press a time to talk to him and everyone was happy."

According to Mace, there was only a handful of press officers employed by English clubs when he was appointed. Now there are enough to fill a Press Officers' Association, which will meet for the first time in Leicester next Wednesday. It is Mace's brainchild. "There has long been an association for football's commercial managers," he says, "And while ours is still in an embryonic state it's an opportunity for press officers to meet on a regular basis to swap notes and try to help one another. The job's big enough, for heaven's sake."

Which is exactly what the Football Association and Premier League must have realised when they expanded their respective PR departments. It took Graham Taylor and non-qualification for USA '94 to convince the FA of the need for a director of public affairs - the ubiquitous David Davies - while the Premier League's press department only came into being in 1995, three years after the League's inception. Before that it was just one man and his phone.

But while press officers may have improved relations between managers and the media significantly since Cardiff's Kenny Hibbit barked to the assembling press after his side's FA Cup win over Rushton & Diamonds in 1995, "Look at you lot, you're sick as pigs. You're only here because you thought they were going to knock us out", it is doubtful whether if even the most smooth-talking press officer will ever be able to persuade the likes of Kenny Dalglish that it is good to talk - talk cordially.