Cash for quotes: football's latest bung scandal?

Few top players will give interviews without a large fee. The game is the loser
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Recently a prominent member of the England national football team was asked by the editor of the Wembley match-day programme if he would be prepared to be interviewed for the edition covering his comeback game. His response was brief: "What's the fee?" And when the answer came back that there was not one, his response was along the lines of, "No dosh, no comment".

According to those whose job requires them to interview footballers, this is not an isolated experience. Premier League players increasingly expect to be paid for comments which their forebears gave gratis. "And when you can get hold of players," says one football correspondent of a Sunday broadsheet, "they will give you a couple of bland comments, reserving the interesting stuff for the paid-for interview they have arranged with a tabloid."

It has long been the case that players can make an attractive financial arrangement with the tabloids. As part of their ruthless circulation wars, papers ensure readership-boosting exclusives via the chequebook. Thus the only interview we could read with Paul Ince after last season's FA Cup Final was in the News of the World. Eight minutes' work for the player in the Wembley tunnel, for which he received pounds 18,000: a tidy piece of business all round. And some of the paid-for pieces - Kevin Keegan's recent interview in the Sun about the Christmas tree formation, for example - are first-class. But the broadsheets, radio and magazines traditionally have relied on powers of persuasion, seeking interviews on the understanding that bank balances would not be enhanced.

"When I worked there, being asked to be interviewed for the Guardian was regarded as something of a coup by players," says Ian Ridley of the Independent on Sunday. "They knew they weren't going to get stitched up and they'd get a good lengthy show. But now there is such an explosion in media outlets, the broadsheet press has become a tiny, peripheral thing in their commercial lives and it is becoming harder and harder to compete for their time."

To an extent you can see the players' point. In a recent edition of Broadcast magazine, the commercial director of Newcastle United was quoted on football's next television deal. "They got it cheap," he said of Sky's pounds 360m buy- up. "Sky's profits have largely been built on football. Next time the bidding starts at pounds 800m."

There is an unarguable truth in this. Sky paid an enormous amount for the exclusive live rights to the Premier League and has been made by it. What this has proved to football's money-conscious administrators is how valuable their commodity is: they will not sell it short. And if television is paying through the satellite dish for access, why not radio? In Birmingham, an exclusive deal has been signed between local commercial radio and a consortium of Birmingham City, West Brom and Aston Villa. The local BBC station has been squeezed out.

So if the clubs themselves make money out of the media, why shouldn't the players? If the broadsheets have traditionally not forked out, perhaps it is time they woke up to the new financial world. Well, argue the broadsheet writers, it is not in football's or footballers' interests to behave in such a short-sighted way. In American sports the practitioners are paid huge amounts by their clubs and part of the deal is that they make themselves available to the media. In Italian football, where the rewards are equally generous, it is required of players that time is made available to the press. After Barcelona hammered Manchester United in last year's European Cup, Koeman, Cruyff, Bakaro and the rest came down to the lavish press room at the Nou Camp and talked - in several languages - to anyone who wanted to listen. Compare that to England, where those covering the game hang around in car parks hoping to catch quotes from contemptuous players slipping away home.

"We have reached the odd situation whereby it is easier for an English broadsheet reporter to get hold of Paolo Maldini than Tony Adams," says Henry Winter, chief football correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. The Italians and Americans do not make their players talk because they believe in the integrity of a free media. They do it because they know how powerful the media are in constructing a saleable image. Most sportswriters are fans and thus can be relied upon to present a positive, brand-boosting picture.

"There is no doubt," says Mr Winter, "that a long, considered and, I'd like to think, intelligent interview with a player in a broadsheet will be important in developing his image. Particularly when the main form of access to them - via snippets on satellite television - is denied to so many fans." But, comes the argument from those in football, we do not have a press in Britain that can be relied on to present a decent image. Why should footballers co-operate with newspapers that are so prepared to sensationalise? Players of the most modest celebrity are considered fair game for kiss-and-tell exposure. Recently the Daily Mirror ran a double-page spread revealing the tangled marital arrangements of Graham Roberts. Who? Exactly. Given the tabloids' eagerness to "stitch up", as the footballing parlance has it, is it any wonder journalists are treated with a mixture of contempt and suspicion in Premier League dressing rooms?

This would hold more water if the players were not so willing to make financial gain from the same papers they profess to despise. In Andy Hamilton's play, Eleven Men Against Eleven, a footballer's agent is approached for a comment about the latest misdemeanours of one of his clients. "My client is sick of the lies and distortions of the gutter press, and of trial by media generally," the character says. "And if you want the exclusive of him saying that, it'll cost you 10 grand."

Many reporters blame the rise of the agent for all this. Some agents - Jon Holmes, for instance - are wise enough to see the value of making their clients available to the serious newspapers. Many, though, prefer the quick commission of a paid-for piece in a tabloid.

If you want a quote from a Premier League player and you do not want to pay for it, the best place to start is with a foreigner, brought up with a more sophisticated approach to the media than his English colleagues. "You go to Chelsea," says Ian Ridley. "And you'll find after every game Ruud Gullit will still be on the pitch giving radio interviews while his team-mates get pissed in the players' lounge."The week after British clubs collapsed so pitifully in Europe, there is something very telling about that comparison.