Exclusive! How footballers score with the tabloids

Highly paid stars are earning extra thousands for cosy chats with certain newspapers. Who gains? Not the sport, or the fans, says Ian Ridley

Ian Wright, the Arsenal striker, had agreed to the interview. You'd better just phone my agent to clear it, though, he said. From then on, what had seemed simple became far from clear. Welcome to the murky waters of money, English football and tabloid journalism. And more money.

The News of the World has an exclusive deal with Ian, his agent said. But surely the NoW's sports editor, Mike Dunn, would not object to the dear old Independent on Sunday talking to a public figure such as Wright? "I am embarrassed to be so petty-minded," Dunn told me. "But I have to say no. The interview could be lifted by another paper. We can't get at players The Sun have."

It scarcely needs pointing out that English football is booming, with foreign stars increasingly attracted by the sums on offer. Attendances continue to rise, merchandise sales graphs point upwards and television money enters the stratosphere. Next season, BSkyB, Rupert Murdoch's satellite broadcaster, is due to initiate a new TV deal that will bring each Premiership club pounds 9m a season.

Tabloid newspapers, too, are willing to throw cash at players already earning up to pounds 30,000 a week, so desperate are they to surf the wave of paper-selling populism. In return, in a growing trend, they insist that the players refuse to do any one-on-one interviews with other newspapers.

The ethics of this - the public, via the press, denied access to figures whose wages they help to pay - are surely dubious. Indeed, were anyone to challenge it, the system may even be an illegal restraint on trade.

The exclusive arrangements are known in the rag trade as "buy-ups". A sports writer will be assigned to talk to a player who is being paid for his time. A short chat later, something along the lines of "My Agony - by Ian Wright" will take shape. Sometimes the newspaper will not use all the interviews contracted but simply buy up a player to stop others having him, like a Premiership manager who will not sell a team member to a close rival.

"It's good money, at the end of the day, for 15 minutes on the telephone," the former England player Terry Butcher told Pete Davies for his account of the 1990 World Cup, All Played Out. It was great taking money from people you hated, added his team-mate Chris Waddle.

Newspapers are supposed to champion freedom of information: but just try finding out the sums involved. Estimates come from journalists inside the buildings who themselves find the buy-up system distasteful.

It is thought, for example, that Alan Shearer, signed this season by Newcastle United for pounds 15m, and receiving a basic wage of pounds 25,000 a week, was last season paid pounds 88,000 for 11 interviews by the News of the World, which is also paying the former England coach Terry Venables a six-figure sum for his views on the game.

Meanwhile, The Sun has this season procured the Italian Gianluca Vialli of Chelsea and Middlesbrough's Fabrizio Ravanelli - reported to be on pounds 42,000 a week - for pounds 5,000 apiece. Nice to see the money is going to the needy.

It can lead to some comical cases. The England fullback Stuart Pearce was recently paid pounds 25,000 by the News of the World for the exclusive announcement of his international retirement. The NoW is now trying to recover the money after Pearce decided that he would play on after all. Then there was the case a fortnight ago of the Newcastle winger Keith Gillespie, whose gambling was previously exposed in The Sun, being paid pounds 5,000 to thank the Dirty Digger's flagship tabloid in print for getting him back on the straight and narrow. And take that paragon of reason, the Wimbledon hard man Vinny Jones. Sacked 18 months ago by the News of the World for biting the nose of a Daily Mirror reporter, he was subsequently signed up by the ... Daily Mirror. Now he has taken his rent-a-quotability to The Sun - but the Mirror still has up its sleeves some columns he, um, "penned" for them while under contract.

There are honourable exceptions to the greed factor. When the England defender Gareth Southgate missed a penalty against Germany during Euro 96 it became one of the images of the summer, and one he stoically learns to live with. Afterwards, he refused six-figure sums for his exclusive story, considering it wrong to profit.

Before this season began, I phoned and asked him if he would like to write a preview to the season from a player's perspective for The Independent on Sunday. He readily agreed and wrote it himself, faxing the piece to me for my comments. He did not mention payment; I did. It was pounds 200.

Most of the tabloid antics are harmless, knockabout fun of the sort that makes the British press such a broad and happy-clappy church. Indeed, sometimes good comes of it, with tabloids giving a helping hand to down- on-their-luck sports people in return for a good tale. There are, however, disturbing issues underlying the increasing use of the "exclusivity" cause.

The Professional Footballers' Association has fought long and hard for freedom of speech for players. Now those placed on the curiously named charge of "bringing the game into disrepute" are mostly the ones whose comments appear in paid-for copy from tabloids, which demand controversy and conflict in return for their money.

Those of us seeking insight into the game for our readers - and, yes, controversy if the player volunteers rather than manufactures it - are excluded because our newspapers do not, quite rightly, pay. In these days of media mania generated by football, it is becoming more difficult to find a top player, and sometimes even a manager, who will spare time to offer more than soundbite banality.

It happens only rarely elsewhere. During the last World Cup, the German player Stefan Effenberg was paid by Bild for his account of a bust-up with the coach Berti Vogts, but donated the money to a charity in Africa. In the United States, supposedly the temple of commercialism, it is unheard of. There, governing bodies encourage open access to promote the sport. Besides which, the big bucks for players are in equipment endorsements, and press interviews are seen as opportunities to enhance the image.

"Thank God, this is the one disease we don't have in Italy," says Giancarlo Galavotti, London correspondent of Gazetta dello Sport. Newspapers would turn against any player who asked for money, he adds. And Serie A, the Italian version of the Premier League, is supposedly the role model for the English game. So what of Vialli taking The Sun's money? "I think his attitude is 'When in London, do as the Londoners do'."

It is a situation that the Premier League must surely address. After all, it is the fans who are ultimately being treated with disdain. The league points out that it issues guidelines - mostly ignored, in practice - to clubs that two players should be made available after matches. But this misses the point.

A Premier League spokesman says that with top players now earning bigger sums, the subject of "exclusivity" payments "warrants discussion with the PFA". But he adds: "Players and clubs have got to have a degree of commercial freedom."

It is a freedom that denies freedom of speech and access, however, and indeed imposes a form of censorship. Can't pay? Won't play ball.

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