Relations between newspapers and football hit all-time low

From Rio-gate to 'roasting', cocaine to kiss-and-tell, the difficulties mount. James Silver talks to players and the press
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The Independent Online

Puffing on a cigarette, Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, is talking about the battering his sport has taken from the media. "It really is have-a-go-at-football time at the moment," he says. Why does he think that is? "I'll get shot down for saying this, but there's a jealousy of young men who are doing well, earning those reported big wages... journalists feel they can hire them and fire them when top players are paid that kind of money."

He says the atmosphere between football and the press began to sour with the tabloid circulation wars of the Eighties, and things have become steadily worse ever since. "It has got quite vicious. I know from my own experience as the players' spokesman that quotes are often fabricated." In a thinly veiled reference to the Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand's mobile-phone bills being published by a Sunday tabloid, he adds pointedly: "When players have their private and confidential things splattered on the front page, then no wonder they clam up."

He has a point. The front pages have been cruel recently. And each side blames the other. Many in football say coverage of players' private lives has become a bloodsport. After seeing his (married) star striker Robbie Fowler pictured in the News of the World this month, partying in a club and cavorting with a mystery blonde, the Manchester City manager, Kevin Keegan, accused the press of "conducting a vendetta" against footballers. It has since emerged that Fowler and his team-mate Steve McManaman tried to "gag" the tabloid at the High Court in Manchester to stop it revealing that the pair had allegedly "coaxed" a girl into "a sick roasting session" later that night.

Whatever the truth of the matter, there is little doubt that football could do with better PR. And at the end of January, the sport is going to lose one of its slickest operators. After three years in the post, Manchester United's media chief Patrick Harverson will quit the club to become Prince Charles's spin doctor. A former sports business correspondent at the Financial Times, Harverson diplomatically describes relations between football and the press as "certainly unhealthy".

"There's a voracious hunger for stories about Manchester United," he says. "Tabloids are looking for a splash about the club every single day and there are plenty of days - even here - when absolutely nothing happens. The players train, then they go home." He continues: "There's not a lot of responsibility from journalists. A simple quote from a player or the manager is turned into a snub, a taunt or a bombshell. Every time I've tried to extend an olive branch to a tabloid, the next day they run another story that ruins the relationship."

Harry Harris, the chief football writer at Express group, says: "It just isn't true that football journalists make up stories. There's a great deal of pressure on us, and on some quiet news days stories may be... exaggerated - but that's called spinning. And don't the clubs indulge in spin all the time, too? Of course they do."

Harris has grown increasingly irritated with the media being blamed for football's woes. "First of all, the media as a whole are propping up professional football," he argues. "Sky TV's billions are the only reason some of these players are being paid such phenomenal wages. And it's not even true that bad news sells newspapers. It doesn't. I've been in this industry for 30-odd years, and surges in circulation relate to England doing well in competitions."

Given the current bad blood, The Daily Telegraph sports columnist Jim White thinks clubs could do a lot more to protect players and prepare them for life in the media spotlight. "You can pick up any red-top Sunday newspaper and find players of fairly modest standing being turned over in kiss-and-tell stories," he says. "They really ought to be prepared and warned of the dangers. Clubs do give players media training but that's mostly about smiling and saying nothing controversial when John Motson shoves a microphone under your nose. It doesn't tend to be about how you should lead your life in public."

That view is echoed by the former Liverpool and England striker Stan Collymore, who knows all about being caught in the eye of tabloid storms. He recently told BBC Radio's Five Live Report that the experience of finding yourself in the newspapers day after day is "isolating" and that, while some players can cope with the attention, others simply can't and go off the rails. "You're really left to sink or swim on your own," he said. "The clubs protect their biggest stars - the Wayne Rooneys and Michael Owens - both on and off the pitch. But everybody should get that treatment, not just one or two who are saleable and bankable in the future."