The Media Column: How the red-tops, like England's footballers, got it so very wrong

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The Independent Online

Those not blinded by The Sun or any other popular newspaper in their fanatical coverage of Euro 2004 may have noticed soon after the start of the tournament reports of the unceremonious jailing of a sports journalist. If so, they must all have asked themselves the same question: why only one? Such was their delinquent misrepresentation of the England team's prospects and performances, it's a wonder an entire team of popular newspaper reporters weren't locked up alongside the hooligans who turned Albufeira into a battleground.

Not for a minute am I making light of the imprisonment of Zaw Thet Htwe, editor of a popular Burmese sports magazine, First Eleven, for exposing corrupt sports officials (the authorities charged him with high treason and originally he was sentenced to death - punitive measures yet to be employed here, although that's not to say they wouldn't have considerable support in some quarters). Such attacks on press freedom are of course iniquitous.

Yet there is no denying that the tabloid hysteria accompanying England's stuttering progress was to objective journalism what Emile Heskey is to soccer sophistication. With precious little evidence - England's record under Sven Goran Eriksson may look statistically respectable, but more often than not his teams have lacked inspiration - many football reporters were suckered into tipping England for the title before a ball was kicked.

When France summoned reserves of skill and character to charge from behind and wipe the smiles from English faces, these same sports writers concluded that England were unlucky. A lucky win for France? The suggestion reminds me of the nifty reply from the mother of the dramatist Moss Hart when a neighbour make a similar observation about her son's glittering career: "The funny thing is, the harder he works the luckier he gets."

England then managed to win two successive games - a rare achievement, admittedly - to the accompaniment of frenzied hyperbole, before being handed their return plane tickets by Portugal and provoking choruses of "We was robbed" and attacks on the referee who denied Sol Campbell's apparent score. ("What an Urs Hole" said the genteel Daily Star of Urs Meler, while the Daily Mirror's back-page story about the poor condition of the penalty spot was headlined "Sod it". If that is an example of new editor Richard Wallace's game plan, he might find parents whistling for offside.) Why is it that over recent years football reporters at the popular end of the market have shed the perception and authority that once were requisites for the job? There are still columnists who can write to lacerating effect - in Ian Wooldridge and Patrick Collins, the Daily and Sunday Mails have two old-school masters of the trade - but, with a few talented exceptions, the specialist football writers have come to resemble the obsessive fans who mainly are their readers. These reporters do not, as far as I am aware, have "England" tattooed on their biceps, but their brains are in sync with those who believe the beautiful game is just that, rather than a multi-billion-pound business populated by overpaid performers and cynical financial manipulators.

In an essay in the British Journalism Review, the Mail on Sunday's Collins postulated that the gulf that has been established between players and reporters since the game became awash with money is responsible for falling journalistic standards. Personal contact has been replaced, he wrote, by staged press conferences or copy-controlled interviews. Footballers at the top of their profession are contemptuous of the press and believe they do not need it. As for Eriksson, he's mega-wealthy and, despite failing to deliver in Portugal, possesses a reputation unlikely to be seriously dented by sports-page criticism. He is, according to Collins, the first national manager since the days of Sir Alf Ramsey to treat the press with utter indifference.

Reduced to impotence, reporters can do no more than chunder on about "Becks" and "Roo" and provide fodder for such atrocious pun headlines as "We Shall Not Be Mooed" (Mirror "exclusive" lead story - honest - on the Swiss team's promised bonus of a cow each) and "We'll go all the Wayne" (unsubstantiated and, of course, inaccurate Sun front page).

One writer who did get the charade of England's true potential in proper focus was Fergus Kelly, of the Daily Express. He was just two years old when England won the 1966 World Cup, he wrote, and can still vividly remember the letdown four years later when the world champions exited early in Mexico. Disillusionment soon became a familiar emotion, he recalled, and when England capitulated in the face of French flair in Lisbon he looked at the expression on the face of his six-year-old boy and said, "Get used to it, son."

Unlike England and most of the football hack pack, Kelly deserves a medal.