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Football: Manager's office where reporters feared to tread

NO AMOUNT of Football Association fog, of which there is an endless supply, can obscure the fact that media skills are up there with tactical acumen and motivational powers in the quest for a permanent coach of the England football team.

Evident from conversations between the FA's chief executive, David Davies, and a number of football writers, it is a jolting reminder of how much things have changed even since the time of such notable managers as Alf Ramsey, Jock Stein, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Stan Cullis and Bill Nicholson.

Some were more astute than others in dealing with the press and the then infant medium of television but all were quick to jump on betrayals of confidence, inaccuracy and scurrilous reporting.

Maybe things are healthier than they were, maybe not, but it must be difficult for the upcoming generation in this trade to believe that recalcitrant sportswriters were summoned for admonishment to Cullis's office at Molineux.

To give you some idea of the fearful respect in which Cullis was held, a colleague on the Daily Mirror who had driven me from the railway station to seek an interview with the autocratic manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers refused to get out of his car. "Things are going bad for Stan [Cullis was fired 48 hours later] and he is bound to be in a terrible mood," he said. "I just can't face him."

No sportswriter of that time took lightly the notion of offending Busby, who was a much harder man than his reputation suggests. Recalling his days as the Mirror's chief northern sports correspondent, my friend Frank McGhee recalls: "Matt was very generous to young football reporters but anyone who stepped out of line quickly learned that there was no future in getting on the wrong side of him."

Busby was a master of the vocal body swerve, using it to avoid answering questions that might embarrass him and the club.

"Tell me, Sir Matt, is there anything to the rumour that you are about to buy someone?" a reporter might ask.

"Well, son," Busby would reply, with much pausing between syllables, employing the old technique because the rumour was probably true. "This can be a difficult business and you have to stay in touch with what's going on. And how is the golf? Are you hitting it straight? That's the secret. Keeping it on the fairway."

By then Busby would be on the move, leaving a bewildered reporter in his wake.

One of the mistakes that led to Graham Taylor's downfall as England manager was to engage in debates with reporters before matches about selection and strategy. "Madness," I remember saying to Steve Coppell when this happened on the eve of a critical encounter against the Netherlands in Rotterdam that failed to qualify England for the 1994 World Cup finals.

It took me back to England's last match, against Poland in Katowice, before the 1966 finals. After announcing the surprise inclusion of Martin Peters, who had made only one previous representative appearance, Alf Ramsey was asked if he could explain the role set out for the West Ham midfielder. "No," he replied, already rising to leave the room.

More recently, I can remember Franz Beckenbauer, as manager of Germany, leaving intrusive questions unanswered, greeting them with a blank stare. One of Beckenbauer's predecessors, Helmut Schon, once spoke bleakly about the pressure brought to bear by newspaper articles. "It is more than enough at my time [Schon was in his 60th year] to prepare the team," he said. "I understand the needs of the press but it is becoming more and more difficult to cope with their demands."

No England manager has handled the press and television better than Terry Venables, who realised that success does not guarantee protection from factionally subjective criticism. "Whether because of alliances or spite, no matter what is achieved there will always be somebody up against you," he said.

One thing for sure is that managers from the past would not take kindly to today's interminable press conferences. Pointing to Tottenham Hotspur's dressing-room after a European Cup-Winners' Cup defeat in Bratislava their manager, Bill Nicholson, growled: "You're always telling them how good they are, now go and tell them how bad they were." Somehow, I think that way was better.