Football: The Hansen way to tackle the media

Today's footballer must have more in his vocabulary than Over the Moon and Sick as a Parrot.
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The Independent Online
AS THE saying goes about the other half in a relationship: can't live with them, can't live without them. Football and the media are not always divorce cases but Relate have to be called in more often than friends would prefer.

Only yesterday Brendon Batson, deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, was bemoaning the declining relationship. "Some players are scared to talk to the press," he said. "They have become wary of what they say in case it is used against them."

This occasional incompatibility between observer and doer is not new. In 1950 the World Cup final ground to a chaotic halt when the pitch was invaded, not by supporters but by journalists anxious to interview the scorer of the opening goal.

More seriously, Paul Gascoigne is in hospital because he finds it difficult to deal with a life that is part-enhanced, part made miserable by media attention. Most walk the tightrope successfully. Others, like George Best, fall horribly.

"Like it or not somebody will be sticking a microphone under your nose be it television, radio or the written press," 12 emerging players were told yesterday. "You should not be scared by this."

The dozen, including Blackburn's Kevin Davies, Leeds' Harry Kewell and Manchester United's John Curtis, were being lectured in a way that Dixie Dean, Tom Finney or even the 1966 World Cup winners would have considered unnecessary if they did not regard it as ludicrous.

Their practice revolved round dribbling drills and stamina building, yesterday's was a concept that was not necessary in their time: media training. But sponsorship hardly existed then outside the occasional pork chop from the local butcher and yesterday's session held near Stockport was set up by Adidas.

For a firm that ran adverts suggesting "one kick might make all the difference" under David Beckham's picture on the day he was sent off in the World Cup you would think they would be in the `any publicity is good publicity' school, but obviously not.

"We don't expect you to be like Cliff Richard," the advice continued, "but you have to behave in the right way." And when you are a huge sports goods manufacturer you do not get the local newspaperman to do the tuition. Alan Hansen and Daley Thompson were the men with the wise words.

If reports are true from athletics, then Thompson's way of dealing with the press was to alternate between difficult and impossible - but he was full of bonhommie yesterday. `Do as I say, not what I do' would appear to be his message.

Hansen, who has crossed the divide from successful player with Liverpool and Scotland to equal distinction in television, was more practical. "In the Eighties and early Nineties you were asked to do a TV or radio interview half-a-dozen times a season," he said, measuring the quantum leap in media interest in football. "Now it's after every game. The magnitude has changed."

So has the adjustment. Now a nobody can become a celebrity within a few weeks and the "who's he?" becomes someone everybody wants to know. "It's amazing the number of friends you get that you didn't know you had," Jeff Whitley, Manchester City's 19-year-old Northern Ireland international, said. "You have to be careful. It is difficult to come to terms with, but when you're a kid you dream of getting in the first team and people wanting your autograph. You have to find the right balance."

The secret of the interview, according to Hansen, the bard of Match of the Day, was down to diction and thought. "Try to speak in good English, and have something to say because the press will appreciate it. Some players are good at deflecting everything - Alan Shearer is a master of it - but it is better to be prepared.

"Practice is important and so is advice. Speak to your manager or a more experienced player you can trust."

Kevin Davies, Blackburn's pounds 7m signing from Southampton this summer, has clung to his equilibrium by contact with his roots. He still keeps regular contact with his former colleagues at Chesterfield and they, he says, give him proportion.

"I've been annoyed at some of the off-the-field stuff, I don't like having my mother being rung up for interviews for example, but it's a fact of being a footballer," he said. "I find it strange that newspapers should want to write about such an ordinary lifestyle."

Ordinary. Not for much longer for some of them yesterday. David Beckham was anonymous not so long ago, now he cannot walk down a street without somebody releasing a camera shutter.

Whether he is a victim or a winner in life is debatable but there were plenty who had suffered on show yesterday. Not in the audience, they were too young, but on the screen. Gascoigne, Tony Adams and Patrick Kluivert have all had their problems, and the first is still having them.

The young players were told there were three key words yesterday: relationship, responsibility and mutuality. Another should have been added. Care.