Peter Corrigan: A word about the England players - childish

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The Independent Online

Sticks and stones may break our bones but the absence of words will never hurt us. By us, I mean the media against whom the England players constructed a wall of silence in a feeble attempt to punish their critics after beating Poland 2-1 in Katowice on Wednesday.

Sticks and stones may break our bones but the absence of words will never hurt us. By us, I mean the media against whom the England players constructed a wall of silence in a feeble attempt to punish their critics after beating Poland 2-1 in Katowice on Wednesday.

It was a collective tantrum any two-year-old would have advised against, and served only to deflect masses of words, space and television time away from a performance about which, we presume, they were faintly happy. Don't these blokes get any public relations advice? If they do, they obviously don't listen. There are more effective ways of getting back at your tormentors than by having a sulk at your own celebration party.

Unfortunately, whereas during a game you can bring discomfort to an opponent by throwing yourself to the ground, no amount of theatrical gesturing off the pitch will get the media sent off.

The England team of 1973 found a much more satisfying way of getting their own back. Indeed, very interesting echoes come rolling down the 31 years since they, too, played Poland in the Slaski stadium - about five times more packed and 10 times more intimidating - in a World Cup qualifying match. The difference was that they were beaten 2-0, even though the great Bobby Moore was at the heart of the team.

There were other differences. For one, the team were not managed by Sven Goran Eriksson, who has achieved little, but Sir Alf Ramsey, who had achieved the ultimate by winning the World Cup for England seven years previously. The hammering England took in the press was not the slightest bit mellowed either by Ramsey's record or that of Moore, who made an uncharacteristic error in the match. Both their England careers were soon to end ingloriously as England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup.

Fierce words were bellowed down the telephone lines that night as more than 100,000 Poles screeched their joy at the success of their team, whose subsequent progress showed that it was no disgrace to be beaten by them on their home soil.

Normally, the England camp would have been unaware of the reports, because our newspapers never got behind the Iron Curtain and neither did many phone calls. But this visit was different. The match in Poland was the first of three England were playing on the trip. From Katowice they flew to play the USSR in Moscow and then on to Turin to play Italy. The same British Airways charter plane took us on all three stages, returning back to London in between hops.

In those days the press travelled in the same plane as players and officials. The fact that our fares paid for the flight did not save us from being herded to the back where, I swear, the seats were disinfected. It was only when the team filed in and took their seats that we realised the cabin crew were distributing the English papers among them. All the writers whose words had appeared that morning sank back in their seats with a groan.

I was sitting next to the Daily Mail man, and he looked in horror as he caught sight of his back-page headline, which read in very large letters: "RAMSEY BETRAYS ENGLAND". Others weren't as complimentary. The eerie, uncomfortable silence lasted all the way to Moscow, where we disembarked and joined the inevitably long passport-control queues; the players down one side, us down the other.

When the late and lamented Frank Clough of the Sun reached the desk, officials found something wrong with his visa and two armed guards were called. Still protesting, he was practically frogmarched back to the plane to the sound of jeers and whistles of players suddenly transformed from post-defeat blues to the happiest England team I've ever seen.

The official party were whisked through quicker than us and were taken by separate coach to their hotel where, we were informed, not even our phone calls would be welcome. We felt it was all our fault and not much help to the Daily Mirror man who had to ghost-write Bobby Moore's column, a matter of 700 words. He made the long journey from our hotel to theirs and stood outside plaintively shouting "Mooro" up at the bedroom windows towering above him.

Eventually, one of them opened and Moore stuck his head out. In answer to his scribe's request for material the England captain shouted down, "Tell them I'm gutted", and closed the window.

If nothing else, this story proves that antipathy between players and media is nothing new. But it is doomed to be a relationship fraught with disruptive influences, especially the way England play.

What is different today is that the tabloids have discovered a way of exten-ding the beastliness away from the field of play. Secrets of the bedroom are a regrettable extension of the game's coverage, but intrusion into private lives is a fact of every walk of public life; so much so that it's time they calculated whether the risks of hanky-panky are worth taking. It is a shame that the Football Association aren't in a better position to emphasise the wisdom of higher morality.

As for comparing goalkeeper David James to Mavis the donkey, as the Sun did last week, this is the sort of playground cruelty that has been in vogue since former England manager Graham Taylor was classed as a turnip. Sadly, the fans and readers seem to like it. But there are better ways to respond than a total ban - winning is not a bad riposte - and it would help further if the English team stopped regarding themselves as their own property. They belong to a demanding and inquisitive nation.

I can understand Eriksson, often beleaguered in his personal life, encour-aging this feeling of us against them. He wouldn't be the first manager to recognise the benefits of a siege mentality, because it does wonders for team spirit. The aforementioned Alf Ramsey employed the same policy, only he also excluded the FA from the magic circle, which did for him in the end. Where they differed is that Ramsey controlled it, whereas Eriksson has been enslaved by it.

Now that the current manager has had to be dragged, successfully it must be said, into making significant changes in the team, I suspect that certain other pillars of his small society might have to be replaced. This would disturb their Cosa Nostra feeling and might even encourage him to disagree with them occasionally.

Perhaps the most telling facet of their absurd stand was that they directed it at the media as a whole. "Media" is an increasingly unsatisfactory term to describe the vast and shapeless mass through which communication is achieved with the nation at large; lumping together, as it does, wretchedly unimportant hacks and the mighty news and television organisations.

If the players care to consider the major difference between them and their l973 counterparts it is their lifestyles, their earnings and their showbusiness status. The class of '73 didn't even dream of such rewards. What is the main source of those rewards? The media, of course, or that end of it which supplies the game with the vast sums for television rights that fuel the players' millions and provide the acres of newspaper and magazine space that enhances their image rights.

What was that saying about he who sups with the devil needs a long spoon? The poor boys don't even know that their souls have already been sold, that their heaven carries the certainty of occasional visits to hell.

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