Adrian Chiles: Why having a drink with a superstar is a thing of the past

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The Independent Online

Two years ago I made a television programme about why I don't have many black or Asian friends. Now I want to make another one about why I don't have any sportsman friends. And I'm not the only one: most of my colleagues - and they're all super chaps - seem pretty friendless these days, too.

Part of the problem - ironically, given the lager lout image of many of our footballers - is the declining part alcohol plays in sporting culture. Ken Jones recalls post-match beers in the back rooms of north London pubs in the Sixties. Cover the Arsenal or Spurs, and then take ale with them afterwards. How civilised.

Chris Hewett paints a rather less civilised but equally affectionate image of rugby how it used to be just 10 years ago: "Even after the biggest game, a journalist would spend an entire evening and half the following morning with some of these buggers." His choice of language obviously raises as many questions as it answers about the relationship between rugby players and journalists, but that's Chris's business.

I doubt if Glenn Moore cries himself to sleep every night because he doesn't get to spend many nights out with footballers but, as he points out, he simply couldn't afford to do it anyway: "Footballers have moved up a notch in the social scale... I can't sit in a bar drinking Cristal champagne all night at £200 a pop."

But it wasn't always like this. As Ken Jones recalls: "At the end of an England tour abroad the journalists used to host a party for the team because at that time the journalists earned more than the players."

The attitude of modern footballers can't just be down to the money they earn. Jonathan Legard is now a football correspondent at the BBC after years doing the motor racing job. Admittedly he has not long been on the football beat, but his sense so far is that drivers - who generally trouser more than footballers - are much more accessible. "The drivers understand that journalists are part of the game," he says, "something better than just a necessary evil. You get more time with them."

Cricket, unsurprisingly, seems the most civilised environment in which to work. Even if Angus Fraser has the inestimable advantage of having been an England player himself, it sounds as if there's more respect, or at least less mutual disrespect, between cricketers and the hacks. "After a game often I and another journalist will take a couple of players out for dinner, or a drink," he says.

The issue of how close you can get to your subject and still tell the truth about them is one that preoccupies, or ought to preoccupy, most journalists. In political circles there is what's known as a Cushion Correspondent, so-called because he bears the imprint of the last politician who sat on him.

Angus is so big I couldn't see many making much of an imprint on him even if they did use him as a seat. And Angus doesn't appear to pull his punches if a player's had a stinker: "Sometimes they object to what I write but by and large they're grown-up enough to take it."

Chris Hewett says rugby players are the same, though I suspect that might be as much to do with the physical battering they take. If you've survived your opposite number bloodying your nose; gouging your eye; chewing your ear or just smacking you in the face, what some bloke with a laptop thinks about you is hardly going to raise your blood pressure. Sticks and stones may break their bones but hacks will never hurt them.

The other advantage rugby writers have is that, as Chris puts it, "there's still a formidable reservoir of trust there". This is a bond of trust that football writers speak of only in the past tense. Everyone agrees that nobody trusts anyone any more. Just who's responsible for this breakdown merits a book of its own, but no one can blame footballers for being wary of socialising with journalists when journalists (though not football journalists) like nothing better than turning footballers over for all the socialising they do.

Journalists often complain that sportsmen and women are over-sensitive but we're the pots calling the kettles black. Footballers regularly put up with thousands of their own fans abusing them, and thousands of abusive words being written about them. They take it. Whereas I could give you a list here and now of everybody who has ever written anything unkind about me anywhere. And do you know what? I want to kill them all.

Comparing footballers' mental strength with ours is like comparing their fitness levels with ours. They've been through so much more than most of us and because of this the relationships we have with them are bound to be asymmetrical.

On the rare occasions I've been engaged in a meaningful conversation with a sportsman, there is always a look in their eye which says: "Yes, you're OK, I've met worse. But at the end of the day I've crossed the white line and been idolised by millions. And you haven't. So, I'm afraid, we're never going to be on a level, OK?" They know it, and we know it, and they know that we know it.

And we're complicit in this. Brian Viner, as a great writer and a proper grown-up, really ought to know better, but says: "In my old job I regularly met massive stars of stage and screen but none of them come to close to making my knees wobble like Nick Faldo."

This is a whole new meaning to the expression "knee-trembler". I once did it to Gavyn Davies, as it were. He was chairman of the BBC at the time and appeared on my radio show to talk about his team, Southampton. "Your majesty," I said, "we've a little surprise for you. Are you familiar with one Terry Paine?" Agog, this highly influential multi-squillionaire, nodded dumbly (apparently not realising, even as BBC chairman, that you need to actually talk on radio for it to work). "Well," I continued triumphantly, "he's on the line now." Gavyn's hands were visibly trembling as he picked up his headphones.

Yes, I'm not comfortable with the way they make us fawn and creep. And for the contempt with which they sometimes treat us. But if there's a sports star out there who would like to be my friend then please contact me as soon as possible at the following address: adrian.chiles@btopenworld.com. I would just love to meet you.

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