The reader data tells the story. The football match coverage which now generates most website hits – the currency of the day – is the “marks out of 10” for players, with pre-match news snippets faring well. Match reports are far less well read; so much less well, in fact, that you wonder who cares for the tactical dissection of a game any more.
That sentiment certainly applies as we stand on the threshold of a season when the images and the soundbites seem to matter more than ever. “Now with goals” runs the marketing slogan promoting News International’s near-live replays of every ball hitting every Premier League net, as the one-time purveyor of words invests £30m in what TV stations used to do.
Football reporting in this country is getting louder and louder, the screams more and more vivid and attention spans supposedly shorter. Which is why the notion that David Moyes has acquitted himself well this summer might not be a great hit, any more than the equally justifiable assertion that a successful first season for him should not necessarily include the retention of the Premier League trophy.
Win or bust, silverware or sack: there seems to be a desperate scarcity of space between the extremes these days and you can certainly see things reaching a screaming pitch inside one month for Moyes and United. Perhaps there will be a slower accumulation of points than fans had hoped, and maybe a defeat or two in a difficult opening month, while Manchester City, who face no serious opposition to speak of until they visit Old Trafford on 22 September, accrue gains. You see Moyes being up on the websites “most read” and at the top of the bulletins on the hour, every hour.
This already seems to have created tension. None of the traditional Friday morning press conferences has been held at United’s Carrington base yet, which wasn’t the early outcome you’d have expected when viewing Moyes’ inaugural media appearance back in June. There was a reminder on Thursday of his capacity to tell a great story – gold dust in these days of the conspicuous “flash interview” – when he described to the newspapers in London how he first sneaked a go in Sir Alex Ferguson’s chair when no one was looking. It felt like a thaw.
Before the storm starts raging out there, it is worth calling to mind what Sir Alex Ferguson encountered when he first sat in the United manager’s chair. He would feel the chill of paranoia every time he arrived at Old Trafford and saw two directors talking. “It’s amazing how that anxiety can transmit itself to become guilt,” he said in his little-remembered book Six Years at United in 1992. “You feel you are with this great club and wish you could give them something that tells them what you are about.” He said he felt it had taken him three or four years “to understand fully the politics and requirements, the demands and the pressures. For the first time in my life I felt my whole character and abilities were under scrutiny and that was in a situation where my future would be decided not only by directors of the club, but also by supporters and the media.”
Granted, Moyes takes over a Manchester United which Ferguson has changed utterly. But he also finds a formidably greater weight of expectation. He is the first manager in the elite English league since Brian Clough at Leeds United in 1974 to go into a club and be asked to defend someone else’s title. We all know how that turned out.
He has been fiercely buffeted already. It felt like a signature moment when Ferguson grabbed a microphone after his last game at Old Trafford on 12 May and told United’s fans: “Your job now is to stand by our new manager.” But Ferguson had only just declared live on TV that Wayne Rooney had demanded a transfer – a hospital pass if ever there was one for his successor, because the comments left Rooney feeling incensed and slandered.
Moyes could not have played the ensuing drama any differently. He has not publicly denigrated Rooney. That fact is out there, in black and white, in the transcript of the interview he granted on 13 July which is at the heart of that accusation. Moyes could not have played Rooney in last Sunday’s Community Shield – the fact was out there on the pitch in an England shirt on Wednesday. He cannot award him more than his £250,000 a week.
Transfers are the other twister he has encountered, the suggestion being that Moyes and his club should have done more in the market to mark the new era. As if they should have brooked no challenge on price and broken the bank to deliver a shiny new superstar this summer. It isn’t the way this club works. United have a far more substantial squad than those now touting Jose Mourinho for the title appreciate.
United won the Premier League title by 11 points last season. Their Under-21 side won the first Premier League Professional Development League final with a starting XI featuring eight men from Greater Manchester. Wilfried Zaha has already looked like a piece of dynamite in flashes. All the type of detail that does not make enough noise for the times we’re in. File under “match report” and no one will read.
Moyes doesn’t need any protection from quarters like this. In an aside after his first encounter with journalists who reported on his Everton team for 11 years his parting words were along the lines of: “Don’t mess with me and I won’t mess with you.”
He had not long been involved in a dust-up with his Preston goalkeeper Tepi Moilanen on a pre-season tour of Austria, so those present heeded the warning. But he does require some space. “This is a club that has always had to make progress and to change and that will happen with me over the next couple of years or 18 months,” he said on Thursday. Grant him a little salvation at least from the beast that 24/7 media has spawned.
When the ratings war was a proper fight
“Everyone seems to be worried about BT Sport,” a football manager suggested to me about the TV war with Sky which is about to play out for real. It’s nothing compared with the monumental fight between ITV and BBC in the early days of competition, as a new history of football on TV, Are You Watching the Match Tonight? (André Deutsch, £18.99) by Brian Barwick relates.
The BBC had just paid £1,850 for an exclusive contract with Manchester City for post-match interviews at the 1969 FA Cup final with Leicester City when one of ITV’s “City tracksuit men” started to walk off with Colin Bell. “Move in. Stop those bastards. Use any means possible,” the Beeb’s “ultra-competitive” producer Alan Weeks demanded. A BBC man took a punch to the face in the ensuing brawl involving legmen, riggers, cameramen and stage managers – to the bemusement of both football teams. A London Weekend Television outside broadcast manager also lost a tooth and the BBC was hauled before the FA. They don’t make ’em like they used to. Or, in the case of Roy Keane, they keep ’em in the studio.