James Lawton: Taylor's painful memories recall long lost time of respect between players and press

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Late in the Polish night, Graham Taylor, the former England manager, went back to the most painful moments of his life. He talked of how it was for him, and most poignantly his mother, when The Sun, with vicious but undoubtedly brilliant perception, hit the funny bone of the nation by superimposing his head on a picture of a vegetable and running the scoreline, Swedes 2, Turnips 1.

Late in the Polish night, Graham Taylor, the former England manager, went back to the most painful moments of his life. He talked of how it was for him, and most poignantly his mother, when The Sun, with vicious but undoubtedly brilliant perception, hit the funny bone of the nation by superimposing his head on a picture of a vegetable and running the scoreline, Swedes 2, Turnips 1.

That happened 12 years ago after defeat in the European Championships and it set a tone of merciless vilification of England managers and players in moments of failure which, when it was turned on goalkeeper David James after his mishap in last Saturday's game with Austria, provoked this week's refusal of the players to speak to the media after the victory in Katowice.

It was an immature, even unworldly decision, no doubt, but before the criticism runs too scathingly, we should perhaps return to the Katowice supper table.

There, Taylor spoke with a dignity and an understanding of the world he once inhabited, which made a compelling case for his immediate re-employment by the FA - not as some high-flying consultant, but as someone who, by hard experience, might just be able to explain why some of England's leading players should perhaps grow up.

Astonishingly, Taylor told of a phone call he received from The Sun many years after the Turnip affair. The sub-editor who had inspired the journalistic triumph of personal insult was retiring and in his honour the Turnip page had been framed and would be presented to him at a farewell party. Someone at The Sun thought it would be a great idea if Taylor made the presentation.

Taylor's response was brief if not quite monosyllabic. "I thought it just a bit incredible that anyone at The Sun would have thought I would have wanted to have revisited that time in my life. I didn't dispute their right to say what they wanted - after all, I didn't have to read it - but what would I have said to the guy receiving the presentation? 'Thank you for making me the laughing stock of the nation ... thank you for reducing my mother to tears.' None of this touches my opinion that if you are in the kitchen, you have to accept you're going to get some heat. Nobody needed to tell me I had failed in what I wanted to do for England.

"The players were wrong not to talk to the media tonight, and by extension to their supporters, but I suppose there is a point where you wonder where you draw the line in criticism. Somewhere along the line human nature has to come into play."

Perhaps the moral of the story is: criticism, like any other valid exercise in a free society, can only be controlled by the humanity and sense of those who wield it.

It is here that the Taylor account is disturbing, no less than the decision of some tabloids to splash the story of the teenage Wayne Rooney's rites of sexual passage in a Liverpool massage parlour.

Where does the legitimate function of criticism get mixed in with cruelty and cheap humour for its own sake, and where does prurience ever feel the gentle tug of restraint and decency? If the assault on Taylor was delivered with a razor's edge, this week's likening of the accident-prone James to a donkey was, by comparison, surely clumsily over-drawn.

The players, apparently, had other complaints. They thought that mixing in James's current divorce proceedings was unfair and irrelevant. They thought that criticisms of the coach Sven Goran Eriksson and the captain David Beckham were excessive, and that too much was made of Steven Gerrard's comment that finishing in the quarter-finals of major tournaments was about as much as we could reasonably expect.

It is a natural right of players to nurture such resentments - no one likes criticism, whether he is a professional footballer or an ego-driven journalist happy enough to deliver bucketloads of scorn - but where they are wrong, and once again haplessly advised by their professional organisation, the Professional Footballers' Association, is in refusing to speak to the media and, as a consequence, their supporters in the nation. Indeed, there are times when you have to wonder quite where all the rewards of the modern game have taken the professional footballer. It is not a planet infested by reality.

Indeed, Beckham - whose public relations have never been in more pressing need of repair - would be well advised in telling his agent to stop ringing individual football writers, their newspapers and even the BBC - all of whom in the past have lavished the most extraordinarily inflated praise on the player - and instead get on a plane and take a look around the most professionally grown-up sports world of all, the US.

There, the relationship between the players and the press can only be described as a state of permanent loathing. However, the locker-rooms are flung open minutes after the end of the game, and no coach, however legendary, could play the games of Sir Alex Ferguson and now Jose Mourinho in ignoring a league-imposed requirement to attend a press conference.

Yesterday New York-based photo-journalist Micky Brennan, having read with disbelief the reports of the England players' silence, called to report an incident nearly 30 years old. It was when George Best, then attached to the Los Angeles Aztecs and displeased with reports of his rollicking lifestyle, refused to show at a pre-arranged meeting with Brennan. A club official called the great man in his bar on the beach and said that if he didn't show he would be fired. It was a matter of observing a professional contract. A Yankee who turned down an interview with The New York Times would be hauled before the club's owner, George Steinbrenner.

Here at home the perspective of time means that you can only regret the collapse in the relationship between footballers and the media. It is not so easy to distribute the blame, although one of the greatest problems is that with the decline in respect has come no compensating requirement, as in America, for communication to be part of the professional's working obligation. In high-powered football cultures such as Italy and Spain, the players mingle naturally with the press after big games. They know it is expected of them. Here, the skyrocketing wealth of the players has caused an inevitable division, and a further obstacle to understanding has been the growth of the agent's role. He, if you hadn't guessed, is the source of most football news exclusives.

There was a time when leading sportswriters and players enjoyed each other's company. When Jack Charlton had the biggest cause for celebration of his football life, after winning the World Cup, his chosen companion was not a fellow player but his close friend, the sports writer James Mossop.

It is also true that one esteemed colleague narrowly missed receiving a punch from Paddy Crerand only because he slid from his bar stool at precisely the right moment, but much lively conversation had gone before. As someone who drank red wine in Verona with Sir Bobby Charlton on the night of his last game for Manchester United - and once gave him a lift home from a night match at Villa Park in a Volkswagen Beetle - one can only add a personal regret about the state of the game. It seems hard to believe now but there was a time when praise and criticism were recognised, on both sides of the fence, as not a right but the requirement of honest work.

You would have said that such a time was long gone beyond recall, but if only if you didn't share that table with Graham Taylor in Katowice.

At one point Taylor poured from his bottle of wine and handed the glass to the sportswriter who had been, by some measurable distance, his fiercest critic. "He was doing his job, and it was how he saw it. In the deepest sense, it wasn't personal," Taylor said in an aside.

It was an echo from a less complicated time, a time when honesty was leavened with a degree of respect. The sadness in Poland was that, for so many reasons, you knew it could never come back.