KEN JONES: The romantic age lost in a chasm created by money

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The Independent Online
SPORTSWRITING HAS undergone significant changes in my working lifetime. The determined romanticism of a more innocent age has long since yielded to the harsh demands of modern journalism.

This has not been a wholly unmixed blessing. The best of the old-timers, who saw their roles primarily as bards, were facile essayists. Some of them may not have recognised an unscheduled news story if it had come with a letter of introduction, but with their quills they could tell you who scored the game-winning goal, landed the fight-winning punch while they tickled you. They told a mean fairy-tale.

The old sportswriters I knew drew no reward for vintage. They still had to meet deadlines. They had to fight for telephones, struggle with baggage, and climb steps to press boxes sited in thrombosis territory. Some had enduring status, but the majority were instructed on their unimportance. Editors preached anti-ego sermons. Nobody cares about you, your mortgage, or your ulcer. It all ends up as a cod's overcoat.

What they and those of my time had over the present generation in this dubious trade was casual and, in many cases, close contact with the people we wrote about. We shared good and bad times together. Lasting friendships were formed. Sometimes we fell out but trust was seldom broken.

They way things were became the subject into which I recently fell at a Premiership fixture. It was with two talented young men who were quick to point out the difficulties they encounter when attempting to establish contact with today's sports stars, especially footballers. They had in mind the aching formality of press conferences, the obstruction of agents and sponsors, the power of television and the general air of suspicion that now exists.

Unwittingly, they made me feel older than I'm inclined to concede. They were asking me to go back more years than I find comfortable to remember, in many ways a different time; not necessarily better, but different. One of them referred to a photograph he'd seen of the England football team, accompanied by members of the press leaving for a World Cup. It was before I became involved but I could see his point. The press party numbered about 10. They travelled with the team, often staying at the same hotel.

My young companions had no sooner wondered about the comparative ease with which reporters of past generations went about their work when it was pointed out that an explosion in sports coverage changed everything. With so many people now at work, so much attention to detail, the switch from personal contact to structured interviews was inevitable.

Today's aspirants are astonished to discover that no formal contact was made with Alf Ramsey and the England team following the World Cup success in 1966. Together with two other reporters, including Frank McGhee, late of this life and the Daily Mirror, I caught up with the players at the hotel in north London that had been their base throughout the tournament. The next morning Ramsey announced that since it was his first day off for six weeks he would not be available for comment. After an exchange of sharp words he relented.

You can go on and on like this. For example, it was fairly common for footballers to socialise with players after matches. Ron Greenwood, when manager of West Ham, regularly entertained the press in his office at Upton Park. Standing outside Tottenham's dressing-room after an away loss to Slovan Bratislava in the Cup-Winners' Cup, the great Bill Nicholson growled: "You're always telling them how good they are, now go in and tell them how bad they were."

When wages in English football were held at a maximum of pounds 20 per week, members of the national team were given a party by the press at the end of summer tours. My friend Colin Hart of The Sun recalls how he and others looked after track and field athletes before the advent of professionalism. "We bought meals, let them make calls home," he said. Out of it came invaluable friendships.

Money changes most things. No matter how well paid, today's sportswriters are separated from footballers by a huge chasm in earning power. They've become people apart, swooned over by fans, admiringly interviewed with permission of their sponsors, encouraged by the media to see themselves as rock stars entitled to adoration, the pamperings of luxury, and all too few questions asked about behaviour on the field.

I guess the sports figure who most influenced the attitudes of my fully active years was Muhammad Ali. "Can we have five minutes with Muhammad?" his trainer, Angelo Dundee, was once asked. "No chance," came the familiar piping reply. "You'll have to settle for an hour." An hour with The Greatest.

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