Television has changed face of sports reporting

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PART OF the experience, some may say pleasure, of attending a sports event is reading the newspapers next morning to see what the sports writers think happened. This is prolonged, in the case of major happenings, by repeats on television.

What people eventually think they remember about a game, a fight or a race will be an amalgam of what they thought they saw, what they read in the papers and the evidence of television recordings.

Television can be especially insidious. Last Sunday, for example, it seemed to me from where I sat, in the lower tier at the Stadio Delle Alpi in Turin with a group of fellow trippers, that Oliver Bierhoff had headed Milan into the lead against Juventus when in fact it was an own goal by Zinedine Zidane.

Later, when jesting about what happens to the eyesight of sports writers as they get older, something which the eye doctors may know about but never mention, my companions got around to deploring a preference in some newspapers for the negative story. `"Why are people built up and then knocked over?" one of them asked.

It appeared that their feelings about this came to a head last week when the England manager, Kevin Keegan, came under heavy fire in the popular prints for allowing a group of his players to play cards and take a few beers while staying up to watch the world heavyweight title bout between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield. "It was making something out of nothing," one of my companions, a Chelsea season-ticket holder, said. And he was right.

They conceded grudgingly that workers in the toy department are no less concerned with sales than those employed in other areas of newspaper production but could not for the life of them see why this should be imposed on the purchaser's intelligence.

When first struggling along in this trade I was told that reporters could make no bigger mistake than taking themselves seriously, that today's effort was destined to be a cod's overcoat. If this is no longer observed, and I suspect not, it may help to explain why relations between sport and the sports pages are now subject to frequent emotional disturbance.

An irritating fact, one I emphasised to my companions in Turin, is that television and radio play a crafty game, cosily courting sports figures but always quick to scavenge printed revelations.

It has to be said, however, that before television gobbled up sport accuracy never hampered some of the old sports writers I knew. Invention was a mechanical process with them, though seldom harmful. When reporting from the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico, a famed columnist sent back an interview in which the centre-forward of El Salvador expressed an urgent desire to wear Arsenal's colours. They had never spoken. Daily interviews with the Brazilian coach, Mario Zagallo, also were products of the great entertainer's imagination. His philosophy was simple. If they didn't say it, they should have.

Of all the appointments in sport few carry the prospect of harsher scrutiny than that of England coach. Alf Ramsey, the feted hero of 1966, was fired six months after failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany. Thrilling achievement was of little consequence when set against the disappointment that brought down attacks from determined patriots in the employ of popular newspapers.

England's poor start to the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico saw Bobby Robson branded as "the fool on the hill", an allusion to the squad's lofty base camp near Monterrey.

Four years later Robson took England to within a penalty shoot-out of the final in Italy. Graham Taylor was ridiculed. Now Keegan hears the hounds baying.

Keegan said on television this week that it would be greatly to the benefit of English football if English newspapers got behind the national team. Sports writers should be fair but it is naive to suppose that we should be blindly supportive. To ask for that is to ask for something entirely new under the sun.