The sportswriters throwing stones from glass houses

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The Independent Online
This is to acknowledge a debt to the late Jack Hutchinson, a former sports editor of the Daily Mirror whose stern advice to starting news- papermen was take the job seriously but never yourself.

Had it been observed last week by the author of a report that appeared in one of our popular prints - why be coy about this, it was The Sun - Eric Cantona would not have legitimate grounds for supposing that nobody in my trade is to be trusted, something he doubtless believes anyway.

On receiving the Football of the Year award at a dinner in London shortly before the Cup final, his response, delivered in English, was typically enigmatic. Cantona stated vaguely that he could think of no better place for adverse criticism than the toilet.

I did not canvass everyone in the room personally but no offence appeared to be taken by football writers generally. The Frenchman's remark was recalled mostly with a shrug or a smile, and by the wee small hours, which is par for the course on these occasions, it had been more or less forgotten anyway.

However, in later editions of The Sun's circulation on Friday a headline and viperous text suggested Cantona had gratuitously offended members of the association that honoured him. In fact it was the report that caused consternation, troubling Pat Signy, who is chief executive of the Football Writers' Association. "To say the least, it was disappointing," she said.

Two facts must be set out here. One is that I spent almost 30 years meeting, without compromise, the requirements of popular newspapers, working with some of the best journalists I am ever likely to come across. Another is that I admire a number of The Sun's sportswriters, all of whom can be relied on to entertain and come up consistently with important information.

Last week they were let down by what struck me (leaving aside a suspicion of Francophobia) as an example of risking charges inherent in the glasshouse theory. As the aforementioned sports editor also put it - appropriately for one who once held the Northern ABA lightweight championship - if you throw a punch, serious thought should be given to the probability of retaliation.

Times have changed, maybe for the worse, maybe for the better, but to my mind there is less trust between sports performers and sports writers than there used to be. There are faults on both sides, especially the sort of paranoia that afflicts Linford Christie, but misrepresentation is inexcusable.

Great sporting stars are not, of course, made by newspaper men and commentators. Nothing achieves that for them, save their own skills and intelligence and resolution, though the press, television and radio spreads and celebrates their fame.

It is a matter of individual opinion whether this puts them under any obligation to people who are merely doing their job. An ongoing criticism of Cantona is that he seldom, if ever, makes himself available for newspaper interviews, a fact, would you believe, that influenced a few football writers not to vote for him.

Some years ago a case was put for a football manager who had a reputation for malice, both in dealings with the press and his players. "But give him his due," someone said, "he's always good copy," as though co-operation was the sole criterion. "Sure," came the splendidly cynical reply, "so was Hitler."

Since it is a habit of some simple souls to get carried away by their status in sports journalism today, an interesting thought is how they would have shaped up in confrontation with some hard men of past acquaintance. For example, football writers who crossed Stan Cullis when he ran Wolverhampton Wanderers like a military establishment, could expect an immediate summons to his office. I remember colleagues, some quite hard-bitten too, quaking in his frosty presence. What Cullis would have made of things now is beyond imagination.

As for Cantona's remark, what every sportswriter should understand is that if you are going to give it you had better learn how to take it.