Time after time on television you see players struggling to articulate and managers suppressing their innermost feelings
Thursday 29 February 1996
I recently mentioned this to a quite prominent football manager. He was greatly moved. "Of all the things expected of me, I find speaking to the media immediately after matches the most difficult," he said. "It isn't made easier by having to deal with people who are not thinking out loud but trying to sound impressive."
Time after time on television, unable to avoid contractual obligation, you see players struggling to articulate themselves clearly and managers suppressing their innermost feelings.
As Michael Atherton found this week in the emotional aftermath of a loss to South Africa in the cricket World Cup, there are times when the benefits of higher education are not much help either. Riled by a question that apparently did not make sense to any of those present and most thought unnecessarily provocative, Atherton called Asghar Ali of the Pakistan Press Association a buffoon.
Slightly over the top, perhaps, but, in declaring himself devastated by Atherton's insult, Mr Ali makes it clear that he was not present at any of the press conferences given by an enormously famous namesake. When not soaring off on flights of fantasy, one of Muhammad Ali's favourite tricks was to put down interrogators with the suggestion that they were dumber than they looked.
Leaving aside all technical considerations, the biggest mistake Graham Taylor made when managing the England football team was to be drawn into pre-match debates with members of the press corps over selection and tactics, as he did before the World Cup defeat in Rotterdam that made his departure inevitable. Why is he doing this, I remember thinking?
It was something that the most successful of Taylor's predecessors, Sir Alf Ramsey, never countenanced. For example, before a match against Poland, the last England played before the 1966 World Cup finals, Ramsey sprang the surprise of including Martin Peters, who had not appeared to be under consideration. As Peters' was the last name to be read out it prompted the question of function. "Can you tell us where Martin will play?" asked Frank McGhee, then of the Daily Mirror, who got on well with Ramsey. "No, Frank," Ramsey replied as he rose to leave.
A personal experience with Ramsey, one that caused the most serious difference between us, concerns the morning after England won the World Cup. Turning up for a lunch in their celebration, Ramsey refused to be interviewed. "This is my day off," he said perfunctorily.
Things have changed, maybe for the worse, maybe for the better, but nobody today has improved on the cunning that Sir Matt Busby employed when dealing with difficult questions. Accessible and co-operative, Busby was also a master of the verbal body swerve, using it to avoid giving answers that might embarrass him and Manchester United.
"Tell me, Sir Matt, is there anything in this rumour that you are about to buy someone," a football writer might have asked.
"Well, now," Busby would reply, pausing between words, drawing on his pipe, thinking carefully because the rumour was probably not without substance. "Well, now, you see. This can be a difficult business, son, and you have to stay in touch with what's going on. We keep our eyes open, you know. And how is the golf? Are you hitting the ball straight? That's the secret. Keeping it on the fairway."
There is no disposition here to condemn those who go about their task honourably. Equally it is foolish of people in sport to suppose that they are entitled to avoid explanations for failure. An interesting thing is that naive questions often get the best answers.
"This is different from what you said yesterday," a sportswriter complained to the American boxing promoter, Bob Arum. "Absolutely," Arum replied famously. "Yesterday I was lying, today I'm telling the truth."
As for Asghar Ali, by all accounts he got what he asked for.
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