Ken Jones: The way Ramsey and Ali talked to the press has been lost to the world

Thursday 31 October 2002 01:00
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Late on Tuesday night, more exactly in the early hours of yesterday, I was returning by ferry from a lightly taken trip to watch Lens play Milan in the Champions' League when one of three younger companions asked about an aspect of sport as I knew it before the grey mist of organised news descended.

He guessed, but was nevertheless interested to discover that while relations between sports performers and sports reporters were no less subject to emotional disturbance than they are today, the process of co-operation was a lot more comfortable and usually worked to general satisfaction.

As the past unfolded to the point where the eyes of my companions began to glaze over, a disturbing personal realisation was that no memory exists of a press conference following England's victory in the 1966 World Cup final or of a formal gathering the next day. Indeed, eager young types of the time, even those of us who got on pretty well with the England manager, Alf Ramsey, were rebuked for interrupting his first day off for six weeks. "So how on earth could that have been better?" I was asked. "Because service of a sort was quickly resumed and Ramsey's remarks had the value of spontaneity," I replied.

The last fragments of genuine face-to-face reporting were last seen, I suppose, by toilers of my generation. There are still correspondents who get the jump on rivals through persistence and the establishment of trust but what you read in one newspaper is mainly what you read in another, proof that information today is carefully directed. Friendships between sports performers and sports writers, commonplace in the past, are now rare.

The deeper we got into this the livelier my companions became in defence of the position that sports coverage today is dictated by the enormous amount of space it is expected to fill in newspapers and the many hours of air time it occupies on radio and television. "It simply would not be possible to meet those demands without complying with the way sport now presents itself," one of them said. Sadly, this is true.

Coming back to the way things were, and allowing for tricks of memory, I recalled a time when the players who made up the great Tottenham Hotspur team sent out by Bill Nicholson in the early to mid-60s could always been found after home matches in the back room of a pub less than a quarter of a mile from White Hart Lane. They happily met there with known reporters on the tacit understanding that confidences would not be broken. It must be 20 years and more since a Tottenham player was seen in that establishment, or Arsenal players of the same era in the one they regularly used.

What produced a profound shift in sympathy, the suspicion that now exists between communicators and performers in most, practically all, branches of the sports playing industry? I guess you can say that things changed with the sports television explosion and the rivalry between tabloid newspapers, but no little blame can be attached to the persistent greed of agents. What price mutual trust when there is profit in the supply of information?

Out of all this the ordered press conference now lies at the heart of sport much in the way that it lies at the heart of politics and all branches of the entertainment industry.

Nobody manipulated the system, all systems of sports communication, to greater advantage than Muhammad Ali, who could be relied on to talk up a storm at the sight of a notebook or a camera. Four days before Ali fought Leon Spinks in February 1978, a contest he lost through cutting corners in training, word got around that he had imposed on himself an unusual silence. When the news reached reporters who had come to rely completely on the great man's more outrageous utterances, they behaved in the manner of chameleons stuck to a piece of plaid. Eventually, much to relief of those poor demented souls, Ali relented. All was well with the world again.

As time goes on, and I watch younger brethren age, and grow positive about nothing, I notice that the press conference becomes almost their only source of contact with today's sports heroes. "Times have greatly changed," an old footballer of great repute recently said when we spoke on the telephone. Didn't want anything. Just called to say hello. "Did you ever attend a press conference?" I asked. "Never," he said.

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