Exposing the art of spinning football banalities

Mike Rowbottom
Wednesday 12 March 2014 03:31

It was only because I was late getting to the press conference after Ipswich Town's home draw with Torpedo Moscow last month that I noticed her. Sitting in the back row as the Ipswich manager George Burley delivered his thoughts on the game, this young woman was listening intently – now nodding vigorously in assent, now shaking her head with equal vehemence.

Occasionally Burley's eyes slid over to his official observer, although the nature of his address was – to these ears – as unexceptionable as it had been in the old days before the advent of this particular public-relations initiative.

When he concluded, as I recall, he had ventured the opinion that the Russian team would be regarded as favourites in the second leg of their Uefa Cup first round, having scored a precious away goal. He opined, though, that he was confident his team could still win in Moscow. Well, I ask you!

Next up was the young defender whose mistake had led to the Moscow club's opener, and whose goal had levelled the scores shortly before the end. At 20, Titus Bramble is a big lad but his voice is disconcertingly quiet. Someone asked him who were the outstanding players for Torpedo on the night, and who would be likely to need careful watching during the return leg. Suddenly our observer was chipping in, announcing: 'Don't say!' But Bramble rambled on, controversially highlighting Torpedo's centre-forward, one of two full Russian internationals in their side. I know. You're thinking it too. What a giveaway.

As a PR process, this made as much sense as a new Where Are They Now? series starting with David Beckham. Anyway, I have decided it does not do to get too aerated about the vicissitudes of the sporting PR machine, in whatever arena it happens to be operating.

I am telling myself that the next time I hear someone in a blazer cutting short a press interview with the words "All right, guys?" I will not distress myself, or shout out "No, not all right, actually" or "What makes you so pleased with yourself?"

I will do something else. And whatever it turns out to be, I'm sure it will have the stamp of maturity. I wasn't there when Anna Kournikova turned up to a press conference at Wimbledon to promote a sports bra, and announced "I am only here to talk about bras." I was there when Sally Gunnell did much the same thing a few years earlier.

I wasn't there, ever, when Courtney Love refused to talk about Kurt Cobain or drugs. I was there on the eve of 1994 Winter Olympics when Tonya Harding refused to talk about the issue which had packed out her press conference, namely the allegation that she had attempted to knobble her US rival Nancy Kerrigan through the joint agency of her boyfriend and a hammer.

The only way forward on such occasions is to sit back and relish the lengths to which someone will go to avoid talking about what everyone they are talking to wants to talk about. In her recently published autobiography, Denise Lewis reflects on her experience with the press before and after winning a heptathlon silver medal at the 1999 World Championships in Seville.

Lewis's event was on the first weekend, and every British reporter covering the Championships was counting on a profile of one of the nation's most popular athletes for their Saturday edition.

From Lewis's point of view, she had arrived as late as possible from her training camp after struggling to overcome an injury and just wanted, in her own words, to "rest and focus". Her compromise suggestion of responding to written questions produced predictably anodyne results, and her lack of availability was contrasted with the attitude of her French rival Eunice Barber, who spoke openly the day before a competition from which she earned gold.

Lewis writes critically of the "childish" behaviour of the press in not attending her post-event conference. As one of those who did not turn up, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend there was not an element of childish retribution involved. But the main reason for the absence of the bulk of the British writers on that day was the alternative lure of a conference for a young man who had emerged to world prominence with a 100 metres bronze medal, Dwain Chambers. There was only time to treat one or other subject fully before coverage of that day's live events began.

Overall, it was a bad bit of PR for the British athlete, whose ambivalent commitment to this year's World Championships, from which she dropped out at the eleventh hour, dulled a little of the lustre of her Olympic victory in Sydney.

The moral of the story? Jaw-jaw is always better than bore-bore.

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