I LOVE my job and especially on those days when I get to meet an old sportsman, the key word here being old. Sport in their time was more fun and less corporate. Less slick and more hairy-arsed. The crowds weren’t cynical and it wasn’t all about money. And these guys (and gals) can usually be relied upon to come up with some solid-gold memories.
The match is done, the race has been won. They can relax, crack some jokes, slag off a manager or a rival. They’re too old to care about upsetting anyone, and just like the fellow who’s lived through the war and rants about some modern ill or other, you listen because they’ve served. But it’s not that they’ve dropped their guard because for them there is no guard to drop. They’re sportsmen from the time before PR which means they weren’t – dread-phrase – media-trained.
Of course I can’t get away with pretending I’m Parkinson chinwagging with Peter Ustinov every day of the week and sometimes I must speak to the modern sportsman who is, of course, fascinating because his big game is often coming up next Saturday. But he can sometimes be anodyne, formulaic, pre-packaged and – let’s not kid ourselves – boring. I’m sure you don’t need me to give you examples. Suffice to say we journos must take each interview as it comes. But things could be worse. I could be covering Newcastle United.
Last week, the Magpies unveiled their new manager. Well, the key word here is not “unveiled”. Just the one newspaper got to speak to Steve McClaren about his hopes and dreams. The rest waited outside St James’ Park for three hours, only to be given a two-word interview. Not those two words; he was asked if he was able to answer a few questions and replied: “I can’t.” So the spurned reporters were reduced to tweeting photos of McClaren’s tail-lights fast disappearing into the fog on the Tyne (Actually, it wasn’t foggy that day; I’ve just always loved Lindisfarne).
The result, inevitably, was some bad press. Just what a club who have endured it all season didn’t want, you would have thought. The new man was supposed to usher in a new era for Newcastle. Instead the powers-that-be – and here we may presume the influence of Mike Ashley – have taken their long-held antagonism towards the press to extremes, with the result that McClaren has got off to a very poor start.
The club don’t like criticism and goodness knows there’s been lots to criticise. Their lack of ambition, the selling off of their best players, their policy of overlooking the cup competitions (in case a good run imperilled their top-flight status), the stadium re-naming, the shocking touchline behaviour of the previous manager.
‘Lynn Barber wondered if Boris Becker was a male chauvinist pig; he wondered if she was incompetent’
They’ve banned reporters – some from the local press – whose questions they didn’t like and two years ago, in a bid to control coverage further, they floated the idea of exclusive access on a paid-for basis. Presumably this is now policy. The paper which got the McClaren “exclusive” is described as a “media partner”. Maybe those hacks left kicking their heels in the St James’ car park wouldn’t have begrudged Simon Bird his scoop. After all, he was the unfortunate fellow who in 2008 interim Newcastle boss Joe Kinnear began a press conference by calling a “c***”.
Last week was a chance for Newcastle to begin again, start showing themselves to be the big club they’ve always claimed. Instead, the local papers were excluded from McClaren’s first day and so were the BBC. In the recent past Newcastle have topped the league for having the poorest public relations – this does exist – and since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, who regularly blackballed journos for antagonising him, they seem to be going all out to make the championship their own.
McClaren, who’s already being perceived as weak for consenting to the gagging, is possibly the last manager who needs to be smuggled into a stadium under an umbrella. This is a metaphor – the inappropriate brolly he hoisted during his brief, miserable reign as England boss was all too real. Honestly, the PR industry needs to get itself some decent PR if it thinks this is how to go about promoting a good-news story.
The sports interview doesn’t have to be like this, of course. Put a brilliantly nosey hack and a swaggering legend together in the same room and fireworks can result. Both Lynn Barber and Boris Becker are fearless – she’s the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Becker was the belligerent 17-year-old wunderkind who Grand Slammed into his opponents at the end-change.
Their encounter, given that it was an interview and not a tennis match, was published last week and was only going to have one winner.
The broom-cupboard where Becker’s 15-year-old daughter was conceived was off-limits. He wasn’t really up for anything of a personal nature and hoped the piece would be a nice, big puff for his coffee-table book. Barber wondered if he was a male chauvinist pig; he wondered if she was incompetent. It was knockabout stuff, ending with him telling his publicist to complain to her editor.
My first reaction was to wonder why on earth Becker agreed to the interview – ego, perhaps, and the belief he couldn’t be beaten – although I was glad he did. And I wouldn’t be surprised, once the dust has settled, if he’s able to rationalise it. Maybe along the lines of: “This is who I am, Great British Tennis Public. I’m Boris Becker and I stomp around, albeit with dodgy hips now. Our relationship through my witty punditry was getting a bit too – how you say, because it’s not a word which translates into the German – cosy.” And maybe his PR can rationalise it too: “My client didn’t wimp out – what about yours?”
Oh that Newcastle United’s publicity department were being a bit braver just now – Steve McClaren, too.