The reputation of the newspaper industry has been on a steep downwards trajectory with the fall-out from the News of the World phone hacking scandal continuing unabated, and the Leveson enquiry simultaneously exposing and shedding light on some of the industry’s more sinister methods and practices.
But while the most influential newspaper man in modern British history is declared unfit to run a major business – perhaps the Premier League should headhunt MP Tom Watson to run its own defunct test that has never made the same judgement regarding club ownership – when it comes to the big issues, the stories that touch us all as a nation, the public still take their cue from big media.
If it is a detailed breakdown of Athletic Bilbao’s pressing strategy under Marcelo Bielsa you are seeking, or an insight into the evolution of the false nine, then the ever-expanding community of blogs and websites are full of brilliant, often unique analysis that in its length, passion and detail, traditional newspapers just cannot match.
But when it comes to key issues like the appointment of a new England manager – a development that commands a segment on Newsnight and for which the vast majority of people in the country have an opinion, informed or otherwise – it is still to the columns of the press that we inexorably turn, to the chief football writers, the denizens of Sunday Supplement.
In this respect, the newspapers still exercise huge influence over public opinion. It is through the prism of their perspective that reputations of England managers are made and then broken, even if that perspective is increasingly transmitted through a home page displayed on a glowing tablet, rather than a crisp, ink-stained fold of paper draped across the arm of a commuter.
The global newspaper industry is in trouble – or as a tabloid might report it, in ‘crisis’, complete with graphics of the News International and Trinity Mirror logos cracking in half – yet when it comes to our national sport, papers are still the key opinion formers. Their columns hold real weight.
Given this particular context, some of the reaction from certain corners of the press to the FA’s pursuit and appointment of Roy Hodgson has been very disappointing indeed.
This article is not a response to The Sun’s ‘Bwing on the Euwos!’ headline that prompted the Football Association to make an complaint to the newspaper in question (thought not the Press Complaints Comission). As the governing body stated, that was clearly “in poor taste and disrespectful”, and was rightly condemned by many across the media for being mean-spirited and vastly unfair on Hodgson.
We can all agree this crossed a line and certainly should not be taken as symptomatic of the press as a whole. Though it is symptomatic of The Sun, who having spent a few years criticising Fabio Capello for his command of English have now seeming sought to hone in on the new manager’s speech impediment. Clearly in Wapping they define freedom of speech as an excuse to mock it.
However, in a less offensive or explicit manner, the conduct of some other elements of the press over Hodgson has also been found wanting.
While the Mirror went with "Oh why, oh why, oh Woy?", the Daily Star met news of Hodgson’s imminent appointment with a front-page headline of “Footy Fans Fury over Roy”. This was a vast exaggeration of the national mood, and reflected more the surprise of the media that their anointed one, Harry Redknapp, had not been chosen to lead England. Not only was their man overlooked, the press pack also failed to unearth the real story, making them look doubly foolish.
Many national journalists had lobbied strongly in favour of a man who in the past has had Happy Birthday sung to him by an enthralled press pack, and Hodgson’s first press conference as England manager was peppered with questions about the man invariably described, accurately or otherwise, as "the people's choice". Had the two men spoken? What did Hodgson think of Redknapp not getting the job? Why did the FA not interview the Spurs manager?
Meanwhile, not a solitary question about Hodgson’s likely methodology was heard. He was not asked which formation he would be employing, or whether he buys into the FA’s vision of dramatically improving the standard of coaching in England via the National Football Centre at Burton. Important strategic and structural concerns that will shape the future of the national side, yet were deemed unimportant at his unveiling.
But perhaps the most pernicious attitude is the one that has been voiced by some individuals dictating that one of Hodgson’s first priorities as England manager must be to “win over the press”. As if he should put aside the pressing need to formulate a squad and pull together a background staff, build relationships with clubs and finalise preparations for the European Championships, in order to appease a group of grumpy men who are smarting from the decision to overlook Redknapp.
No. The job of the England manager is to win games, not win over the press.
Steve McClaren sought to do the latter. He had his teeth whitened and employed the man universally known as ‘PR guru Max Clifford’ to improve his public image. And how did this charm offensive end? As so many other England careers do: submerged in ridicule. The lingering stigma of the image of the Wally with a Brolly has proven impossible to shift.
McClaren was not the first, nor the last, to attract ridicule in this manner, and on occasion it is justified. That defeat to Croatia at Wembley in Euro 2008 qualifying demanded criticism, while The Sun’s depiction of Graham Taylor as a turnip in 1992 may have been crude, but it reflected a nation’s disappointment with its football team.
Less excusable was the same paper’s deconstruction of Capello – sorry, the “gormless Italian” - after the 2010 World Cup, describing him as a “Jackass”, complete with donkey ears, for the crime of not selecting Jack Wilshere and Andy Carroll for the start of the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. Yes, one of modern football’s great managers reduced to an object of humiliation because he decided against picking Andy Carroll.
The difference between these cases and that of Hodgson is that McClaren, Taylor and Capello, and indeed Bobby Robson and others before them, were being judged largely on results. Hodgson did not even have his feet under the table at Wembley before being ridiculed in some papers. Indeed, it would hardly have been a surprise had Hodgson reacted as Luiz Felipe Scolari did when sounded out about the England job in 2006: Big Phil quickly withdrew himself from consideration, blaming intense media pressure and complaining that “my privacy was totally under siege”.
Sven-Goran Eriksson, a favourite of the tabloids thanks to his unexpectedly flamboyant private life, would no doubt sympathise. Hodgson's privacy is not yet under threat, and with Leveson hovering press intrusion has subsided somewhat of late, yet his past was still probed in rather bizarre fashion at Tuesday's press conference when he was forced to underline that he condemned Apartheid when asked by a TV reporter about his time playing in South Africa in the late 1970s.
If Hodgson was unaware of the scrutiny and treatment that the England manager's job would bring then events over the past two days will have firmly hammered it home. Playing the media game will not save him - only results can do that.