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Ten or 15 years ago, few football fans could have named you more than one or two national football journalists. We tended to know the main guy at the local paper, but as for the nationals, you saw the names but you had little idea who they were, apart from a couple of titans. Men like Hugh McIlvanney and Brian Glanville, the gnarled veterans of a thousand cigarette memories, brandy squints and tales of Lisbon in the Sixties or wing-halves in the Crimean War...these we knew. But the journalist foot soldiers? Anonymous.
In recent years this has all changed. Now newspaper football correspondents are, if not household names, certainly very well known among fans. Ironically, this has happened during an era when the actual newspapers are in terminal decline, shedding readers like never before. But with these writers regularly on the TV and radio, their profile has never been higher - and they know it. In a small way, they have become stars of a sort.
This is so much the case that you'll often hear specific journalists getting abuse at games as they take their seats in the press box. Fans know who they are and what they may have written. The journalists are now all on Twitter, passing instant judgement and comments about the ongoing football soap opera - but then so is everybody else.
It's perceived that the big hitters in this profession wield great influence, but is their power on the wane? There were barely disguised collective efforts to get Harry Redknapp the England job, which failed miserably, as did a brief attempt to make Roy Hodgson looks stupid for having the temerity to take Harry's rightful gig. Issues such as the racism of Luis Suarez and John Terry came to light from the television, not from newspapers, and to what extent the relentless newspaper coverage of such dramas shapes FA policy is unclear. The most important football news story of this year - the Hillsborough Panel report - was not in the main the result of investigative or campaigning journalism: largely this came about from political and grass roots pressure. On a day-to-day level, the football correspondents' ability to stir the pot is not what it was in this multi-media age, especially with major clubs banning awkward hacks from their briefings.
The old counter-culture adage said that information is power. But with corporate communications departments, PR teams and in-house TV stations, clubs can disseminate information in a much more controllable way than the gaffer gathering a couple of hacks for a chat in the carpark. The proliferation of places to get your football news is overwhelming; the dissemination of opinions limitless. And it all happens far more quickly than someone can get it in tomorrow's paper. This is a bit of a bugger for your old school journalist, who now finds himself competing with a far greater number of information-providers on one hand, and opinion-formers on the other.
If you want to know about the nuts and bolts of a team or specific game, you don't have to go to a regular daily paper journalist any more. There are better, more informed specialists around. Similarly, clubs which once had to use the press as their mouthpiece can now bypass them and push their propaganda directly from the club's own website. Players can do likewise through social media if they have the intellect to cohere sentences. If they speak to the press it's always on their own terms, using and abusing them as it suits.
Then there's all the football on TV, interviewing the stars before and after the game. No need to wait for the next day's papers anymore to find out what massive profundity has passed across the mutant synapses of your centre-forward.
So with everyone else having parked their tanks on the old school press's lawn, what is left for them? TV and radio, seems to be the answer. Both mediums turn to journalists for football chat programmes, rather than, say, an articulate member of the football public. But are they any good?
The primo show for them is Sky's Sunday Supplement, a show we've discussed many times here. Now shorn of the Bisonic presence of the late Brian 'Wooly' Woolnough, its new presenter is Neil Ashton. Ashton is a neat man with neat hair who has taken to this presenting job rather effortlessly. He seems less naturally sulphurous than Wooly, but 'the boys' around the table remain the same coterie of characters. We still await someone with breasts to make an appearance and no, Martin Samuel doesn't count in that regard.
The last couple of weeks has been typical fare. Familiar faces such as Henry Winter, Sean Custis, Jonathan Northcroft, Samuel, Paddy Barclay, John Dillon and Andy Dunn have sat at a table groaning with food and drink, eating none.
ESPN's Press Pass often features foreign Johnnys such as Raphael Honigstein and Gabriele Marcotti while on the radio, Talksport's programme of the same name is hosted by The Daily Mail's Des Kelly and features a rolling cast of characters similar to Sunday Supplement. 5live tends to only drag in a journo when they've an awful lot of time to fill on a Sunday, when they have often deployed Dunn, whose appearance reminds us of a tank-top-wearing geography teacher we once knew. The Monday Night Club features Ian 'Borderline Aspergers' McGarry, who was once a mere journalist but who is now, according to his Twitter thing: 'Member of BBC Radio 5Live Monday Night Club. Present/make broadcast documentaries. Work on various football projects.'
While we feel their presence is often sold to us for having special football knowledge or insight, this is by no means always self-evident, or at least not over and above the knowledge and insight you might obtain from any football fan who pays daily attention to the game. No, their greatest asset is actually the ability to fill hours of dead air time. They're never short of an opinion and can usually express it with enough articulate force to briefly make it appear to be some sort of wisdom.
However, for entertainment value - which is really what we're listening for - it is the more ranty, less even-handed men who we enjoy the most.
When The Sun's Shaun Custis is on the TV or radio, you always feel that he's going to give someone a bit of a kicking and be generally arsey. Such belchings might be unreasonable but it is such attitudes that provide the grist to the football debate and stop us falling asleep.
As unpleasant as McGarry's 'borderline Aspergers' comment was about Andre-Villas Boas, it undoubtedly made more memorable radio. In fact, we suspect McGarry is cutting himself a gig as a bit of a wind-up merchant. This isn't to excuse any abuse on the basis that it makes better entertainment but in this arena, being even-handed and reasonable can be very dull.
The master at this is journalist-cum-broadcaster Gab Marcotti, who appears all over the place. He's well-read, hugely knowledgeable, articulate and yet wilfully provocative when needed, he is the go-to man if you want your football chat with some wit, originality and passion. Rarely is it all rolled into one man.
When on TV, we feel the depth of journalists' understanding about football is less important than being an interesting character. It helps, of course, if they can have both. This is why we love to see Paddy Barclay on TV.
His latest Sunday appearance saw him apparently wearing the previous night's clothes - a killer, well-cut black jacket and open-necked shirt, it looked as though he was on his way to dine out at a fine restaurant. He has an imperious, arched-eyebrows quality about him which makes good TV.
It is hard to predict the future for the old school print journo with his contacts book of managers' personal phone numbers, accreditation for training ground press conferences and match reports. He used to have his hand on a tap of information that now flows non-stop whether he likes it or not, direct from the clubs and players themselves to their fans and customers. You (or he) might say: "There will always be a market for considered written analysis and thoughtful opinion," but the evidence online seems to suggest that people in fact want more violent, less considered, more bonkers viewpoints, and that they want to read stuff written by people who share their own prejudices. Where does this leave the newspaper football writer? On TV, it seems.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
Alan has a new book out. It is called 'Who Moved My Stilton? - The Victorian Guide To Getting Ahead In Business' and you can check it out here.
Read Johnny's book, 'The Meat Fix' here.