Twenty years ago you would call a retired footballer on their landline for a quote about the modern game and Peter Osgood, or Alan Mullery, or Arthur Albiston, would get confused about a young lady ringing them at home and then eventually tell you that things were better when men were men, women were women and everybody was allowed to pretty much indiscriminately kick each other.
When pushed for more specific opinions on a current manager or footballer they would tell you they rarely got down the Lane or the Bridge these days but generally speaking, managers should be given more time and, well, these soft young lads would get a shock if Norman ‘Bites Yer Legs’ Hunter was chasing them. They were right; they would; they should call the police.
Back then, the internet was little more than a rumour and if you wanted to read about football, you bought a newspaper or waited for the next Match, FourFourTwo or World Soccer, depending on your age and whether you were a pretentious w***er.
There were no gifs, no memes, no stats PROVED anything, things were rarely REVEALED, you never had to pretend you had ‘learned’ anything and the idea that anybody would choose to read what a middling footballer had for his tea was absurd (not everything has changed). The only reason you saw quotes from Malcolm MacDonald on Newcastle was that somebody had gone for a very long drink with Malcolm MacDonald in Newcastle.
In 2016, the football media is very, very different. There is literally limitless space to fill and bulk publishing rules. The quest is for more – more content, more page impressions, more social media traction, more search optimisation, more bombast, more depressing for those of us who quite liked less. And in this age of bulk publishing, pulp friction sells. Everybody wants words and you know who says words? Every former footballer and ex-manager given a platform either by television or a sponsorship deal. They say limitless words for a limitless media and we lap them up.
There’s no denying that what Roy Keane says about a testicle-less Arsenal is more interesting than what Arsene Wenger says about an Arsenal side only temporarily mislaying their mental strength. But you know what’s really interesting? Goading Wenger into ‘hitting back’ with a ‘blast’ at Keane. Now that’s pure bloody gold.
Better than Keane would be an Arsenal legend but Ian Wright and Thierry Henry retain enough love for Wenger never to leave the floor with a two-footed lunge. His longevity protects him once again.
To be really vulnerable in this era of leading football websites publishing 200 articles a day (on football! Just on football!) and newspapers being petrified of being left behind, you need to be a foreign manager with no friends in the media, in charge of a previously dominant club, with multiple title-winning former players entrenched in the British media.
Which is how I have arrived at the curious position of feeling sorry for Louis van Gaal.
He is undoubtedly inviting criticism with his stultifying tactics and infuriating refusal to admit any culpability – and we all feel a little let down because we were promised balls out and got an old, dull man making a bit of a cock of everything – but he is far from the first manager to fall short of expectations. And yet the chorus of disapproval has never been so loud; it is death by a thousand voices.
Barring an unlikely double of silverware and a top-four place, his position looks untenable. Failure has been piled on top of failure on top of poke-your-eyes-out-with-a-spoon football. It’s not necessarily that Paul Scholes or Rio Ferdinand or Peter Schmeichel are wide of the mark with their criticism, it just seems a tad unfair that Van Gaal has unwittingly found himself at the centre of a perfect storm. Words and words and words are being said and written about Van Gaal, who is pushed to respond while his assailants’ friend and former teammate sits silently by his side.
Now, the first questions that greet him when he enters a press conference are about what Scholes or Ferdinand has said – roughly seven minutes after they said them on BT. Never mind what just happened in the football match that finished 27 minutes ago, the narrative has already moved on. So Louis, Scholesy says he’s ashamed to be a Manchester United fan, what you do think?
LVG has a point. Too common now for journalists to hide behind pundits views. Give your own! 🐓 https://t.co/oq2IrJ3Y0a
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) March 11, 2016
I tend to agree with Lineker, who poked a hornets’ nest full of angry little stingers when he suggested that journalists perhaps think of their own questions based on their own observations rather than spouting a variant of ‘my mate says you’re a d***, what are you going to do about it?’ Van Gaal is a difficult man to defend right now, but there’s a point where the fight gets so one-sided that it feels like a bloodsport.
“I think as journalists we allow ourselves to be too dragged along by what managers say, particularly in match reports,” said Times journalist Rory Smith in a recent fascinating interview. “This is really old fashioned but I kind of think that journalists go to matches so that fans don’t have to believe the crap that the manager comes out with. Because the manager will always say ‘Oh yeah we were great, we should have won’. Their view means basically nothing because they obviously think that.
“Whereas the journalist can go, ‘this is what the manager said, and this is what this manager said, but this is actually what happened’.”
An admirable and indeed old-fashioned concept but increasingly, the journalist appears to be there to say ‘this is what a bloke who used to play football said on the telly and here is what the manager said when I asked him about what that bloke said on the telly’. That’s the reality in 2016 but is it really fair? Managers get a right of reply but almost any response sounds defensive, dismissive or both.
Curse you, ubiquitous Manchester United legends; you have made me feel sympathy for a man who was presumably not familiar enough with the decline/heyday of the British football media to realise that he would be the main protagonist in a whole library of pulp friction.
He is f***ing it up, mind…