Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, pre- and post-match interviews are a waste of time. The managers, players, journalists and audience all know this – so why do we all continue to put ourselves through it?
There are only three usual outcomes to a football match, and by now the three fundamental tones available to players and managers in their interviews – satisfaction, dissatisfaction and stoicism – are so well-entrenched that it’s often possible for the reader to guess about 90% of what a manager has said from the scarcest headline.
The odd mad rant aside, most press conference are about as interesting and suspenseful as an episode of Ready Steady Cook where both contestants have brought in sausages, potatoes and (in clear contravention of the programme format) a masher. What’s the point of putting an expert chef on TV if you’re going to limit their ingredients so much?
The post-match interview matrix. There's really only 9 different flavours available at the soundbite cafe. pic.twitter.com/l7UT3QejCo
— Steven Chicken (@StevenChicken) February 7, 2018
We often put this down to everything being sanitised, with club-appointed press officers standing close at hand to media-trained footballers in case they accidentally reveal themselves to be the Zodiac Killer, or say their manager often rides the 80-year-old groundsman around the training ground like a grumpy little horse for hours on end, or drop their shorts and show you their elephant impression, or whatever other myriad things club press officers imagine might happen if they’re not nearby to keep things in check.
But as a recent episode of the excellent Reducer podcast highlights, it has ever been thus. The commemorative gramophone record for the 1932 FA Cup Final – surely a tradition that bears bringing back as the ultimate display of football hipsterism – features interviews with a number of Arsenal players ahead of the big occasion.
We start with captain Tom Parker, who unleashes this knee-trembler on upcoming opponents Newcastle: “I think this moment is a greater ordeal than I shall experience at Wembley, but whatever happens on that great day, our fellows shall play the game and play it well.”
This is goalkeeper Frank Moss, speaking with all the enthusiasm and gusto of a bored primary school child being forced to show a tossed-off drawing of a butterfly in the school assembly: “As the latest recruit to the Gunners, it is up to me to hold the fort. I will do it to the best of my ability, on this, the greatest football occasion of my life.”
And here, apparently being forced to read at gunpoint so the interviewer will finally release his kidnapped family, is future England captain Eddie Hapgood: “I never dreamed when I was playing in the Kettering team, that I should be in two cup finals within two years. I only hope our great victory in 1930 will be repeated.”
It is easy (and fun!) to make fun of footballers for this, but the truth is that from a player’s perspective, there really isn’t much anyone can say about a recent or upcoming match that isn’t frightfully obvious. Yes, we’re going to try our best. Yes, it will be a tough game. No, that whole ‘groundsman horse’ thing was just a misunderstanding and I’m looking forward to putting it behind me and concentrating on getting the three points on Saturday.
This makes for a strange dance where the interviewer is obliged to ask questions to which they already know the answer but has to get it in someone else’s words, while the interviewee knows they already know the answer but has to play along lest they be portrayed as grumpy, aloof and avoidant.
Reporter asks Russ how he approaches the Warriors game.
Russ: “what’s my answer?”
Reporter: “probably just yes.”
Russ: “No, no, no. What’s my answer? How do I approach it? What’s my answer.”
Reporter: “you play every game the same way.”
[walks off] pic.twitter.com/1Uz4RFeWKF
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) February 6, 2018
This level of banality is not what anyone wants: as Roy Hodgson indicated this week, most managers would much rather calmly discuss tactics than be provoked into yet another discussion about this or that refereeing decision. But desirable or not, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this blandness is an inevitability.
It is a mutually withholding co-dependent relationship. The media could ask more provocative questions, but that risks losing the good faith of the club and manager and may limit their interview opportunities down the line. Most players and managers, meanwhile, are so wary of their words being taken out of context and used against them that they are forced to keep things as boring and safe as possible.
Of course, because they so rarely get anything juicy, those newspapers and radio stations that thrive on controversy are forced to drum up drama out of nothing, resorting to twisting words and using telephoto lenses to get their headlines. This only serves to irritate the players and managers even more, forcing them to double-down on the providing of useless nuggets of nothing at press conferences. And the cycle begins afresh.
There is something reassuring about the enduring popularity of the nothing soundbite. For all football culture is becoming increasingly histrionic, it is heartening to learn that really, all we want as fans is to know that our manager and our players have tried their best, and that they realise when things haven’t been good enough or share our joy when they win. Sometimes, sausage and mash is just fine; it’s just a shame there isn’t more variety on the menu.