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16th Jun 2018

‘Can we win it?’ – England, the media and the politics of expectation

Dion Fanning

It was late in the night in St Etienne when the players finally emerged. One by one, they took to the stage and talked through the game. Initially, they answered the questions in a standard manner but soon the giddiness in the air reached the stage and this press conference appeared to transform into a rejoicing.

Who could blame them? In this room and around the world, people were already talking about the game as a classic and here were the men who had made it so. What’s more, they were Argentina and they had just knocked England out of the World Cup.

On the stage, Gabriel Batistuta, Ariel Ortega, Juan Veron, Christian Zanetti and a couple of other team-mates were happy to talk and this press conference room soon became an impromptu celebration.

Who could begrudge this explosion of joy from the Argentina players at the time?

Well, in the room some were getting anxious about their deadlines. It was gone 1am in St Etienne and past midnight in England so why were these guys chanting and celebrating on stage? This wasn’t a party, there were people in the press conference who were working. As the festivities continued, there were grumbles in the room and then one voice rose about the crowd.

“Fack off!

Batistuta and the rest ignored this heckle, if they heard it at all. But the voice rose again.

“Fack off!”

The voice then put some flesh on the bones of this complaint.

“We’ve got facking deadlines.”

Indeed he did have deadlines, but the intricacies of newspaper production didn’t seem to make an impression on Batistuta, Veron, Zanetti and the rest of these happy, beautiful men, beaming with joy on the stage. The urgency of these deadlines for some reason didn’t outweigh their happiness at reaching the quarter-finals of the World Cup after an epic game. So he said it again.

“Fack off!”

These happy men were infringing on his ability to send some quotes back for a story. How could they do this when the night was still young in Argentina and, presumably, their reporters had hours remaining before they needed to send their stories. He made this point, quite forcefully.

“Fack off! It’s 6 o’clock in Buenos Aries, we’ve got facking deadlines.”

The Argentinians, inconsiderate to the end, continued to answer the questions and to enjoy themselves to the bafflement of this man and those who shared his point of view.

There was a time when some would say this approach categorised the English media’s stance, not only to the opponents of England, but quite often to their own team.

Two years earlier in 1996, there had been the ‘Achtung Surrender’ headlines before England’s semi-final against Germany, but there had also been the reporting of the English players’ night out in Hong Kong.

If you wanted to discern a strategy in all this aggression, it might simply have been that the English press had followed Georges Clemenceau’s approach. “My domestic policy?” the French statesman once said., “I wage war. My foreign policy? I wage war. Always, everywhere, I wage war.”

The media may well have built up their stars to knock them down as they were said to do, but it perhaps it was not that calculated. If people were there to knock down, they were knocked down. If there was an appetite for knocking someone down, they were knocked down. If there was someone getting in England’s way, if there was someone on a stage revelling in England’s downfall, then they would be knocked down. Always, everywhere, they would be knocked down. They would be told to “fack off”, they would be reminded that it was 6 o’clock in Buenos Aries while things were more pressing here. And maybe that was it. Maybe it was urgency that propelled them into this perpetual state of aggression. Maybe the story was the thing. Maybe they just had facking deadlines.

It was a dark night at Wembley. England would not be going to the 1974 World Cup having failed to beat Poland. The world champions from 1966, the team that had been knocked out in an epic confrontation with Germany in 1970, would not be there.

Alf Ramsey – Sir Alf Ramsey – had won the World Cup, but he was also in charge on this dismal night and this is not what England expected. After the game, one reporter leaned across to Ramsey and gave it to him straight as if it was his duty. “Sir Alf, you’ve let the country down. It’s time to go.”

Ramsey took charge for two more games but in 1974, Sir Alf Ramsey did go, having been declared to have let the country down, the FA had no option, he was dismissed.

This story used to be told by reporters who followed England. They would smile and say, “And you think we’re bad.”

England missed out on the 1978 World Cup and Don Revie headed for the UAE before the qualifiers were over.

When England returned to the World Cup in 1982, they had a new manager. Ron Greenwood had been criticised for ignoring Glenn Hoddle for much of the qualification campaign and he resigned as manager following a defeat in Switzerland only for the players to persuade him to stay on the journey home.

England qualified for 1982 but performed limply. It was a time when England’s shame mainly centred on the supporters who travelled Europe causing trouble and the team tended to be bundled up as part of the same package of self-loathing and disgrace.

By the time Italia ’90 came along, England had become a staple for the newspapers. Bobby Robson was the manager then and he sometimes would rationalise the abuse he got as simply a consequence of the ‘circulation war’ between The Mirror and The Sun.

There may have been some truth in this, but there was also the reality that the newspapers reflected a national mood. Margaret Thatcher would resign in November 1990, but this was still her country. When she had sent her taskforce to the Falkland Islands in 1982, The Sun under Kelvin MacKenzie became enthusiastic supporters of her actions.

The news editor wore a naval officer’s hat and was given the title ‘Commander’ while a map of the South Atlantic was pinned on the wall as the paper anticipated the conflict.

The Mirror, on the other hand, was anti-war. The ’timorous, whining Mirror’ was how the Sun referred to them.

The conflict allowed The Sun to continue its acceleration away from its rival. The more jingoistic they became, the more readers they acquired.

Maradona’s handball in 1986 allowed another wave of outrage and by the time Italia ’90 came along, the team had been suffering an onslaught for some time.

Bobby Robson’s side had lost all three games at Euro ’88 but he remained as manager.

As Simon Hart recalls in the excellent ‘World in Motion: The Inside Story of Italia ’90’ when Robson announced that he would be leaving for PSV after that World Cup, the media went to town. The Today newspaper declared that Robson was ‘A Liar, A Cheat…And Not Fit To Lead England’. The article described him as a ‘shambles of a man, who stands accused of being a liar, a cheat and a traitor. He has been all these to his wife for many years…Tomorrow he takes England to Italy for the World Cup, he is not fit to lead it.”

England, of course, reached the semi-final and, despite being perceived as no hopers led by ‘a liar, a cheat and a traitor’, they came closer than any team since Ramsey to winning it. The shambles of a man was immediately beloved.

It was the question the journalist who used to tell the story of Sir Alf being told he had let the country down always used to ask and it was the question England managers always struggled with. Soon it became the go-to question, a rite of passage for journalists, managers and players, as much a part of a tournament summer as missed penalties and fury at smiling players in the aftermath of a defeat. The question had to be asked: “Can we win it?”

“Can we win it?” It was the question England managers always struggled with. What was the right answer? Well, of course we can win it, anyone can win it. That was one answer.

But nobody would listen to the ‘anyone’ bit, they would run with the ‘yes’ and next thing you know the headlines will say that you’re expecting to win the World Cup and you’ll be stitched up like Ally MacLeod.

But say ‘no’ and there are other questions. Are you even the right man for the job? England expects and here you are writing off the country’s chances before the competition has begun. Where is your ambition?

“Can we win it?’ came to represent more than just a question about England’s chances. It came to represent the strange, symbiotic relationship between the media and the England squad, the idea that what appeared in the papers had a suffocating effect on the team. It did, of course, but maybe it did in part because England spent so much time thinking about them.

In recent years, there has been a recalibrating of the media’s importance. Of course, the world is more aware of any story that appears today, but in a world – especially a social media world – where everyone is shouting, it may be harder for your shouts to be heard.

There was a time when footballers and managers needed newspapers. During the 1990 World Cup when the England squad stopped talking to the media over allegations that appeared about a couple of them and a woman called Isabella, but those who had agreed fees for ghosted columns continued to provide them. These days, newspapers can only hire footballers to write for them if the player think it would be an interesting project or wants to donate a fee which is small change to them (although one which probably makes them the best paid columnist on the paper) to charity.

Once newspapers had an authority which has now faded. In the 1990s, one journalist was said to have invited colleagues to a party in his house and when they arrived, they discovered that within the house there was a roped off VIP area which was sealed off for special guests, special guests like the mega-agent of the time, Eric Hall.

One reporter says when he interviews players now, he will bring along a newspaper to show them where the piece will appear as he believes they may never have seen a newspaper, let alone read one. These players are unlikely to attend a journalist’s party, even with the promise of a VIP area.

What was also notable in the World Cup of 1998 was how England’s players were limited in their exposure to the world or at least the media world. While players from Brazil or France would wander through the mixed zone and talk to any journalist who managed to get their attention, England were more controlled. The players would be brought to the groups of journalists from various English newspapers and then invariably rushed past the rest of the world. It was as if the FA wanted to underline the power of the people they woulds stop to talk to, to emphasise that there was no other world for them beyond the world of the newspapers their families would read the next morning. No wonder they felt the pressure.

When the draw had been made in November 1997, Hoddle had assertively answered the question that was always asked. “I’m still confident we can win it,” he said.

At the tournament, he dropped David Beckham and left Michael Owen out before starting both for the decisive group game against Colombia.

At half-time, one journalist cornered Bryan Robson under the stand and explained how it worked. “It’s not facking rocket science, Robbo. You play your two best facking players, you win the facking game.”

If the media heaped on the pressure, they also became a catch-all excuse for all of England’s problems. England was not the only country with a demanding press, yet other countries managed to overcome the pressure.

Pressure, after all, is the defining characteristic of international football. The Champions League is of higher quality but the intensity of the experience is what makes international football the test it is and that intensity is, in the most part, transmitted by the media.

How they transmitted it has changed over the years and reflects the changing expectations in the country for the England team.

For 25 years, the Premier League has provided most of the drama and passion in English football and most of the finest moments have been delivered by players who aren’t English.

In this, it is a great English success story, an anti Brexit, a place where the people of the world could mix – and earn a great deal of money.

But, finally, it has also allowed most to recognise that England are not being denied a place at the top table of world football by a turnip of a manager or a player who gets sent off or by a handball. For the most part, they are where they should be, denied by nothing except their own limitations.

In the twenty years since France ’98, England has had to learn to lose and lose again. The likelihood is that they will lose again sooner rather than later this month, but it won’t be accompanied by the old-fashioned media aggression which may reflect a change of emphasis.

In 2002, England went out and David Seaman, whose mistake allow Brazil to win, was booed by one journalist as he walked weeping through the mixed zone afterwards.

Four years later, a happy accident saw the press and the players’ families staying in the same hotel, “A month-long stag” is how one journalist described the experience and many felt they benefitted from the experience, but this proximity couldn’t stop England losing on penalties.

If the selection of England managers has followed a certain sequence: tactically naive Englishman – sophisticated foreigner – chummy Englishman – austere foreigner and so on, something similar has happened  the relations with the media.

In 2010, Fabio Capello based the team in Rustenburg away from everything while the journalists stayed in Sun City. Soon there were stories of boredom.

”We’re in a hotel, we finish training and have lunch at one o’clock, but then we have hours to spare,” John Terry said. “There are things to do around the training camp: mini darts tournaments, snooker and pool. But a bit of boredom kicks in. It’s six or seven hours until we meet up for dinner again.”.

Terry went further in what was seen as a push against the manager as he asserted his authority within the squad. “Everyone needs to voice their opinion. If it upsets him [Capello] or any other player, so what?”

Terry, who had been stripped of the captaincy because of his alleged affair with the ex-girlfriend of a former team-mate, failed in his attempt.

But in doing so, he may have pointed to the heart of England’s problem. It is a compelling drama which the media report on breathlessly. If they have become more restrained indecent years, it may be because the characters and plot lines have become less interesting.

Four years ago in Brazil, Roy Hodgson gave a masterclass in managing expectation, looking forward to the next World Cup before England had even properly exited that one. “It bodes well for the future,” he said after England’s defeat to Uruguay and it certainly boded well for Uruguay’s future.

But then the future was always more than a day away for Hodgson. “I am looking beyond the Euros. The fact is, I have my sights fixed firmly on the future,” he said at the European Championships in 2012 (England were based in downtown Krakow, persevering with the sequence). When the future came in 2014 or 2016, it was a grim and stultifying present and never lived up to the promises.

Southgate has handled the media well, but so far he has been praised mainly for his handling of the media and creating a relaxed and open camp.

In certain areas, he has made a difference, such as when he took the sting out of the desire to make Raheem Sterling a story, a desire that is simultaneously baffling and yet in the oldest traditions.

There is no question of Southgate’s intelligence or the calm and reasoned way he has approached the tournament. This has, included, removing the idea that the media is a menace, even if there will always be someone in a dressing room who is suspicious when a manager tries to control the message.

England played darts with journalists on Thursday, a move which was seen as another sign of openness, but if things go wrong this summer, it is inevitable that someone will declare that playing darts with the media set the wrong tone for the tournament.

Yet he is in the job because the man England appointed following the European Championships was forced to resign after 67 days when he was caught on camera while eating in a Chinese restaurant saying, well, not very much at all but saying not very much in a newspaper sting which breathlessly reported his banalities.

Big Sam had to go, mainly for being the type of manager you would expect to be caught up in a newspaper sting, and the Southgate era begun with a reminder that if there is a storyline interesting enough, it will still be pursued. Even in an age when news is delivered in so many ways, there will still be the old urgencies, there will still be the old adrenaline and, one way or another, there will always be facking deadlines.