I heard the on-air resignation of Dave Lee Travis in 1993, I had Radio 4 on in my kitchen when their presenters got Jeremy Hunt‘s surname wrong. Twice. They were gorgeous moments of aural splendour, but they were nothing compared to the breathless, runaway train crash that was Richard Keys defending himself on TalkSport. It takes two grown men the better part of a day to dig a grave. Keys managed it in less than an hour.
The timing was immaculate. Just as people were beginning to feel sorry for him and his partner in slime, Andy Gray, just at the tipping point between the righteous indignation of the British people and their natural inclination to back the underdog, Keys stepped in to send the scales crashing to the floor. If only he’d turned up, sat down, said sorry and then stopped talking, he might have gotten away with it. Gargh! If it hadn’t been for that meddling ego!
Everything was someone else’s fault. The fault of the press. The fault of ‘dark forces,’ the fault of those who knew that ‘success breeds envy.’ He lashed at out Rio Ferdinand, claiming that his sources had told him of far worse comments in the Manchester United dressing room. He poured scorn on the idea that he genuinely believed women had no place in football, putting his comments down to that awful word, ‘banter.’ He compared the leaked tapes to phone-tapping, he reminded us of the many women whose careers he had aided. He said that he was worried about Sian Massey and that’s why he praised her so much at half-time. He repeatedly apologised and repeatedly followed it up with more desperate self-justification.
This wasn’t ‘I’m sorry,‘ this was, ‘I’m sorry, but…’ It was frustrating to listen to. And yet we agreed on one thing.
When I saw a determined-looking Massey striding out of the tunnel at Molineux, I was worried as well. Don’t get me wrong. I read The Guardian, I’m partial to a good bowl of muesli, but I’m not so politically correct that the sight of a woman in a Premier League game doesn’t still catch my eye. Unless, of course, it’s Nani. I’m used to her now.
I wasn’t worried because I had pig-headedly assumed she’d just turned up from John Lewis, dropped her shopping bags and picked up the prettiest flag. She’s a qualified official, for Christ’s sake, she knows more about the offside rule than you and I combined. No, I was worried because I feared that any mistake she might make, and all referee’s assistants make at least one mistake a game, would be seized upon by the fans, the viewers and the media. I was worried because the bit of me that still opens doors for ladies and would never dream of saying Jeremy’s new surname in their company, feared for the way she‘d be treated. This, in itself, is probably sexist, but that‘s let’s not go down that road today. Anyway, I scribbled her name down (because I was writing a feature on the game for my employers, not because I’m creepy) and hoped that by the end of the match I’d be one of the few who could remember it. Didn’t quite work out like that, did it?
So let‘s get this out of the way. The comments about Massey were indefensible. If you’re the face of football and you’re caught expressing your belief that no woman can understand the offside law, you deserve to take a pasting. It wasn’t banter, it wasn’t ironic and I fail to see how, as Richard Keys so memorably claimed, that it was designed to calm debutant pundit Matt Murray. If vicious sexism is a sedative, what about any other kind of prejudice? How about nailing the gypsies next week? Will that slow the heart-rate?
The comments were dark, they were mean and they were desperately wide of the mark. What was even more shocking was that two men so influential in their industry could genuinely hold the view that women don’t understand it. There are more than enough first class female journalists and broadcasters out there to disprove that theory and, though the sight of a female official here is still rare, surely they know that it is commonplace elsewhere.
Andy Gray and Richard Keys should have been hauled over the coals, given a public bollocking, been forced to make a full and contrite apology and then been allowed to salvage what remained of their reputation. As Gareth Southgate said this week, the incident will actually boost the standing of women in football, so why not have them there as long-standing reminders that the game must be inclusive?
But Gray was taken down by other tapes, the release of which looks like an obvious hatchet job. Some of them weren’t even controversial. If it’s a sackable offence to stand with your mates and weigh up whether someone is sexually attractive or not then I’m first against the wall, I’m afraid. SmashGate, the brief, but impressively toe-curling footage of Keys discussing Jamie Redknapp’s ex-girlfriend, was nothing. If you leave four men in a room for long enough, they’ll say a lot worse than this. God knows I have.
The other tape, the Charlotte Jackson incident, was harder to judge. It could have been good-natured banter within the boundaries of a friendship. It could also have been sexual harassment. Before the TalkSport interview, there was no way to know. I was even beginning to feel sorry for Keys and Gray. Who was trying to destroy them? What did any of this have to do with their ability to do their job?
Keys’ simple comment, ’Charlotte can take care of herself,’ ended the argument at a stroke. That doesn’t sound like a friendship to me. That doesn’t sound like messing around with your mate at work. If someone alleges sexual harassment or bullying, you don’t pass it off by saying that they can handle it. With that one glib comment, it was all over. It has been reported that Keys and Gray are arrogant. After this, it was hard to argue.
Keys will lose his job. That much is inevitable now. He won’t lose it because he said mean things about Massey. He’ll lose it because he still doesn’t understand why what he did was wrong. He apologised for everything, even the things he didn’t need to apologise for, thereby cheapening the original sentiment. He tried to fight allegations of arrogance by being more arrogant. In attempting to destroy the story, he has succeeded only in making a much bigger story. Why did Sky let him do it? Perhaps, as journalist Dan Brennan suggested, they knew precisely how badly he’d screw it up. Perhaps they just wanted him to finish himself off.
There will be much celebration in the offices of TalkSport this evening. This was their finest hour and you’ll be able to hear corks popping from a ten mile radius. It won’t be the same at the Keys residence. The only thing that anyone should hear from there is the scratching of a pen on a letter of resignation.
Sir Alex Ferguson has never looked so tired. Forced by UEFA regulations to finally attend a press conference, something he hasn’t done for many weeks, he looked broken and defeated as he confirmed that his star pupil has demanded a transfer. Ferguson has fallen out with superstars before, even those he has raised from his own youth ranks, but he has never been defied and betrayed like this. Wayne Rooney has been offered a lucrative new contract, he has turned it down and he is adamant that he wants to leave. And Ferguson is at a loss to explain why.
Like a Glaswegian Eeyore, in a low, sad monotone, he confirmed that he had tried to take Rooney out of the firing line and was baffled as to why it had resulted in such a dramatic reaction; the infamous mixed zone denials after England’s draw with Montenegro. He didn’t know why Rooney would want to leave the biggest club in the world and could say only that the contract offer, which he claimed would be difficult to beat elsewhere, is still on the table. ‘Disappointed’ was the word he kept coming back to and it’s not hard to see why.
Ferguson supported Rooney during the World Cup, calling him during the tournament to try and ease his obvious anxiety. He supported him afterwards, when he refused to respond to tabloid pictures of his star player binge-drinking and smoking on the last day of his summer break. He even supported him in the aftermath of those seedy tabloid allegations. He took him out of the side against Everton to spare him a public humiliation, but not once did he publicly blame the player for causing the problem in the first place. Apparently, that wasn’t enough. Rooney was furious anyway.
Out of form and apparently out of his mind, he is preparing to betray his club and leave for their nearest rivals. Ignore the leaks from Rooney‘s PR team, suggesting that he is disappointed at the scale of the acquisition debt incurred by the leveraged buyout and the effect it will have on future recruitment policy. As if Rooney has a clue what any of that means. Ignore too, the leaks from the club suggesting that Rooney is a money-grabber and just wants a Yaya Toure-sized paypacket. This is about one issue. Rooney has been told off for dragging the club through the gutter, he has been dropped because he’s been in the worst form of his life, and he thinks that it’s all so unfair. He believes so emphatically in his own hype that he no longer considers himself to be subject to the same rules as everyone else. That’s why Ferguson is so sad.
Football has changed dramatically since he first arrived in England, but the old Scotsman has always changed with it. From the hard-drinking, hard-working side of 1993 to the kids of 1996 to the treble-winning legends of 1999 through the tactical metamorphosis of the mid-noughties to the Rooney and Ronaldo-led three-times champions of the last decade, he has always been ahead of the curve. But not now.
Rooney has been in abject form for six months, he has scored just once for United since March, he has shamed his club by behaving like a morally bankrupt sewer rat, he has publicly undermined his manager and there is nothing that anyone can do except sit quietly and hope that he changes his mind about that new contract. Modern football is deranged. If Carlo Ancelotti’s laissez-faire treatment of his philandering superstars is now the template for the generation then Ferguson looks increasingly like a man behind the times.
Perhaps this is it for the dark Knight. Perhaps this is the sign that the game he grew up and grew old with has moved on and left him behind. Well, if I was him, I’d make my last act resonate through history. I’d strike one blow for the old school before I shuffled off into the sunset. I’d take that improved Rooney contract off the table, roll it up as tight as I could and force it where the sun doesn’t shine. And I don’t mean Greater Manchester.
Liverpool are drowning in debt and Manchester United are spending the price of a Galatico every season on interest repayments, but Arsenal are riding high. Record pre-tax profits of £56m are obvious evidence of a business on the up, but the best bit was the savage cut to overall debts, fuelled by the sale of property on the site of the old Highbury Stadium. Arsenal now owe just over £135m, still a sizeable sum but paltry in comparison to their rivals. Soon they will be entirely debt free, raking in approximately £3m in match day revenues from every home game and growing all the time. They are arguably the most sensibly run football club in England.
Vindication then, surely, of Arsene Wenger’s policies. Holder of a Master’s Degree in Economics, the Frenchman had his own theories on the future of football and it’s hard to disagree with them. He knew that repeated heavy spending was unsustainable, he knew that monstrous wages were unrealistic and he planned accordingly. His academy and the scouting network that feeds it are now the envy of Europe. At Highbury, they were held back by a capacity of 38,500. Now they can cram 60,361 into the Emirates Stadium and the expansion hasn’t crippled them or even knocked them off balance. Arsenal are very nearly self-sufficient. Wenger did that.
There are a number of fans who demand that the profits are reinvested into the squad rather than the business and they make a very good point. Winning games of football is, after all, the whole point of the exercise and it’s far easier to do that with good players. It’s still baffling that Wenger hasn’t replaced Manuel Almunia, a fine goalkeeper, but not quite of the standard required. Nevertheless, this fine manager should have earned the trust of the fans.
There is only one stick left to beat Wenger with and that’s the one marked ‘silverware’. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Arsenal haven’t won a trophy since that abject FA Cup Final in 2005 when they beat Manchester United in a penalty shoot-out. The middle tier at the Emirates is adorned with pictures of every trophy the club have ever won and there’s a big gap in one corner for the trinkets the designers believed would be secured soon after the stadium opened. It stands empty still, mocking Wenger’s efforts from on high. But here’s the secret. Lean in and I’ll whisper it. Modern football isn’t about winning trophies.
What would you rather? A fifth place finish and an FA Cup or third and no trophies? Unless you’re quite mad you’ll take third because that means Champions League football. If your snout isn’t in UEFA’s cash trough, then you’re doomed. You can’t pay the wages, you can’t attract the players and the ones you have got will scarper. By that rationale, finishing third is a more valuable prize than lifting a trophy. It’s not right, it’s certainly not the way competitive football should be, but make no mistake, this is how it is.
Modern day football is about money. It’s about branding and revenue streams and advertising and emerging markets. It’s about squeezing harder every year to try and produce a few more coins. If you’re not moving forwards, you’re moving backwards. That’s the mantra. Wenger has taken ‘just another London club’ and transformed them into an attractive, entertaining and profitable business. Other teams are taking out ruinous loans, or begging for sugar daddies to come and artificially fund them. Not Arsenal. They are perfectly positioned for the future. And the trophies will come eventually. Of that, I have no doubt at all.
AUTHOR’S NOTE – Since posting this article, I have been infomed by ace Arsenal.com scribbler Nick Ames that the perceived gap in the trophy hoardings is actually an optical illusion. There is a gap in every corner, but the reduced distance from the press box exacerbates the effect of this particular corner to the one group of people you wouldn’t want to have notice it. Apologies.
We won’t know who the World Cup winners are until Sunday night, but this World Cup’s losers are far easier to identify. They’ll be in the Match of the Day studio passing comment. Alan Hansen, Alan Shearer and Mark Lawrenson, take a bow. Your unrivalled incompetence has brought about a situation that few could ever have thought possible. The BBC’s football coverage is now as risible as the putrid effluence spewed out by ITV.
When it comes to global football, this motley collection of has-beens and shouldn’t have-beens simply don’t know, don’t care and don’t even realise that with every passing second of air-time they are insulting your intelligence. You, the people of Britain, are paying for their extended all-expenses trip to South Africa and they can’t even reward you by spending five minutes on the loo with a copy of World Soccer.
If ever there was a case for examining the role of a publicly funded broadcaster, it’s when Shearer admits that his knowledge of the team he is being paid to comment upon is ‘limited’, or when Hansen growls rebelliously at the thought of having to watch the second half of Algeria against Slovenia because it’s his birthday. When the one pundit who seems to actually do some research, Lee Dixon, pointed out that Marek Hamsik was one to watch, Hansen sneered at him and suggested that someone must have given him that tip. Hamsik is one of the most sought-after players in Europe!
Mind you, for real incompetence, there’s only one place to go. My neighbours still recall the piercing howl of rage when the perennially ill-informed Lawrenson was forced to ask his co-commentator whether or not Kaka had ‘played much last season’. Here’s us, the licence payers, clubbing together to send ‘Lawro’ on the trip of a lifetime and he doesn’t even know whether one of the top five footballers on the planet has been getting much of a game at his new club.
You expect this kind of thing from ITV. They’ve always been useless at football, but it doesn’t matter. Their coverage is self-funded, propelled by the adverts that they occasionally smear across the most important part of a match like a toddler’s snot. You don’t get mad with ITV for being rubbish because it’s like getting mad with a puppy for pissing on the carpet. It’s what they do and, in a way, it’s your fault for letting them in the house in the first place. But the BBC is supposed to be a bastion of quality, a stronghold against the forces of commercialism. They’re supposed to be good at this, for pity’s sake.
Football fans, despite what the producers of Match of the Day apparently believe, are not idiots. Granted, anyone who has ever listened to a radio phone-in will know that there is an anti-Darwinism at the heart of every broadcast, a survival of the thickest as sensible voices are drowned out by braying morons. And yet football fans have never been so knowledgeable. The regular coverage of European leagues on satellite television has allowed us to gaze upon a world outside the bloated hyperbole of the Premier League. The internet has put the planet’s media at our fingertips. With every click of a mouse, it’s possible to find a new blog, tapped out for free by an enthusiast who has forgotten more about world football than ‘Lawro’ will ever remember.
Germany, according to Hansen, are an average team, but if they’re average, what on earth does that make England and Argentina? Robert Vittek was described as ‘an unknown’ by Shearer. That might have been true at the start of the tournament, assuming you could ignore seven years in the Bundesliga and La Ligue, but it certainly wasn’t the case four games in when he was the tournament’s joint leading scorer. Time and time again, pundits were asked to pick out ‘dangermen’ and all they could do was identify a player who had once played in England. Just ten minutes on the internet would have saved them their public humiliation. Shearer was so bad that the joke Twitter account @shearers_a2z , where a fake Alan Shearer makes ludicrous assertions about world football, received a number of messages from angry readers who thought it was real.
It doesn’t have to be like this. The BBC’s commentators, for example, were excellent. Jacqui Oatley coped admirably with an unfamiliar, borderline unpronounceable Greek team despite the fact that David Pleat, a man who has 17 different ways of saying Julian Joachim, was sat next to her. Steve Wilson, Simon Brotherton and Guy Mowbray all put the hours in, piling up the facts and the stats on even the most unfamiliar of nations. It can be done.
For the love of God, everyone in the media makes mistakes, me more than anyone, but the rubbish that the BBC have churned out isn’t an accident. It’s the result of a complete lack of effort from people in an incredibly fortunate situation. My newspaper could only send one member of staff to South Africa. The BBC sent 295.
We paid for all of that and I can’t be the only viewer who wants his money back.