Making friends and influencing people... the England and Gareth Southgate way!
Mike Bacon reflects on England's 'open media' door policy this week and what a success it proved
A very strange thing happened this week.
No, not Novak Djokovic’s refusal to say whether he would be at Wimbledon this summer after losing in the quarter-finals at Roland Garros.
Nor the fact Ipswich Speedway were back in action after a five-week break at Foxhall – (about time!)
Nor the fact having told everyone in last week’s Bacon’s Bites that Joe Root wasn’t the best captain for England, he duly led them to an easy win over Pakistan! What do I know?
No, what was strange, but extremely positive, was England’s ‘open media’ session at St George’s Park, Burton, on Wednesday night.
Gareth Southgate and his team were ‘access all media’ for an hour in a large hall, all 23 players seated at their own desks and speaking to the press.
No limits – refreshing doesn’t even start to describe it.
There is a misconception among too many football fans, players and managers that football journalists are only ever out ‘to get’ players.
Not a fact.
I’ve been in sports journalism for more than 20 years and, most certainly at a local level, nothing could be further from the truth.
Indeed, in my experience, the more access the media have to footballers, the better the headlines, the better the relationships – nationally and locally.
Back in the day and during my early days as a sports journalist, at Ipswich Town Football Club anyhow, local journos and players were on first-name terms and had each other’s home phone numbers.
Players used to come into our office in Lower Brook Street and pen columns and give stories.
There were one or two squabbles at times, but generally players and press understood each other – and used each other to good effect.
If a local journo wanted to make sure his access to players was ‘restricted’, all he had to do was write inaccurate, or continually divisive stories.
But why would you do that?
One day’s sensational headline may get a quick hit, but was invariably a lost load of sales and goodwill within weeks.
Today many Premier League and Championship clubs, including Ipswich Town, are far more coy over access. It’s their choice. Perhaps it’s social media that has freaked them out.
But does being coy with professional journalists benefit clubs? No, of course it doesn’t.
Any player I have ever interviewed at Portman Road in the last decade has always been polite and a delight to talk to. If I was at any Premier League or Championship Club and I trusted my well-rounded players, I would be getting them doing far more talking to the media.
They have everything to gain, very, very little to lose.
Which takes me back to England and Gareth Southgate.
As I said, on Wednesday night, England held an ‘open door’ media session.
It went down well, with Raheem Sterling, who has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons of late, front and centre of many of the media men and women’s attention.
But guess what? Shock, horror! Sterling’s performance went down a storm with the assembled throng.
This is what Miguel Delaney, The Independent’s chief football correspondent wrote about meeting Sterling on Wednesday.
“This is the thing with Sterling, who is courteous, likeable and smart… but not without a very striking assertiveness. He has far bigger concerns than media stories about his tattoo or his private life – something he allows to roll off him as “one of those things” – because he has far bigger ambitions.
“By the time you spend even a short time in his company, you forget the rest of the nonsense around him, because he is so enthusiastic and engaging when talking about the game itself and what he can achieve it.”
Do you find that strange? I don’t.
I know the majority of sports journalists there on Wednesday will have clocked Sterling’s attitude towards them. Clock it and remember how engaging/helpful he was.
Yes, there will be a minority of ‘big timers’ who won’t bat an eyelid and will look to slate Sterling as soon as he makes his next error.
But believe me, they are the minority.
So, hopefully other football clubs in the Premier League and Championship (most clubs in Leagues One and Two are invariably happy with media coverage), will start to give better access to journalists, both national and local in their pursuit of positive stories and showing communities their players do care to be part of the bigger picture.
Sadly, too many clubs want to try and control the media. They want to produce the news, which is no more than feeding press releases to fans. Yawn!
The problem for clubs however, who don’t give good access, is that the media force the agenda.
They have to fill their newspapers, web sites and air time with something. So comment it is.
If it’s good enough for the England manager and the best players in England to chat to the media en masse, no strings, no agendas, perhaps it is time domestic clubs followed suit.
Good luck to Southgate and England, a refreshing 2018 approach to the media.