ALEX STEWART thunders into the meaty topic of football journalism and its cultural capital, picking apart its various forms and constructs in the process. Strap yourself in.
We live in an age of availability. The profusion of different media facilitates an availability of opinions and information unparalleled in previous periods. Advances in communication, the availability of forums for self-publishing, the interactivity of social media, all contribute to a diffuse richness of messages which compete for our attention. The ‘re-tribalisation’ of media, to borrow Marshall McLuhan’s phrase, allows people to interact with each other across broad spectrums of geography and information-richness, and facilitate the formation of communities with shared interests which can exist without physical proximity, linked online, via forums or social sites, engaging in a ceaseless chatter about their chosen interest or interests.
The ramifications of this for football journalism (and by journalism, I mean any form of writing about football, from transfer gossip to more academic pieces on the history of the game or on cultural intersections between football and other fields) are widespread. Sports historiography and anthropology have taken off, and the ability of people to blog on varying subjects has allowed for a ‘culturalisation’ of football, opening the sport to attempts to read it alongside other fields of cultural production; in my opinion, this has elevated the football discourse substantially. Traditional sports journalism and journalists have intersected with longer form studies of cultural or historical phenomena within or linked to the game. This is typified by the tactical or geo-cultural histories of Jonathan Wilson or the advances in the analysis of football using economic or statistical theory such as Kuper and Szymanski’s Soccernomics or Anderson and Sally’s The Numbers Game. Flippant though it might seem, you could now divide football fans into those who subscribe to The Blizzard or read In Bed With Maradona, and those who do not.
In a brief but interesting survey piece in a text which itself was likely unimaginable even ten years ago, The Cambridge Companion to Football, Rob Steen considers the history of football journalism. Noting phenomena such as the rise of “the Twittering classes”, the backlash in Liverpool against The Sun after their horribly biased, ill-informed coverage of the Hillsborough disaster, and sketching out the luminous antecedents of today’s writers, such as James Catton, Gabriel Hanot, Hugh McIlvanney and Brian Glanville, Steen paints a vivid picture of the sometimes tortuous relationship between the sport and those who cover it. Glanville himself, in 1965, wrote two pieces bemoaning the paucity of good, intelligent writing about football, suggesting that it was perhaps an issue of class, that writing was generally considered a middle class or upper class pastime, and that sport, in essence, was not; he did make an exception for cricket which, of course, has a rich history of elegant writing, but is beloved of exactly the sort of people who might choose to pick up a pen.
But, as I have remarked above, football writing is, increasingly, perceived as becoming ‘intelligent’ and, while there are still no great football novels by English writers in the style of DeLillo’s End Game or Malamud’s The Natural (I personally do not rate Hornby, and anyway, the book is about a fan, not a player), the volume of widely accessible writing on football which is elevated above mere transcriptions of events during a game has increased greatly. This is a greater reflection of the fact that, as Alan Tomlinson writes in the introduction to the Cambridge Companion, “Football is a form of culture, made in and by the collective watching of the event, the follow-up argument and analysis, the folklore that is passed down from generations”. It is the middle element of this triptych that most interests me, but I will here try to argue that the picture is not as rosy as it often seems.
Football is, of course, staggeringly popular. Even at a time when there is vocal discontent over ticket prices, the commoditisation of the game, the financial issues which increasingly take clubs away from the influence of fans and into the hands of investors, or the ugliness of racism or violence, football is voraciously consumed. In light of this, it is no surprise that football writing is also voraciously consumed. A brief survey of a number of national newspapers on one day shows the following:
|Title||Total pages||Pages of Football||Percentage|
|The Daily Mail||104||10||9.6%|
|The Daily Mirror||68||7||10.3%|
|The Daily Star||64||8||12.5%|
On average, then, the main daily newspapers in England devote 10.6% of their entire physical volume to football. This is arguably a greater proportion than any single section except ‘home news’ or, if you get the Evening Standard, property! Now obviously, this is slightly imprecise given adverts and, in the instance of The Guardian, the presence of a cycling story on their back page; back pages otherwise are the exclusive preserve of football. However, it is clear that football accounts for a lot of the time and space according by national newspapers to divergent subjects. Now consider this:
|Title||% Football of writing||Cost of paper/£||‘Value’ of football writing|
|The Daily Mail||9.6||0.60||16|
|The Daily Mirror||10.3||0.50||20.6|
|The Daily Star||12.5||0.35||35.7|
The ‘best’ paper, in terms of value, which is merely the percentage of a paper given over to football writing divided by the cost, is The Daily Star. The ‘worst’ is The Independent, which, in terms of value, offers around one seventh of The Daily Star’s. In fact, interestingly, if one ranks the papers by value, the list looks like this:
|Title||‘Value’ of football writing|
|The Daily Star||35.7|
|The Daily Mirror||20.6|
|The Daily Mail||16|
If one considers how the print media are viewed, and one were to compile a list of ‘quality’ newspapers generally available on daily in England, it might read in roughly the same order, accounting of course for political tastes or a partiality to certain columnists. This is a subject judgement of course, and what one person looks for in a paper is very different to what another seeks, but there is, for example, a clear division between the overt ‘tabloids’, which occupy the top three spots for value, the overt ‘broadsheets’, Berliner formats notwithstanding, which occupy the bottom three spots for value, and The Daily Mail, which sits between them in both senses.
These newspapers adhere to a set of visual and textual rules that govern their presentation and the style of their writing, which inheres their quality. Obviously, as anyone who has studied sociology or anthropology knows, it is important to caveat any appreciation of this sort of thing with an awareness of one’s own prejudices and tastes. I hope that none of this reads as a snobbish attack on ‘lower’ forms of media, because it is not: hopefully this much will be clear by the end of the article.
These visual and stylistic rules are clear as soon as one opens a paper. The tabloids favour bursts of colour, gaudy graphics with floating heads of players or managers superimposed over easy-to-digest statistics from games, player ratings, often with comical graphics (think the use of the number of turnips accorded to England managers in a piece by The Sun a number of years ago), and big, shouty headlines. This is what Neil Postman refers to as media in ‘The Age of Show Business’, where context and detail is replaced by visual impact, sound bite, and the cult of celebrity, all of which are perceived as easier to digest and more immediately impactive and thus require less effort on the part of the consumer. The broadsheets, by contrast, are sparser, use greater amounts of white space, longer headlines, higher resolution and smaller photographs, and only tend to deploy ‘tabloid’ graphics when doing ‘jokey’ columns such as the brilliant ‘Said & Done’, or as genuine illustrations when needed, such as Michael Cox’s chalkboard-style graphics that accompany his tactical analysis.
The subject matter is widely differing too. Tabloids feature many more pieces where the focus is the individual player, as reflected in headlines like “Torres: I’ll score lots Mour now” or “Giroud: I’ll fit the bill”. It was noticeable how regularly, on the day I read everything, various pieces rehashed the same central narrative across three or four articles, in this instance, that Wayne Rooney was great, might save Moyes, and that the Ferguson book’s arrival affected Rooney’s performance, either as inspiration or rejoinder (or both). Indeed, references to Ferguson’s book abounded, to the extent that The Sun’s match rating for the Manchester United match was framed as ‘Were United on the right page?’ with a photo of Ferguson’s book hovering above it, despite the ratings actually making no reference to Ferguson’s judgements at all, except using little icons of the book’s cover for the marking out of five system. A rating system employed for the Manchester City game was laid out exactly the same, but just titled ‘City Watch’ and with no out-of-five marks. The cult of personality and the attempt to tie in recent controversy to anything if at all possible is the stand out feature of tabloid sports writing. The Daily Mirror even found room to defend the overtly racist ‘Evil Kagawa’ Twitter account as “comic genius”, symptomatic not just of personality focussed pieces but a shamefully reductive parochialism which should have no place in writing anywhere. In light of that piece, their back-page splash ‘Shut Them Down’, referring to the racist abuse suffered by Yaya Toure in Moscow seems ironic at best, and hideously two-faced at worst.
Broadsheet writing, by contrast, was more varied in subject. It featured more genuine sports news, such as a piece on grassroots funding, and a more varied appreciation of the previous night’s results and the upcoming ties in the Europa League: the Manchester City game was accorded the same space as a Sid Lowe piece on Real Madrid against Juventus in The Guardian, and both The Times and The Guardian featured considered previews of the Europa League ties featuring British teams. This is in stark contrast to the Anglo-centric parochialism of the tabloids, which might give a sidebar at best to games not involving British teams, or merely lift copy from news agencies. The broadsheets were also much less interested in individual players and more in team narratives or straight reporting of the qualities of a game.
The style of writing differs too. If one considers the pieces written about Ian Holloway’s resignation from Crystal Palace, there are subtle but significant variations in tone between the tabloids and the broadsheets. The Guardian writes: “In the end, Ian Holloway was a broken man. He sat, ashen-faced, in a cinema theatre in the basement of the Soho hotel and all that fizz and exuberance…had drained away”. The Times puts it thus: “Crystal Palace are expected to speak to Tony Pulis about their vacant managerial position after Ian Holloway stepped down last night, saying he had run out of energy to perform the job”. The Independent’s comment box says: “The end of most managerial reigns are a study in passing the blame, but in the unlikely setting of the Soho Hotel off Dean Street…” There is a mixture here of an almost novelistic tone from The Guardian, replete with description, pathos, and long words, to the strictly business news tone of The Times, stating a likelihood but with due deference to possibility, to a knowing in-joke from The Independent about Soho and its suitability for managerial press conferences. Contrast that with the same story in the tabloids. The Daily Star states that “Crystal Palace will turn to Tony Pulis”, fact without the possibility of being wrong, strident and assertive and sound bite-y. The Daily Mirror’s headline states: “All My Fault: Worn-out Ollie admits bringing in too many new players destroyed Eagles’ fighting spirit”. This mix of immediate focus on personality, the use of nicknames and first names showing proximity to the subject of the piece, and the martial metaphor beloved of English sports-writers is typical of tabloid writing. The Sun’s headline is similar: “Hol Lot of Tiredness: Palace job wore me out says Ian”. It, like The Daily Mirror, uses ‘Ian Holloway’ as the first two words of its piece, again focussing immediately on personality rather than narrative or context, and the headlines puns rather poorly on his surname. The difference in style and treatment of subject is clear, the tabloids going for emotive immediacy and the implication of a familiarity with Ian Holloway designed to allow their readers to feel the same. The broadsheets instead paint a picture using more complex writing and, if trying to at all, suggest familiarity rather with the circumstances of a managerial resignation than the manager himself; the context is broader and less focussed on personality rather than a wider narrative.
Clearly, then, the greater the value of the football writing available, the less obviously ‘good’ it is, either subjectively in terms of quality, or objectively in terms of variety. The more a consumer pays, the more likely they are to get news properly presented as possibility rather than fact, stories which embrace larger narratives rather than jump on bandwagons of controversy, a wider variety of material, more original, or less re-hashed, material, and ‘intelligent’ writing rather than weak puns, short sentences, and splashy personality pieces. However, they also get less of it for their money, by a staggering degree. If someone were to buy The Independent and The Daily Star every day for five days, by the end of that week The Daily Star would have delivered about thirty-five times as much football writing by cost.
There is a similarity here, albeit a passing one, with the practices of consumption noted by Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction. Writing about food, he notes that generally speaking, foods that are fatty and heavy and available in large quantities for little cost are more the preserve of one socio-economic group than leaner, more expensive food. Obviously there are significant difficulties in making sweeping generalisations about class and reading habits, but it is likely that research would substantiate the view that consumers of tabloid writing are more akin in background to consumers of fatty, cheap foods, and broadsheet readers are more likely to consume leaner, more expensive, and more varied food. Tabloid writing is analogous in this respect to fatty food: big in volume, low in quality, but delivering lots of value. The point that Bourdieu makes is that “taste is…a forced choice, produced by conditions of existence which rule out all alternatives as mere daydreams”. He stresses vehemently, as do I, that this is not an excuse for “a class racism which associates the [general] populace with everything heavy, thick and fat”. But he is saying that the system in which people exist determines their choices for them to a great extent. He also states that “the idea of taste, typically bourgeois, since it presupposes absolute freedom of choice” is a construct of those free to choose since they are the ones who can create a narrative rather than being forced to live within one. There is a lot in Bourdieu’s writing to be anxious about, but the central idea that matters of taste seem determined from above and systemic in their enforcement seems true and borne out by the differences in style and quality of football writing, as shown above.
Football writing is a product of the media machine, by and large, and its differences are reinforced rather than challenged by that machine. If you see print media as a whole, rather than discrete elements, the ‘culture industry’ as Theodor Adorno termed it, then it is not hard to see how it is in the interests of various newspapers to continue to serve up varying degrees of quality to enforce the social distinctions the machine believes it needs to cater for. As Adorno said, “The culture industry misuses its concern for the masses in order to duplicate, reinforce and strengthen their mentality, which it presumes is given and unchangeable”. The culture industry suggests that it gives people what they want, but, in fact, it tells them and enshrines this in the practices of production and dissemination of cultural phenomena. As Arnould and Thompson posit, “consumer culture – and the marketplace ideology it conveys – frames consumers’ horizons of conceivable action, feeling, and thought, making certain patterns of behaviour more likely than others”. These patterns of behaviour obviously include media consumption itself: if you repeatedly serve up the same sort of product, people will eventually demand that product, even if the face of better media elsewhere. The recent redesign of The Daily Mirror shows that a proclaimed smartening and modernising just gives the same sort of approach; changing a painting’s frame does not alter the painting itself. This mirage of progress hampers the ability of consumers to choose better or more varied writing and enforces the myth that it is not available.
In conclusion, then, I am arguing that, despite the narrative I opened this piece with, it is not possible to state that football writing is in holistically rude health. While certain forms of media are publishing excellent writing, largely online or in smaller scale print media like The Blizzard, this “everything is better” narrative is a product of the group producing this writing; a recognition of their own quality that often effaces or ignores any other football writing in a way that is quite unrealistic. It is worth saying that Adorno also makes a very good point that to criticise the culture industry often leaves one open to accusations of “taking refuge in arrogant esoterica”. However, he also strongly asserts: “to take the culture industry as seriously as its unquestioned role demands, means to take it seriously critically, and not to cower in the face of its monopolistic power”. This is what I am trying to do.
If we, as football writers and consumers, are to accept our own claims that football writing is now as varied and interesting as it ever was, and I am not saying that it is not better, we must also never forget that this instantiation of progress is discrete and limited to those of us who have actively sought it out and, in some instances, tried to contribute. The culture industry still peddles the same rubbish and the mainstream media, while occasionally in organs such as The Guardian pushing the envelope, are, for the most part, participating in the hardening of the distinctions of class and consumer education which have had such a retrograde effect on writing about sport. It is a self-serving narrative, and in danger of creating little tribes of cognoscenti who believe themselves above the mean while actively participating in the same system of production. I do not know how to change this but I hope that, at the very least, my polemics have made you think. Football is beautiful because it is the most democratic of sports; football writing must be the same.
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