The bond between football and the media has become so interwoven over recent decades that it almost resembles a co-dependent relationship. Media organisations need football’s never-ending supply of drama to fill their expanding sports pages and attract readers, while football would not have grown into the attention-seeking behemoth we know today without the media. Both are utterly reliant upon each other.
Therefore, it may come as a surprise that the Football Association only appointed its first press officer in 1977. Football during that era could hardly be described as innocent; hooliganism was prominent while the first black players were met by monkey chants and thrown bananas. However, it does seem quaint that nobody within the FA felt the need before to appoint somebody with the responsibility of handling the media.
The man they selected, Glen Kirton, proved to be an inspired choice. During twenty-five years with the FA, Kirton experienced some of English football’s most iconic moments from Italia ’90 to Euro ’96 and worked closely with some of the game’s biggest characters.
Over his career, the reputation of the sport began its transformation from a pastime for yobbish thugs to a family-friendly activity. As such, he can offer a unique perspective on many well-known events.
An engaging and articulate man, Kirton’s route into a career within football was not conventional. Having left university with a French degree, Kirton worked for a few months in a bank. Finding the job tedious, he was advised by his flatmate Jeff Burnige (who would later become chairman of Millwall) to write directly to football clubs asking for work.
After receiving a reply from the FA and attending an interview, it was not until six months later he was offered the job of Head of Competitions. Not bad going for somebody who described his own playing ability as “rubbish“.
Responsible for the administration of national competitions such as the FA Cup, Amateur Cup and the FA Trophy, Kirton impressed in the role and became personal assistant to FA secretary Ted Croker in 1973. After four years, Croker selected him to become the FA’s inaugural press officer. To Kirton, this reflected how the organisation conducted themselves in those days, “reluctant to appoint outsiders and always looked from within“.
The new role involved working alongside various England managers, the incumbent upon his commencement being Ron Greenwood. Kirton’s depiction of Ron Greenwood is warm, describing him as a “true gentleman and somebody who I was initially in awe of. He also had the foresight to integrate successful club managers such as Bobby Robson, Don Howe, Terry Venables and Dave Sexton into the England set-up to work alongside him before his retirement“, an example of the holistic approach the FA now aspires to.
Kirton worked with England’s Under-21 squad as team administrator, accompanying the team abroad before linking-up with the senior squad afterwards. Looking back it was clear to him that youth football is “much more structured now, previously we lacked a complete structure.”
He also praised Gareth Southgate who has “come up through the ranks and is involved with England teams at all age-groups. Some club managers come into international football and miss that day-to-day contact with the players they once enjoyed, they struggle in the months without a game. The England job is as much ambassadorial as coaching and Gareth fits that perfectly.”
I venture the opinion that this was partly why Brian Clough was overlooked for the England manager’s job; Glen agrees. “To me, I never got the impression that Brian was ever close to getting the job – I think he was simply too outspoken for many FA board members.”
Kirton’s warmest words are reserved for Greenwood’s successor Bobby Robson. The two men first met during Robson’s time at Ipswich, introduced to each other at a banquet following the first leg of the 1973 FA Youth Cup Final. Speaking effusively, Glen called Robson a “wonderful, funny and lovely man” and two evidently shared a close relationship, as demonstrated when he admitted that Robson “was somebody you could talk to about anything, he was always supportive.”
As press officer, Kirton witnessed Robson’s often scandalous treatment by sections of the press first-hand and was full of nothing but praise for the way the manager handled them; “Bobby always kept his calm despite all the crap thrown at him by the press. In truth, he got on well with the majority of sports reporters but one or two news reporters seemed set on stirring trouble”, people Kirton described as “rotters“.
The antagonistic relationship between management and press dogged Robson’s reign until the team’s unexpected success at Italia ’90. Working closely with the players and management, Kirton recounted the tournament as a “fantastic experience” and he even got to sit on the bench for all England’s matches.
He was sat alongside Robson when Chris Waddle missed his penalty against West Germany and remembered the manager’s “dignified reaction” to elimination. “Bobby had a close friendship with Franz Beckenbauer and the occasion was marked with respect on both sides.”
He also saw the impact Paul Gascoigne had on the squad, best summarised as “over the top but you couldn’t keep the smile off your face in his presence”. He tells me one Gazza trick that encapsulates the man, where he “tied a coin to the end of a piece of string and placed it in the middle of a crowded room. When somebody bent down to pick it up he would yank the string away, something that gave him hours of amusement.”
It is clear that the Newcastle-born playmaker is remembered with great affection, as evident when Kirton reminisced about the iconic semi-final in Turin and Gascoigne’s tears. “After Paul was booked, it took the combined efforts of Bobby, Gary Lineker and the other players to get his mind back on the match. To be fair, he was excellent in extra time and did everybody proud.”
Having recently watched the excellent Bobby Robson: More Than a Manager documentary, it was evident that a parental relationship existed between Robson and Gascoigne, an assertion Glen supports. “They were both Geordies and definitely had a relationship reminiscent of one between a father and son. Paul was an astonishing character, sometimes difficult to handle but Bobby handled him very well. They were both lovely men.”
While England’s exploits in Italy captured the imagination of people back home, Kirton claims their performances had a wider impact. “There were two things that rescued the reputation of English football; the Taylor Report that implemented all-seater stadiums and the England team’s performance in the 1990 World Cup. Without those two things, we would never have recovered our reputation with UEFA and FIFA and would not have been considered to host major events in this country.”
At this point, we touch upon Hillsborough – the culmination of decades of neglect. Football’s standing in the popular consciousness was so low during the 1980s that the government was poised to introduce the widely-reviled ID Card scheme, which would have seen supporters forced to become paying-members of their club in order to attend matches.
Kirton was in Sheffield on the day of the disaster and accompanied Graham Kelly into the police control box where superintendent David Duckenfield claimed that Liverpool supporters had forced entry onto the Leppings Lane terrace.
He was responsible for working with lawyers to present evidence to the Taylor Inquiry on behalf of the FA. He attended the five trials and inquests over the decades that followed – “a stressful experience, but one that doesn’t bear comparison with what to the families of the bereaved had to go through.”
Following the Ibrox Disaster, the 1975 Safety at Sports Grounds Act was introduced, and the FA and Football League had no responsibility for issuing safety certificates. Kirton says “it was reasonable to assume that under this system Hillsborough and other stadiums were safe. Tragically, we can see with the benefit of hindsight that this was not the case.”
In the aftermath of the disaster, the ID Card scheme was quietly scrapped. According to Kirton, the government were “backed into a corner by the findings of the Taylor Report, which were released the day before The FA and League were due to launch the scheme and were extremely critical of the plan.”
After Margaret Thatcher’s resignation in 1990, her successor John Major was much more friendly towards football and helped to provide useful funding that helped convert stadiums into all-seater arenas.
This would prove beneficial for the hosting of Euro ’96, for which Kirton was chosen as Tournament Director. UEFA awarded England the tournament on the basis that it would be an eight-team competition, but within six months it had expanded to sixteen countries.
As somebody who much prefers attending a party to hosting one, I suggest this must have been an extremely stressful experience but Glen refuted this, saying “the job was a joy rather than a chore, a real labour of love. We had all the stadiums in place, our communications were excellent and I really enjoyed the responsibility.”
For Kirton, it was important to ensure that the stadiums were “spread across the country to allow as many people as possible to attend the matches”. When asked about the low attendances that dogged the tournament for games held outside of London, he replies that “the ticketing distribution system made it compulsory for each competing country to receive 7,000 tickets per game. It was still considered important to enforce segregation, so when tickets went unsold they were not put back out there. Also, there is an argument that the English public did not engage with the tournament straight away and did not see the appeal of some of the lesser games. This was compounded by the fact that international travel was not as sophisticated as it is – or at least was pre-COVID-19″
His advice for people behind any future tournament bid is to “be politically astute. The selection process is always political and I almost feel that England was better regarded thirty years ago than we are now.”
After leaving the FA, Glen secured a sports marketing job in Switzerland organising sponsorship arrangements for France ’98 and other FIFA events. Before his retirement in 2012, he worked at various sporting events including Cricket World Cups and the Asian Games. His final job was managing the Mayor’s media centre during London 2012.
At the interview’s conclusion, I ask the keen Birmingham City fan about the future of football in the post-coronavirus landscape. “It is highly likely that many teams will follow Wigan into administration. The prospect of crowds being allowed back into the grounds in the next three to six months is remote.”
His verdict on his beloved Blues is that “they’ll just about survive. Everybody down the bottom of the Championship is currently winning but we’re used to relegation scraps”. One of his most treasured memories in football remains Birmingham’s unlikely victory over Arsenal in the 2011 League Cup Final, something he or no Blues fan “would swap for remaining in the Premier League.”
What became apparent over the course of the interview was that a remarkable, if modest, man had a remarkable and fascinating career. Kirton was present throughout some of English football’s most iconic moments and worked alongside some of its most loved characters. It is perhaps no wonder that, in his words, events such as Italia ’90 and Euro ’96 remain “fresh in the mind” for him as they do for countless others.