The game has witnessed some of the best football writers over the years; Reg Drury, Brian Woolnough, John Sadler amongst them. A few weeks ago now, I was reading the autobiography of another great football reporter in former Daily Mail-man Bob Cass who along with the other writers I mention sadly is no longer with us.
They had great relationships with the managers of the football clubs they covered which were built on immense trust and a valuation of each other’s football opinion. Be it Clough and John Sadler or Alf Ramsey and Reg Drury, who paid a visit to Reg’s house during the 1966 World Cup with Greavsie on his mind.
They had known each other for 20 years when Sir Alf was playing for Spurs and Reg was covering them. A similar scenario would be quite impossible today. For one thing, a modern national team manager could not afford a similar relationship with a member of the media. He may have his friends in the press but would have a hundred more pressing demands on his time and energy.
There is also the matter of being a ‘celebrity’. In the age of 24-hour rolling news of camera phones and incessant chatting social media, the notion that an England manager might stroll the streets of London unchallenged or unherded just days before a World Cup final at Wembley is quite unthinkable, but 1966 was another era, another world.
Reg was a conscientious reporter, he had acquired a vast amount of football contacts – people who would supply him with endless information. But very few knew of this meeting with Alf until some years later, after Alf had departed the England Job.
Back then a manager could tell his pressman something off the record, safe in the knowledge that it would not go any further and something he may want him to use a few weeks down the line.
The local reporter also had unique access, like Robin Wray for The Yorkshire Post, who was allowed to travel on the team coach to away games. They would accompany the squad on mid and end-of-season breaks and be as much part of the drinking as the players and staff.
Ron Atkinson whilst in charge of West Brom asked his press guy, Ian Johnson, why he hadn’t been to the ground during a press strike and invited him down to see him and gave him £20 to help him and his family; a lot of money in them days. Football has changed and some degree has lost its soul.
Sir Alex Fergusson had a great relationship with Bob Cass – a true gentleman who still had the core values that made our game so great. Following the media frenzy that circulated Jack Grealish and his unavailability a few weeks ago being leaked leads to the old fashioned values of confidentiality – an important facet of our game – something which Ferguson placed massive importance on.
Whilst he liked to think he was quite open and willing to share his experiences, there were somethings he was very careful about in an intensely competitive pursuit, maintaining secrecy and confidentiality was a potent weapon. There is nothing to be gained by telegraphing your moves or declaring your intentions to competitors.
He would always have a cloak of secrecy over anything considered important; the amount of money they had for new signings, the players we fancied, the injuries in the starting eleven. The mantra was, ‘Tell them nothing,’ this mantra is a common one.
So you can see Aston Villa Manager Dean Smith had cause to be angry. Having said after the 2-1 defeat to Leicester City, “I’ve been made aware that on social media there were some rumours that he wasn’t going to play. If it is coming out of the training ground, then I find out where it’s coming from and reprimand where it is coming from.”
The inner circle of confidants is really quite small. Its dog eat dog in the world of professional football.
Joe Mercer once rang a fellow manager to congratulate him on getting a job and told him something along the lines of, “From now on, don’t trust anyone and when you put the phone down, don’t trust me either.”
Perhaps it’s very difficult to have more than a few close friends because these sort of relationships build over a long time, honoured tradition along with shared experiences.
After Archie Knox headed back to Scotland – Fergie’s trusted lieutenant at Aberdeen and Manchester United – he gradually developed close relationships with Carlos Queiroz and Mike Phelan. But whilst he trusted the implicitly, it never was as close to Carlos and Mike as he was to Archie. But then again, Archie and Ferguson had spent hundreds of hours together when they were earning their stripes, and that forms a different, deeper sort of bond.
Among fellow managers, he was close to John Lyall, and to Bobby Robson who he admired so much he put his spat with the BBC aside to present him with the Lifetime Achievement Award, and Sam Allardyce. His father always said you only need six people to carry your coffin. Someone once said to me, there are no friends in football. Acquaintances yes, but friends no. I have got older and l have become ever more appreciative of his father’s remark.
Stealth and secrecy are valuable attributes for any organisation.