Fear and loathing in North London
By Oliver Wilson
The word ‘trust’ is quite often missing from the vocabulary of world football. Whether it’s players, managers, fans or the clubs themselves, many involved in the game invest their faith in those around them or are happy to hope that, in certain situations, a group or individual will take the correct sensible course of action.
On Wednesday evening 8671 supporters meandered there way into Stadium MK for MK Dons’ final pre-season fixture before the opening weekend of the League One season.
Their opponents Tottenham Hotspur - back fresh from a less than helpful trip to South East Asia to compete in the Barclays Asia Cup, that has left them injury ridden and unnecessarily sodden after torrential rain put a dampener on much of the football played – were expected to field a mixture of reserve players and youth prospects, with the majority of the main squad having just returned to normal training in London that day. The Dons, on the other hand, were still expected to field a half strength side, as manager Karl Robinson looked set to add the final touches to his starting line-up before taking on Shrewsbury Town away on Saturday.
To the dismay of those inside the stadium, and the local press, Robinson decided to field a side that mirrored his visitors, scattered with youth and reserve team players, the League One boss opting to rest those he felt would be key for the upcoming league fixture. A match once billed as MK Dons v Tottenham Hotspur XI had become MK Dons reserves v Tottenham reserves leading one local journalist to ask the question, “why wasn’t this played on the training pitch this afternoon?”
The trust between fan and club, however, is not what was implied in the opening line of this article because, although many of those inside the ground on Wednesday night felt a little “ripped off” by both side’s team selection choices, no promise had been made by either club that a strong side would be fielded for the friendly – unlike Aston Villa when they played Newport County one of their pre-season fixtures last Sunday.
It seems in football, however, that there is a lack of trust between players and their clubs, especially when the club is placed in the middle of a difficult situation when dealing with one of its stars.
On Wednesday the national press dowsed Tottenham’s transfer saga fire with another barrel of petrol as they revealed that Gareth Bale had told Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas, in person, that he wanted to leave the North London club for Real Madrid. The on going media storm that surrounds Bale has engulfed the back pages of almost every European newspaper and with the media frenzy reaching boiling point, there was no doubt that the press would want to speak to someone at Tottenham about the move and the effect it was having on the club after the final whistle at Stadium MK.
To the dismay of all those who hoped to get a sound bite or two from one of the players, or stand in managers Tim Sherwood and Chris Ramsey, Tottenham’s press staff informed us that no one from the club would be talking after the game that night for fear of the impending Bale transfer questions that come their way.
What, though, did Tottenham have to fear? Was it likely that Tim Sherwood would step into a press conference and reveal that Bale would definitely be joining Madrid or that Andre Villas-Boas was having sleepless nights worrying about the possibility of a season without Bale and that without the Welshman, Champions League football was an impossibility? Were Tottenham worried that Andros Townsend, who returned this summer from a solid loan spell at Queens Park Rangers last season, would announce that he was the man to take over from Bale and that the club doesn’t need players in it’s dressing room who don’t want to play for it?
These reactions to any question about ‘BaleGate’ are highly exaggerated but also the worst-case scenario that Spurs might have to deal with the next morning should any of their players or coaches have talked to the press. In reality, it is far more likely that any question about Bale or the transfer dealings of the club would be beaten away with a “no comment” or “I have no idea what is going on with that situation.”
The club was buttoning down the hatches and no one was being allowed in.
The fact that there are more stories and angles to Tottenham’s pre-season then one players impending – and seemingly inevitable – move away form the club is meaningless to those who organise the post-match Q&As with the players and staff. I’m sure Spurs fans would like to know how Townsend feels about the arrival of Nacer Chadli, or his thought on the different management styles of AVB and former Spurs boss Harry Redknapp. Some may even wonder who, out of all the youngsters and fringe players on show in the at MK, would have a genuine chance of making a Premier League appearance, or even start, this coming season. Unfortunately for those who want to look a little deeper into a football club - rather than being inundated with speculative comments about one stars journey out of the club - those questions, on Wednesday night at least, went unanswered.
In America, the press are practically thrown into the player’s locker room right at the final whistle, with those inside forced to answer questions and face the music after a victorious win or an embarrassing loss. There is a level of accountability held over the player and a level of trust placed on them to not say anything too untoward or unacceptable to those they’re speaking to. If their tongue does slip slightly, a press officer is usually on hand to help handle the situation or ask after the interview if certain quotes that could easily be misconstrued, are left out of the following day’s match report.
The sad truth is that, despite the rumours of an American style press system coming to the Premier League, teams will always have the ability to go into a Roman Legion style lockdown from the press when they need to conserve the image of a high profile asset at the club or the club itself, and with players far less media savvy than their counterparts in America, the media offices of the teams in the Premier League will never truly trust a player to be left alone and questioned, either in general or on a specific topic, by the UK media.
“I’m afraid that none of the players are being made available for media tonight.”
Just what are they really afraid of?