The death of the football press conference
The fear is irrational but real. I wake up in a cold sweat and, just like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, feel claustrophobic and isolated.
It was never meant to be like this. You see, I am terrified of the one event that should be my lifeblood: The Football Press Conference.
I am not sure if anybody actually enjoys these conclaves. They are largely tolerated as the necessary evil in a game that is threatening to eat itself. The Football Press Conference exists simply because it has always existed.
It was midway through Tony Mowbray’s post-match press conference at The Hawthorns on Saturday afternoon that the questions started to swirl around my brain.
What would happen if nobody had turned up? Would Mowbray be pleased or disappointed? Would the press officer who arranged it all take it personally? Would the journalists actually miss out on anything? Who are these press conferences for?
The journalists did turn up, of course; we always do. And when Mowbray arrived, he was wearing his press-conference expression. Every manager has one. But Mowbray is the only one who wears his all the time.
He is a serious man – a nice enough bloke, actually – and he has a serious job. He is the manager of West Bromwich Albion.
But promoting himself as a media personality is not part of his remit. The press-conference expression acts like a protective shield. It sends out a message: “Can we get this over with quickly?”
Mowbray had barely been going for 150 seconds, answering legitimate questions with as few words as possible, when he said: “Is that it?” Then he was off, clutching his can of Red Bull energy drink (sugar-free), and into another room to perform his radio interviews.
There had been some amusement that Mowbray used his stock prefix – “I would suggest . . .” – twice in the same sentence and once in the next sentence. Alas, there was nothing memorable about his analysis of Albion’s 2-0 victory against Preston North End. The desired effect was to conceal his real thoughts and, on that level, he succeeded admirably.
But can one blame Mowbray for being so reticent? He is paid to win football matches not to provide soundbytes that can be transformed into good newspaper headlines. He is not even obliged to smile.
I left the press lounge yawning. It happens a lot these days. I do not recall the last time I returned from a press conference with enthusiasm. All I seem to learn is that football managers have become experts at saying nothing while appearing to say everything. It is a wonderful gift.
How did we get here? How did we get to the point when the one thing football misses most is a Dennis Pennis figure of its own?
Ah, yes, Dennis Pennis; the flame-haired spoof journalist of the mid-Nineties; the nemesis of celebrities throughout the world. The man who actually asked Jeffrey Archer, “Is it true you talk out of your arse?” and then placed a microphone within an inch of the very arse in question.
Pennis was always perilously close to every movie premiere and always seemed to have the appropriate accreditation. That was how he was able to ask Demi Moore: “If it wasn’t gratuitous in any way and it was tastefully done, would you consider keeping your clothes on in a movie?” The actress did not see the joke. Her background had never provided her with the accessories to laugh at herself.
The football business is full of self-deprecation and perfect for a spoof like Pennis. And, while he would find the world of The Football Press Conference more difficult to penetrate, he would find the characters easier to satirize.
Ideally, somebody could arrange for Pennis to attend a Martin O’Neill press conference. This really would be the Mother of all Sarcastic Exchanges. O’Neill would win because, in the context of a press conference, he does not take himself too seriously. He has the Woody Allen wit to go with his Woody Allen looks. But O’Neill also has the weary features of someone who has been to one press conference too many.
We all have. But it is like the royal family; no good reason to keep it but no obvious alternative. So the press conference stays.
Who is to blame for the decline of The Football Press Conference?
Well, one cannot blame the managers and players. Nowhere in their contracts does it say that they have to articulate themselves in a manner conducive to good journalism.
One cannot blame the journalists. Britain has the sharpest and most accomplished sports writers in the world. And one cannot blame the press officers because they are doing what they are employed to do: acting as a buffer between the media and the manager and, where appropriate, as a filter.
The real problem is not the concept of The Football Press Conference. It is the lack of novelty. There are too many of the wretched things. And too many press conferences means too few original questions, which means too few original answers.
Too much coverage means greater demands for more coverage. We are feasting on chocolate and on the verge of vomiting.
But that is not the cause of my fear. What scares me is that I find myself inadvertently talking to my girlfriend in my press-conference voice. My life has become a press conference. I can no longer exist outside of it. I am the opposite of Tony Mowbray. Help!
FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE BIRMINGHAM POST NEWSPAPER, AUGUST 2007