Prose and Conns: Manchester City - The Writer's Paradise.

By Simon Curtis | 30 July 2020
Simon examines how football writers cover Manchester City, especially in light of recent events.

The English football press has developed a vigorous reputation for partisanship, wheedling bad-feeling pieces and carefully made-up jiggery pokery. This, in some areas, is undeserved, while in others it could not be more merited if it sat beneath a neon arrow above the words True Bias Lives Here. We live in times of stolid one-eyed takes, where the growling masses on Twitter ridicule each other with various hot slants on stuff that was barely luke-warm when it first started out as a sub-topic in the minds of sub editors eating penne rigate with their hands in Sky Sports News’ canteen.

Football writers have gradually gained a platform in modern society that promotes some to a kind of superstar status. Gods of pods and glitterati of the chatter scene, they bestride the football world with their gleaming laptops and their footballer partings. They carry opinions and ideas that are too heavy for the rest of us to contemplate shouldering. We just wouldn’t understand.

Now that the sturdy 93-page CAS explanatory document has landed, it took some less than an hour to decipher the dense legalese and make up their minds that City had once again fixed everything. These guys would only have to study the speed dials of a submarine for ten minutes and they could drive the thing. They probably even know what those odd buttons at the bottom of the tv remote do too.

Like any genre, there can be times when one begins to run out of things to say, but in football writing those moments are few and far between. More’s the pity. These doyens of the written word are not paid to say nothing, however pleasant the thought might be to some of the more uncharitable among us. There must always be a story and where there seems to be none, one must keep digging, keep thinking, keep tapping the old keys. It’s what Der Spiegel calls investigative journalism.

When the full version of the CAS exoneration of Manchester City came out yesterday, what we might call the usual suspects got into such a lather, some have yet to be rescued from behind the great wall of soap suds they had unwittingly created. Within a matter of seconds some were cleaner than they had been for decades.

Screen shots of the morsels that furthered their original screams in the dark were hastily gathered from the 93 pages that, in brief summary, stated quite clearly that the case brought against City was flawed. Case flawed but intrepid journalists not floored. Not yet. And then came the articles. That CAS can say Not Guilty from its high rock of independence doesn’t quite cut it with our flag hoisting crusaders. It is a simple enough task in these Trumpian days of putty-filled newsfeeds to cobble together the quotes you want and discard the others that harm your argument. It is how great swathes of our national press now work. If you’re in Hamburg, you are even happy to base your expose not only on illegally hacked documents, but on just 5 (five) of the millions handed over and, even better, on allegations that predate the regulations (FFP) they are supposed to breach.

Some fabrications are more believable than others, clearly, as are some editors’ pleas. A number of news outlets have been working hard on the besmirching of City’s name for several years now and have become quite good at it as a result. Keep bashing away with your opinions-made-true long enough and they will come to be viewed as accepted wisdom. How many times have you been confronted by Johnny in the street ad-libbing gloriously about cheats, financial doping and bending the rules of association football to serve their own needs. In Twitter’s glorious corridors, you can’t avoid it. The odd one who lifts his head above the parapet to say he thinks City did no wrong is immediately machine gunned by hundreds taking him for some contrarian apologist for murderous Yemeni gunships in the Red Sea.

At the end of the day, it is the editor’s shout. They carry the can. They take the decisions. Print and be damned. Although “Can you rustle up a thousand words on Lionel Messi?” must be the most unwanted text message in the industry, it is surely closely followed by “Need 600 words in praise of Manchester City by tomorrow morning?”.

I could manage the latter in fifteen minutes flat but imagine grappling with the former. Takes all sorts.

Well, this is what the heavyweights do for their cash. And if the topic has already been dealt the every-angle-under-the-sun attention, imagine for a moment those poor souls writing for platforms that seek to go deeper and further with every subject. 6,000 words on why Troy Deeney’s peanut allergy stemmed from a misunderstanding with Kenny Jacket over the Christmas finger buffet in 1999.

There is sometimes a smugness about this position behind the gilded gates. Who wouldn’t begin to feel a little pleased with oneself after churning out the Troy Deeney peanut epic to your editor’s squirming delight? I am reminded of a time some years back when I made a weak attempt to disagree with Barney Ronay of the Guardian. Ronay puts prose together like a man constructing a Roman mosaic. His words create pictures in the mind that make your brain lactate. It is genuinely hot stuff. There may be no open jars in the room, but one can smell honey everywhere. At the speed of a glacier, I had questioned some point that he had busily and loquaciously delivered and his put-down could not have been more effective had it been pasted on the end of a baseball bat being swung close to my nose.

It had been dispatched to make me feel like an industry outsider, which I most surely was and still am. Its blitzkrieg success came in his supposition that I wished to be on the other side of the fence, which I suppose I did. Wanting to be the other side of notices that say “private keep out” is a human frailty that I share with many others, I suspect. We have all stumbled, bottle in hand, into the magenta chord in a nightclub, where a brass pole with an enamel sign on the top announcing “VIP Lounge – Show Accreditation” stops you in your tracks just before you step on the highly polished toes of a tattooed wardrobe in a tuxedo. If the opposite of the come hither look is a go thither one, then that is what I was getting at this point.

But maybe we do those on the other side of the plaited rope a disservice.

To rise to a position of being called to take the train to Watford at funny o’clock to provide copy for the home side’s sterling efforts against Newcastle is not always as glamorous as you might think. Service station beans can contain hazards from carelessly wielded spoons and juggling your parking permits must be unendingly tiresome. Long hours gazing out of windows at middle England’s dank brown fields does little for the soul and the terrible coffee keeps you awake for all the wrong reasons.

A dedication to these routines of railway line rhythms and football club buffets brings you benefits of course. You see your name at the head of an article every couple of days, beneath a headline someone else has touched up to encourage lively debate among readers. You see your hard-found prose in orderly columns, perhaps, if you’re lucky, with a bright image of Jordan Henderson alongside it (even if you happen to be writing about Leyton Orient). If you adhere to this lifestyle for a period of years, you may even eventually be hoisted into a seat labelled Chief Football Writer. This means you can say what you want and the editor prints it. It means that members of the public can still berate you on Twitter, but that their petty claims are null and void. Everything here takes half as long because nobody requires explanations. There are no requests for rewrites, no last-minute scrubbings because of lack of space, no weary pleas for you finally to succumb to the in-house paragraphing and spacing rules.

You are your opinion. As they say in the corridors, you own it.

Those on the lower rungs, feeding off the spilled crumbs under the table where the big legs are stowed, those who blog and those who add their voices to the myriad pages of chatrooms and echo chambers, whistle our own twee tunes, soon to be obliterated by the strong winds of the established pecking order.

It can be debilitating reading the opinion pieces of the heavyweights. Their opinions float and cajole, while ours flounder in the dust of opprobrium. A belly-laugh here, a pointing finger of reproach there, a look of are you serious at every turn. We cannot match them and it is not because of the high platform from where their exalted thoughts flow. It is because they are right. They carry the burden of years in the business, while we have simply sat on our hands wasting time. They have, as the saying goes, seen things we will never see and understood things that we will never understand. This high plinth of learning is not for all of us, however hard we might try to attain it. CAS has spoken and some of us have attempted to read and follow the argument, but in truth, it matters little how we interpret it. It has already been interpreted, you see, by brains working quicker than ours. The portrayal in the press has already been written in cement rather than ink and that particular train is already running along an altogether different track.