Thursday, 31 December 2009


This has been an amazing year for the sports media. On the one hand we have seen an astonishing run of compelling stories, and yet on the other it has been achieved against a backdrop of job losses and closures.

The year has been neatly bookmarked by the closure of radio stations - Abbey FM (Barrow) went in January, Central Radio (Preston) in December. In between there has been all manner of downsizing, reorganisation and general cost-cutting, frequently at the expense of journalists' jobs. Experienced staffers have been made redundant or ushered into premature retirement.

Newspapers, radio and TV have all taken a huge hit with the Liverpool Echo and Manchester Evening News both making large numbers redundant. The most spectaular implosion was Setanta UK which collapsed in the summer despite holding a contract to cover Premier League football. Setanta's misfortune was terrible news for sports journalism with both their sports channel and sports news channel disappearing. The company's Irish sports channel survives, albeit with a reduced workforce.

Many commercial radio stations have withdrawn from football commentary because the advertising revenues no longer match the expenditure. This has left the BBC in a strong position, especially in the lower leagues where many clubs are agreeing to let the Beeb mount live commentary for free, reckoning that the exposure and promotion they receive is worth having even if no money changes hands.

A worrying trend for sports journalists is the reduction in freelance fees. My own freelance income has dropped because of the Setanta problem. National and Sunday newspapers have cut back freelance fees to the extent that one of my colleagues, an experienced football writer in the North West, has given up because the pay no longer makes it worthwhile.

The cause of all this is the cataclysmic double-whammy suffered by the media. The digital revolution has made a lot of journalistic content available worldwide free of charge, and simultaneously the global recession has taken a huge chunk out of advertising revenue and general investment.

For young people like the students graduating from our sports journalism course at the University of Central Lancashire the year has been very difficult. Media organisations are more interested in shedding jobs than recruiting. My heart sinks when a reference request arrives for a talented graduate who's been offered a job in a call centre. And yet even in this nightmare landscape our graduates are finding work. One went for a production assistant's post at the broadcasting operation of a big betting company and made such a good impression he was given the job of broadcast manager. Another has landed what he describes as his dream job at a specialist tennis website.

There are jobs out there, but not necessarily in the traditional places.

Meanwhile the opportunities for bright students to make contacts and gain experience have never been better. With no money to splash around, all manner of companies are happy to give work experience. We have students engaged in a terrific variety of exciting projects with football clubs from the Premier League to League Two, rugby union and rugby league clubs and news organisations from the BBC to local papers. I am well aware that this suits a lot of those organisations very well indeed and in an ideal world much of this voluntary work would attract payment, but one thing 2009 has taught us is that the world is very far from ideal.

It will not always be like this. Around the corner we have the BBC's move to Media City in Salford which will create a lot of jobs for sports journalists in the North West. The Olympic Games in 2012 will also require the services of the bright youngsters who are gaining vital experience now. And as the media becomes more savvy at generating income from online activity we can expect to see job opportunities begin to pick up again.

The big thing for sports journalists is that sport itself has never been bigger. Harlequins and the blood capsule, McLaren and the barefaced lies, Renault and the dodgy crash, Manchester City and the managerial regime change - all great stories well reported in 2009, along with reports, debate and opinion about compelling drama on the the pitch, the track, the court and the water.

Saturday, 26 December 2009


As the year draws towards an end, here are i-ontheball's sports media awards for 2009:

Top story: The sports reporting teams of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph for uncovering the full extent of Harlequins 'bloodgate' scandal, a story that was sadly all too symptomatic of the state of fair play in sport 2009.
Best columnist: Brian Reade (Daily Mirror) for his uncanny knack of hitting the nail on the head and making it incredibly entertaining.
Best commentator: John Murray (BBC 5 Live). Paints the picture superbly.
Best presenter: Richard Keys (Sky Sports). Guiding us through another marathon season with good humour and the ability to put pundits on the spot.
Best pundit: Geoffrey Boycott. (BBC 5 Live and Daily Telegraph). He has the authority to speak his mind and uses it.
Digital award: Perform, the company that made the streaming of big-time sport a reality in an exclusive deal to show Ukraine v England.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009


Manchester City have been given a serious panning in today's papers. At a press conference yesterday reporters really went on the offensive over the way the club dispensed with Mark Hughes. It was awkward for new manager Roberto Mancini but not half as awkward as it was for chief executive Gary Cook. Cook was forced onto the back foot by Mancini's admission that he first met City over a fortnight ago, an open goal for the journos.

The Times describes it as the most humiliating experience of Cook's career at City. The Telegraph described events as "a wave of duplicity." The Mail was one more paper ridiculing the mess City have created for themselves.

Mancini may well prove to be a good acquisition. He can certainly be expected to improve City's porous defence. But it will take a little longer for a club which usually enjoys a good press to rebuild the old relationship.

Meanwhile the Daily Mirror's website reports that City have banned newspapers from being delivered to their training ground so that players aren't distracted by negative headlines!

Saturday, 19 December 2009


Unhappy journalists after the Manchester City v Sunderland match today. The word went round the press box during the second half that City were to make a statement about their manager at 7.30pm, from which we instantly deduced that that meant the exit of Mark Hughes. There was also a strong rumour that Roberto Mancini was to be appointed in Hughes's place, strong enough for me to use the Mancini line in my report for Setanta Ireland just after the final whistle blew on City's 4-3 win.

That's the beauty of broadcasting - you can get your information straight out to the consumer. The writers for the Sunday papers were desperate for confirmation that Hughes had gone and Mancini had been appointed, knowing that all the time they were missing deadlines for the early editions of their papers. When a member of City's communications staff appeared in the interview room to state that no-one from the club would be saying anything or answering questions, she received a pretty scathing response from one or two of the Sunday writers.

All she would say was that a statement would appear on the club's website and would be emailed to individual journalists. That was little value to the reporters who had actually turned up in person.

Digital advances of course mean that the papers can publish the news on their own websites as soon as it appears. But the dear old hard copies of the newspapers are dealt another blow. The value of the Sunday paper as a source of "new" news is diminishing all the time - we can get much of the news quicker elsewhere. The papers' value is their ability to analyse, discuss and develop stories, but those early editions of tomorrow's papers will be hamstrung because their knowledge of the situation at City will be wildly out of date.

Meanwhile, for many journos, this late-breaking story meant a cold and dark vigil, waiting for news and interviews. Ian Cheeseman of BBC Radio Manchester remained at his commmentary point till 7.30pm, anchoring an extended phone-in while Alan Myers and his crew from Sky Sports News had the short straw, waiting in the chilly rain outside the main entrance to pick up what titbits they could.

Many City fans were dubious about the timing of Hughes' sacking. For different reasons, so were the journalists.

Picture: Cold comfort for Sparky: City of Manchester Stadium this evening.


Journalists are making a bit of a nuisance of themselves at the moment.

Southampton FC have banned their local paper the Southern Daily Echo from attending matches after the paper refused to hold back a report on the club's plans to redevelop their training ground. The plans were already open to public scrutiny on the council website and details had been published elsewhere so it's hard to figure out where Southampton were coming from. Apart from wanting to micro-manage the news as it affects themselves.

Down the coast Portsmouth have banned a reporter because they didn't like one of his match reports. Leeds Utd's ban on the Guardian has previously been noted in this blog. So much for the compliant press which English football is often accused of nurturing.

Even the snappers are ruffling feathers. Oliver McVeigh of the Irish agency Sportsfile has been dragged into the row betwen rugby union giants Ulster and Stade Francais. McVeigh is accused by Stade Francais of doctoring a shot of a French player gouging the eye of one of the Ulster forwards to make the incident look worse than it was. McVeigh vehemently denies the accusation. One to keep an "eye" on.

Saturday, 12 December 2009


Great news is that Setanta Ireland have signed a new three-year contract to keep showing Premier League matches on Saturday afternoons for another three years.

Good news for me personally because I've been freelancing for the company for a few years now. It's also superb for all the team working on the football show in Dublin. There were more than few wobbles when Setanta UK folded in the summer. Jobs were lost in the Irish operation but the company stayed afloat and now they can plan long-term with confidence.


I'm not liking the situation at Liverpool FC. When the serving manager attacks one of the club's iconic players it is a bad sign.
Yesterday Rafa Benitez derided Graeme Souness's record as a manager and also had a dig at Jurgen Klinsmann after the two of them criticised Liverpool's performance when losing at home to Fiorentina in midweek.
I watched the analysis delivered by Souness and Klinsmann on Sky and it was compulsive viewing. They could hardly believe the spineless performance Liverpool had delivered and they called it how they saw it. Having seen an equally feeble display by Liverpool at Blackburn a few days earleir, I couldn't disagree with them.
It was certainly extreme for Graeme to describe LFC as being "in meltdown" but let's be honest, the garden is hardly rosy. I've been a huge supporter of Rafa but right now there are too many question marks at the club. On the field no-one can be happy with team selection, transfer policy, and defensive strategy, while off the field there are even more concerns about the club's finances and the new stadium project. It might not be meltdown but it is certainly crumbling round the edges.
I'm reminded of an episode towards the end of Gerard Houllier's reign when he rounded on former LFC legend Alan Kennedy after Alan had voiced criticisms on the radio. Houllier banned Alan from entering the guest lounges at Anfield where he'd been employed to entertain sponsors and guests. This for a man who had twice scored goals that won Liverpool the European Cup.
Not long after that Houllier got the guillotine.
Rafa must be careful. Souness was a magnificent manager for Rangers and did a very good job at Blackburn. He won more for Liverpool than Rafa has. And it certainly isn't the Liverpool way for this kind of falling out to erupt between men who've each earned the respect of a very demanding group of supporters.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


Relations between the media and top sports stars are often undermined by a perception by the stars that we need them more than they need us. When push comes to shove, or more pertinently when Tiger hits a hydrant, this fallacy is exposed.

Data gathered by an American agency Nielsen reveals that Tiger Woods has all but disappeared from advertising on US TV screens. The last primetime advert featuring Tiger was a 30-sec commercial for Gillette on November 30th. This is quite a shutdown considering that 15 different companies including Tag Heuer watches, Gatorade and Nike had been using Tiger in regular TV commercials since June.

Sunday, 6 December 2009


If you believe in patterns and portents, the World Cup draw produced something to mull over.

In Group A we find Mexico, France and Uruguay. Back in 1966 the same three nations were also drawn together in the opening phase. They were accompanied by the host nation, England. In 2010 they will be accompanied by....the host nation, South Africa.

Time to lump on Steven Pienaar and co!

Saturday, 5 December 2009


The first half of Blackburn v Liverpool was one of the most dismal sporting spectacles I have seen for a very long time. I can never remember making so few notes. Liverpool were dull, disjointed, and so lacking in passion it is hard to believe they belong to the same tribe as Bill Shankly, who took over at Anfield 50 years ago this week.
One moment summed it up. Yossi Benayoun received the ball in his own penalty area as Liverpool defended a corner and he was the most advanced Liverpool player on the pitch. There was no outlet for him to move the ball on to. Every single Liverpool player was in his own 18-yard box. As for Blackburn, they put in plenty of effort but had no bite to their attacks. The only good thing I could say in my half-time report was that at least the lack of excitement meant Sam Allardyce's surgeon didn't have to worry!
Second half was a bit better but the teams had obviously made a pact not to score. Ngog missed a sitter for Liverpool and Rovers went all weak at the knees as soon as they got within 20 yards of Liverpool's goal.
Afterwards Sam told the media that Rovers had played very well and he was delighted. I can understand what he meant. Rovers did defend well and neutralised a team who are above them in the table. Rafa said that Aquilani will play against Fiorentina next week and Torres could be on the bench. They were missed today. One reporter was quite forceful in questioning Rafa about Aquilani's fitness. Had he gone backwards over the last few weeks? Was his original injury still a problem? How could he get match fit if he didn't play matches? Rafa's answers, summed up, were no, no, and we have to choose carefully which matches he plays in.
Another reporter didn't have much luck. He asked each manager what he thought of England's World Cup chances and who would win? Both managers gave him the brush-off (a lot more politely that Fergie would). "Under instructions from my editor," he explained apologetically.
Ewood Park seemed a long way from the World Cup finals this afternoon.

Pic: Jack Walker Stand, Ewood Park


Memorable moment on 5 Live today. Kit Symons, ex pro footballer and now pundit, previewing Portsmouth v Burnley: "This isn't a must-win game. It's game they must win."

Friday, 4 December 2009


The Football Conference have allowed Chester City to stay in the Blue Square Premiership after the club produced a cheque for £36,600 yesterday in payment of football debts. But the next hurdle for City's embattled rulers may not be long in appearing.

The Football Association have replied to my letter of November 22nd (see blog entry for that date). It is interesting stuff.

The FA point out that the definition of "director" as it applies to implementation of the Fit and Proper Persons regulations is much wider than the usual definition. The FA's definition of the role is not simply a person who is a member of a company's board. A director in their terms is (among a range of definitions) "a person exercising direct or indirect control over a corporate director of the Club."

It is hard to see how Stephen Vaughan can claim he is not in that position in respect of his son, Stephen junior, to whom Vaughan senior apparently gifted his 100% ownership.

By any reasonable interpretation therefore, Stephen senior is still a director of the football club.

That places him in clear contravention of the FA's regulations pursuant to Rule J1(F) of the association.

And when that happens, the FA will, according to Paragraph 4 of the Fit and Proper Persons Test for Clubs Competing in the Football Conference Ltd, issue a written notice requesting the Conference to suspend a club's membership.

I suspect the FA was waiting to see what action the Conference would take yesterday. Surviving one threat simply puts Vaughan (senior or junior, take your pick)in line for the next.

The fact that the helpful gentleman from the FA pointed me in the direction of the key sections of the regulations suggests that the authorities at Wembley Stadium are only too well aware of what is going on.