Good sports writers in Britain have traditionally been reluctant to write for tabloid newspapers. Three years ago Brian Glanville, a long-standing admirer of American and Continental European quality sports journalism for the masses, took his soccer column from the broadsheet Sunday Times to the tabloid Peopleby Brian Glanville / October 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
British sports journalism is still looking for an idiom; still waiting for its Red Smith, its Damon Runyon, its AJ Liebling, let alone its Ring Lardner; still waiting for the columnist who can be read by intellectuals without shame and by working men without labour. Meanwhile it is afflicted by dichotomy: a split between mandarin indulgence and stylised stridency, this in itself a valid reflection of the class structure.”
I wrote those words almost 30 years ago in an article called “Looking For An Idiom” for Encounter magazine. The piece was an attempt to analyse the dichotomy in British sports journalism between the quality and the tabloid press. It described the obstacles faced by writers on both types of newspaper. The tabloid journalist was forced into stylised self-betrayal. He was condemned to clich? and jargon, and could not express himself freely. Still, at least covering mass sports ensured that he reached the masses who followed them. By contrast, the quality journalist was free to write largely as he pleased, though unable to reach a wide audience.
I compared this unhappy situation with that in the United States, where a language had long since been found which embraced all levels of the sporting public: “What is wholly lacking is an idiom which will throw a bridge across the two cultures, avoiding, on the one hand, bathos, which is the nemesis of ‘good’ sports writing, and on the other stylised vulgarity, the nemesis of the popular school. The American sports writer, though now in a barren period, a period of pygmies, has never had this problem, precisely because, in a more fluid society, the idiom lay close at hand.”
In retrospect, I am not quite sure why I limited the comparison to the US and didn’t include countries like Italy and France. Good sports journalism had long been flourishing there and I had been closely acquainted with it for many years. Indeed, in 1949, when I was 17 years old, I began writing for the Roman daily sports paper, the Corriere Dello Sport; and still do. In France, the sports paper L’Equipe and its companion, France Football, were and continue to be a rich source of comparison for the sports journalist.
thirty years on, have we found a sports idiom for everyone, like the United States and the Europeans, or are we still stuck with the two cultures? Notwithstanding the new wave of football writing, Nick Hornby et al., not much has changed-primarily because our class polarities have themselves largely remained in place.
We are forever being told that the working class is disappearing, the middle class steadily expanding, and that an underclass is being left at the bottom. But the success of a paper such as the Sun, and the change in the profile of its rival, the Daily Mirror, are evidence of a group identifiably working class and identifiably none too literate. Forecasts that print would become a marginal, obsolescent, medium have not been borne out, but there is no doubt that television has come to dominate the media, and that it has elevated the visual over the written and the read, especially among the poorer, less literate, sections of British society.
Perhaps the box’s dominance in the US is linked with the falling off of American sports journalism, too. Its giants have gone and they have not been replaced. American newspapers carry sports columns in superabundance, but they are seldom as idiosyncratic as those written by Ring and John Lardner, Red Smith, or AJ Liebling in his New Yorker days.
Nevertheless, unlike in Britain, American and most European newspapers regard sports writing as an honourable profession. Runyon and Lardner became well-regarded writers of fiction. Liebling could and did write on anything imaginable. James “Scotty” Reston was a sportswriter long before he became a famous commentator on international affairs.
But there was another side. In his envoi, “Farewell to Sport,” Paul Gallico gave his reasons for abandoning sports writing. He was reporting on an important boxing match in New York when another sportswriter entered the press box and made a great display of taking off his hat and coat and laying them on his desk, before almost ritually opening up his typewriter. Then a voice rang out from the bleachers: “Siddown! You’re only a sportswriter!”
Such a reproach could scarcely be imagined in Italy where, for many years now, sportswriters have been the heroes and sometimes the Saint Sebastians of their profession, avidly followed and royally rewarded. There, and in most Latin countries, most sports journalists have university degrees. It would be unthinkable for a senior Italian newspaper executive to suggest, as one of his counterparts in England suggested, that “Sport is the arsehole of Fleet Street.”
Thus to compare the sports pages of an English tabloid newspaper with those of, say, the Corriere Dello Sport or its Milanese rival the Gazzetta Della Sport, is to undergo some culture shock. Here is the Daily Mirror: “Ruud Gullit spent two years as a dreadlock star in the making lying back and thinking of England. Every night he’d picture himself whooping it up on our pitches and after in the reggae bars of London. But… it was wearing the red of Arsenal that became the biggest ambition for the Rolls Royce of Rastafarians.”
Now look at this, from the Corriere Dello Sport: “But to the great teams, the imprint of genius has always been indispensable. Look at Milan, so perfect and calibrated in all its mechanisms, but unexpectedly vulnerable without the sublime whims of Savicevic. Baggio can’t be measured just by his goals… he is the lethal weapon against desperate situations, days that go wrong, games which are bewitched.”
In other words, Italian readers were and are treated as literate, while the English tabloids have seldom ceased to treat their readers as morons.
This attitude has been reinforced by the sad fact that when a really gifted sportswriter has emerged from the working classes, he has not been willing to waste his talents on the popular press. Neville Cardus, the supreme cricket writer, was (as he admitted in his autobiography) chance born in a Manchester slum. Hugh McIlvanney is the son of a Kilmarnock coal miner. John Arlott was a country boy from Hampshire, formerly a policeman. It was as though such talented figures, having acquired a patrician style through their own endeavours, were not going to waste it on the popular prints, however well rewarded they might be thereby. Consider Arlott’s beguiling account of his love for Reading Football Club: “Bacon was a tall man from Derby County, with a shaving brush tuft of hair growing out from a shallow forehead above a mighty jaw. His chest was like a drum, his thighs hugely tapering, and he had two shooting feet which he threw at footballs as if with intent to burst them.”
The reluctance of gifted writers such as McIlvanney, Arlott and Cardus to work for the tabloids has inevitably meant that such papers have been starved of talent. Whatever its increasing rewards, the English equivalents of the university men who so eagerly take to journalism in Italy and France have been reluctant to commit themselves to the demands of the tabloid press.
On the other hand, some journalists have left the tabloids to write impressively for the quality press. In the 1960s, Brian James went from the Daily Mail to become a football commentator on the Sunday Times. The same path from tabloid to quality was followed by Rob Hughes (Times), Joe Lovejoy (Sunday Times) and Colin Malam (Sunday Telegraph).
In 1992, after 33 years as football correspondent and sometime sports columnist on the Sunday Times, I moved the other way to become a sports columnist on the Sunday tabloid the People. The move gave me the chance to try to prove what I had always preached: that sports writing should be an indivisible whole and that popular papers need not patronise readers. It is hard to believe that the fans at Highbury, Villa Park or Old Trafford are less intelligent than those who watch on the south bank of the Olympic Stadium at Rome. Roman fans can be as rough and aggressive as English ones; yet they read the flights of fancy of the Corriere Dello Sport with as much satisfaction as any Roman businessman or film director.
To write for a paper like the People means that concessions have to be made. For one thing, literary allusions aren’t encouraged. But with a competent desk of sub-editors and an encouraging sports editor, there is no reason or pressure to “write down.” Saturday reports present the problem of “editionalising,”and an addiction to printing quotes from managers and players, (which feature far less in the qualities). In the sports dailies of Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and South America, more space allows the ideal situation of having a match report alongside a quotes piece on a page.
So has popular British sports journalism deteriorated or improved these past 30 years? It’s hard to say. Part of the sportswriter’s problem has been the growing eagerness of the tabloids for scandalous stories about footballers. Since the iniquitous maximum wage was abolished in 1961, soccer players’ exponentially increasing earnings have turned them into showbiz figures.
However, as often as not such lurid revelations are made not by the sports writers themselves but by those working on the news pages. Sports writers traditionally keep infinitely more secrets than they disclose about sports stars’ private lives. But the tendency to tar all journalists with the same brush is sometimes irresistible. It was never so plain as during the Italian World Cup of 1990, when Bobby Robson and his England players would scarcely give the football press the time of day-although the “revelations” which had upset them had been made by news journalists, known by the football writers as the “rotters.”
making up stories is nothing new, of course. Indeed, in the days before wall-to-wall television it was rather easier. Consider the career of Desmond Hackett of the Daily Express, whose name was made at the so-called Battle of Berne during the Swiss World Cup of 1954. At the end of a torrid match between Hungary and Brazil, bravely refereed by the Yorkshireman Arthur Ellis, Hackett peered hawkishly out from the edge of the press box, picked up his telephone, and dictated: “The World Cup quarter final was a riot. My jacket is ripped, my shirt torn, and I am minus a tie. But I do mean a riot… I tried to cross the field and ended up being thrown over a fence by two policemen. Considering the riot going on about me I was glad to be out of it. But I was able to help Mrs Ellis, the wife of the Halifax referee, and her two frightened young sons through a side entrance into her husband’s dressing room.” When FIFA, the international football association, investigated the incident, it established nothing concrete. But the Daily Express rewarded Hackett with a new suit and a ?50 bonus. And so-frivolous, jocular, happily amoral-he continued to flourish for many years to come.
Continental journalists were far from being moral paragons either. They may not have made up stories, but they notoriously failed to distance themselves from the soccer authorities. It is ironic that a footnote to my original piece paid tribute to the Italian journalist Gianni Brera for writing as a “whole man, whose subject happens to be sport.” Nearly a decade later, he surprised and disappointed me with his craven behaviour over the Lobo-Solti scandal.
This involved a failed attempt by the notorious Hungarian fixer Dezso Solti to bribe Francisco Marques Lobo-the referee of the 1973 European Cup semi-final between Derby County and Juventus of Turin. Lobo not only refused a bribe to aid Juventus, but reported the attempt to his Portuguese refereeing association. But the European ruling body, UEFA, swept the dirt under the carpet by means of a farcical sub-committee meeting in Zurich.
It was only in the following year that I found out about the scandal-from sources of mine in Budapest. Keith Botsford and I began a long investigation for the Sunday Times, in which it was authoritatively established that a handful of rich Italian clubs had been bribing (or trying to bribe) European tournament referees for years.
Since Brera was regarded as the very prince of Italian sports journalism-a stocky, outspoken and polemical little Lombard-I expected him to be incensed; and to back me to the hilt. Instead he made an insulting reference to me in a weekly magazine he thought I wouldn’t see. But I did see it, and bitter words flew between us.
As far as I was concerned, Brera had shamefully betrayed his trust and connived at corruption he must have long known existed. We were never reconciled. When he died, in a motor accident, he was still a much revered figure in Italian sports journalism. I should point out that its practitioners have improved in the past 20 years-they are now far more ready than before to denounce chicanery on the part of the great clubs.
coming back to the present, what of Britain’s new football literati? Actually, they are not new at all. As early as 1956 the Observer frequently employed intellectual heavyweights who were delighted to write football reports; alas, they usually did so very badly. They included Professor AJ Ayer, famed then not only as a logical positivist but as a Spurs fan and a friend of the team captain, Danny Blanchflower; John Sparrow, the Warden of All Souls and an expert on buggery in the writings of DH Lawrence; John Jones, author of a study of Wordsworth: all these writers were used by the Observer’s then sports editor, Michael Davie. All emerged as dilettantes. Nor were things any better at the Sunday Times, where an academic called John Sellars was appointed football correspondent after he chanced to meet the paper’s editor, Henry Hodson, on a train from Oxford to London.
But David Sylvester, the art critic, who reported for the Observer (and recently won the Venice Biennale Prize) was in a rather different category. His passion for football and cricket was long standing, and he knew what he was writing about.
The invasion of the literati in the 1950s was of comparatively short duration. Quite soon the broadsheet “heavies” saw that soccer should be treated as seriously as cricket or rugby. I was a beneficiary of that, no longer to be told that I would not be wanted that week because a friend of the sports editor would be reporting. (An Oxford friend, of course.)
In the 1990s, a group of writers has emerged which has “discovered” football and written about it with varying success. Among them is Nick Hornby, whose lavishly praised best-selling memoir of an Arsenal fan, Fever Pitch, has caught the zeitgeist to perfection. I think it’s as valid to write about soccer from the outside as from the inside, and Hornby’s love of the game is manifestly genuine. However, the idea that Hornby and a core of rather less well-informed intellectuals take the game away from its natural constituency is ludicrous to anyone familiar with football commentary abroad.
Twenty years ago, La Stampa, the celebrated Turin paper, appointed as its chief football correspondent Giovannia Arpino, who covered the World Cup of 1974 in West Germany. Arpino was not a sports journalist; indeed, he was not a journalist at all: he was a novelist. Instances could be multiplied. French, Italian and South American intellectuals who write about the game, among them the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, are usually well informed and have something to contribute.
Such work stands in sharp contrast to the interventions of the poet and critic Ian Hamilton, who wrote two books about Paul Gascoigne’s experiences in Rome. His largely second-hand accounts were thrown into relief by the scabrous memoir, by Jane Nottage, Gascoigne’s former amanuensis, published about the same time.
Elsewhere, fanzines are a sporadically interesting sub-genre, giving a welcome voice to supporters. The best of them, such as Scotland’s the Absolute Game and Arsenal’s One-Nil Down, Two-Nil Up, are refreshingly abrasive. At their worst the fanzines seem to be written by “wannabe” football journalists who have not yet cut the mustard and most probably never will.
So will an idiom ever be found? As a sports journalist who is trying and hoping to find it, I must be optimistic. The public, I am sure, would be much more receptive to good writing than tabloid sports editors believe. But the battle will be a long one-where it is fought at all.