Chris Lepkowski has been on both sides of the fence. He’s been a football reporter and looked after comms at a Premier League football team. Many have remarked on the breath of fresh air the England team have been at Euro 2020. How has that emerged? A change of landscape and a change of strategy. Here’s how.
The beer cans have been swept away, the bunting has been removed, the St George’s flags have been packed away. Save those for another day, another tournament, maybe even another final.
While the media wade through the mess left behind by a section of – and let’s not beat around the bush here – drugged-up, beer-fuelled monumental dickheads masquerading as football fans, you would be forgiven for thinking Euro 2020 was another tournament for inquests and pointing fingers.
On some levels it will be. And so it should.
But amid the chaos of Sunday, we shouldn’t overlook that the legacy of Euro 2020 and this group of England players. Twenty six young men, led by a manager of class and dignity.
The calm leader
Gareth Southgate is that uncle who will happily drop to his hands and knees to play with his three-year-old nephew or niece, without so much as a quibble. Invite him for dinner, and he’ll be the first one to roll up his sleeves and wade in to wash the dishes afterwards. I interviewed him a couple of times some years ago. He came across as a thoughtful, calm man…and crucially he knew that this young journalist, as I was then, needed to come away with a ‘line’ – a story my editors would deem worthy to use in the next day’s newspaper. He obliged on both occasions.
I’m not going to offer an opinion on England’s on-the-field performance – that’s for another conversation. Let’s, instead, look at what this team has brought to a nation.
The fraught past
To get where we are now, it’s important we understand the journey of an England manager against the media backdrop.
Since the 1970s it has been a relationship fraught with problems. Don Revie’s shock departure in 1977 was to stoke up the first circulation war of such, when he gave the Daily Mail’s Jeff Powell the exclusive that he was quitting the England role to take up a role with the United Arab Emirates. By doing so the world and his dog knew Revie was leaving England before his resignation letter had even been delivered to FA headquarters. In choosing the Daily Mail, Revie was also deemed to have flicked two fingers to other Fleet Street pretenders. It didn’t end well for him, with the Fourth Estate (bar the Mail, obviously) going straight for his throat.
A decade later, Bobby Robson was told ‘In the Name of Allah, Go’ following a draw with Saudi Arabia just a few weeks before Italia 90. By now, the circulation wars were in full swing, with Kelvin McKenzie’s bombastic editorship of The Sun attempting to claim readers from Maxwell’s Daily Mirror. In doing so, football managers, politicians, musicians, actors, celebrities were fair game for a sting. The more dramatic the headlines, the better. And didn’t Graham Taylor know it. Robson’s successor found himself depicted as a turnip following a defeat to Sweden during Euro 92 (Swede…Turnip, get it?) as sub-editors found novel ways to add graphics to sub-editing software. Taylor, we must add, knew what the media was about. His father had been a football journalist, so he knew the game. Even that wasn’t enough to spare him considerable barracking from the media.
Fleet Street on the warpath
Fast forward through the 2000s and we saw a succession of stories threatening to derail England bosses – notably Sven-Goran Eriksson’s eye for the ladies, and a sting by the ‘Fake Sheikh’, as reported by the News Of The World. We had reports of alleged affairs, we read tales of club allegiances creating factions in squads during major tournaments. We even had an England captain banned by the FA for alleged (and unproven) racism. The so-called Golden Generation might have won a trophy or two had they invested as much time to winning football matches as they did in squabbling. Team England came across as a fairly unpleasant bunch.
In 2016, Sam Allardyce talked himself out of the England job when he spoke to Daily Telegraph investigators about how to bypass FA third party ownership rules. Yet that was reckless drop of the ball on his part, rather than a frenzied media campaign.
The press occupies a different province these days. The circulation wars are long gone, with a greater priority shifting towards digital and social delivery. The US-owned media group The Athletic revolutionised the way football was reported two years ago by effectively cherry-picking writers from the nation’s broadsheet and local newspapers. Football reporting these days is less about the soundbite and tub-thumping, more about heatmaps, data and analysis. Sure, you still get ridiculous rabble-rousing headlines on the front – but read the football writers on the back and you’ll find articulate discussion about whether Southgate should go with a back three or opt for back four.
Crucially, the Leveson Inquiry into media practice changed how stories are reported and delivered. The closure of the News Of The World also removed one of the most strident players from the tabloid market. I hazard a guess you’ll struggle to remember the last kiss-and-tell story. They’re literally old news these days.
Arriving at better comms
And so we return to Southgate. How did we reach a point where the England manager and his players were so bloody nice?
Much of it can be put down to mentality. Most elite players will come through the controlled environs of the club academy system – mainly developed as a result of English football’s investment into the Elite Player Performance Plan, a youth system initiated by the Premier League in 2012. Not only are youngsters developing in the very best environment, mentored by elite coaches, but there are high behavioural expectations. They are schooled not only how to kick a ball straight, but how to carry themselves. Clubs offer media training to ensure these youngsters are honed to speak to the media, be it in the white heat of a ‘flash interview’ immediately after a major football final, or in a 40-minute sit-down chat with the local press.
As for Southgate, he consciously wanted to make England more approachable. And the FA got their recruitment spot on. In recent years, they have brought in Communications experts who have worked for media organisations and football clubs. There has been a shift towards changing the relationship between Team England and reporters. Crucially, because of their past working experiences, these practitioners appreciated the demands and wants of journalists. (I know Senior Communications Manager Andy Walker personally – he is a top class operator, who is a huge asset to his employers).
Players are conditioned to deliver interviews, ensuring media are flooded with content – so there can be no complaints about access. Even the language and tone of messaging has been changed. Players no longer ‘face the media’ as they did in the past, immediately removing the notion that England are doing the press a favour by putting up players for interview.
There is now a culture of journalists being asked ‘what do you need?’ aware that putting up a couple of players for interviews removes the pressure for media organisations to dig elsewhere for stories. It’s common sense.
During Euro 2020, players and journalists went head-to-head in a darts league – again, another push towards improving media-footballer relations. These small things don’t appear much, but they add to the trust. Compare this to Italia 90, where a group of senior England players were filmed setting fire to a tabloid newspaper, such was their repulsion at the treatment of manager Bobby Robson. None of that these days.
Also, there is a difference in dynamic between reporting club football and the national team. Premier League footballers are the property of the club – they are huge assets. Clubs are obligated to deliver players and managers to interviews with broadcast partners. These rights holders are effectively the media who pay into the sport. These include Sky, BT, beIN, Canal +, etc. Clubs have no choice but to hold their nose and appease these broadcasters. The ‘written’ media, however, are not generally rights-holders so, while they are able to access press conferences, they will sometimes go months without a sit-down interview with a players. Some clubs are worse than others on this front. Rightly or wrongly, many Premier League clubs see little value in putting up players for interviews with traditional ‘written’ journalists.
At national level, this isn’t the case. The FA have identified there is a sense of public duty for players to speak to a bigger audience. When a player is interviewed by BBC, or talkSPORT, or the Daily Mirror, he is speaking to the country. Quite often those same reporters will have been told by club staff that, say, Jack Grealish or Bukayo Saka are unavailable for interviews. Yet, here they are with England, finding all players are fair game to be interviewed. Again, those privileges are reflected by a softer, warmer level of reporting.
More so, Team England has become the perfect antidote to an increasingly divided country. Gareth Southgate went to great lengths to explain the pre-game genuflect was a gesture against racism – not some Marxist claptrap dreamt up by deluded hard-of-thinking antagonists. By doing this Southgate effectively handed over ownership to the people. Your pick: choose decency, or choose intolerance. But you own it.
This is a group of individuals that has taken on the Government and offered greater opposition than those charged with that particular role. They have pursued empathy and inclusivity, promoting racial equality. This is a team to serve a demographic that has felt increasingly marginalised in the post-Brexit shit-storm of social decay, racial division and national tabloidisation. England’s class of 2021 has given us hope that this country isn’t as bad as we thought it was.
There is a place for decency and tolerance, after all.
Just don’t mention the penalties…
Chris Lepkowski is a sports journalism lecturer at Birmingham City University.