ONCE upon a time it was all so simple for those tasked with covering and commenting on The Beautiful Game, writes GARETH ROBERTS.
A reporter was in place at a football match to do just that: report. And by and large, their word was taken as read with little opportunity for fans to offer any feedback.
Now? Well, as Rio Ferdinand and Richard Keys recently discovered following ill-advised comments about Newcastle United, supporters expect a little bit more. And they’re not shy of trying to right the wrongs if they feel the club, the manager, or the players they love are being unfairly disparaged.
In an age when football is at our fingertips 24-7 and every fact can be checked in an instant, hoards of fans country-wide knew that Newcastle recouped over £80million in transfer fees the season they were relegated and it was Rafa Benitez who approached the club about the manager’s job.
As the replies highlighted, it left Ferdinand and Keys looking a little bit silly to say the least.
It wasn’t always this way simply because of the logistics of life then versus now.
For fans of a certain vintage these concepts may seem alien but wind back only a few decades and newspapers and radio reports were the primary source of information for following your favourite football team.
Flick through the pages of pre-internet football reports and you will experience great swathes of the prose presented devoted to the minutiae of the game – who passed to who, who struck the ball goalwards, with what foot and when.
Reports were a matter of record. If you hadn’t seen the game live – either at the ground or on TV – then it was information you were likely desperate to consume. And back in the day, plenty, the majority of casual football fans included, hadn’t seen the match unfold live.
This isn’t the deep and dark distant past of Lowry’s matchstick men streaming into Bolton’s Burden Park either.
In the final season of the old First Division, 1991-92, only 18 games were shown live on ITV across the course of the campaign.
And as this was a time when the Internet was still being developed, that meant no streams, no Twitter, no forums and no live blogs.
Contrast this to now, with Sky alone to broadcast 128 live Premier League matches starting from 2019-20 season.
The digital TV company is now paying over £10 million to broadcast every match. The rights to the entire final old First Division season, in 1991-92, cost less than £15m.
Talking about securing rights to sports that supporters would pay subscriptions for in Britain, Sky’s head of sport, David Hill, said in 1992 “it’s football first, second and third”.
And he was right. The Premier League has been central to the broadcaster’s success.
The knock-on effect has been a revolution in how media covers the game.
Where once football competed for coverage with other sports in national newspapers, and pretty much disappeared in the summer, it is now the subject of dedicated pull outs on Sundays and Mondays.
Websites for the newspapers are football-heavy, too.
It’s wall-to-wall coverage on Sky, it’s discussed all day and all night on social media and forums, and there’s the development of fan media, too.
While there has long been a place for supporter-led communications – the monthly fanzine When Saturday Comes, first printed in 1986, being a fine example – the accessibility and availability of football, coupled with the relative ease of podcast and video production, has seen fan reaction and analysis boom.
Arsenal Fan TV (now known as AFTV following negotiations with the club it covers) is fast closing in on one million subscribers and most clubs will now have an equivalent channel run by supporters.
The Anfield Wrap, of which I am a part, is now a thriving business with the number of Liverpool supporters paying £5 per month for TAW’s podcast subscription package now well into five figures.
There are blurred lines now too between mainstream media and alternative/supporter led productions.
Sky Sports and BT Sport now regularly include reaction and analysis from fans in their coverage.
In a recent Sky Sports feature Gary Neville even proclaimed to Anfield Wrap host Neil Atkinson: “You’re a better pundit than me!”
Ultimately though, many supporters are better informed than ever before. In fact, for some, their obsession arguably fuels a level of knowledge that takes them beyond some of those working in the national media.
Take the traditional newspaper model for the role of a chief football writer for instance.
They will flit from club to club depending on where the story is, travelling the country to take ‘the big game’ on any given weekend. Meanwhile, a fan working on a dedicated supporter channel, podcast or website likely attends (or at least watches) every single game their club plays (often more than once).
There’s plenty of room for both in the modern media landscape, and there are good, bad and indifferent practitioners of both methods of coverage. But it does beg the question: Who then is likely to be better placed to offer insight?
That’s perhaps one for the people who consume the media to answer, but the rise and rise of supporter media suggests plenty who produce it are getting things right.
It also means the pundits in the mainstream, Rio Ferdinand and Richard Keys included, will never get a free pass for a statement that doesn’t sit right.
For evidence of that simply read the replies to their tweets regarding Newcastle.
Football media has developed beyond recognition since what Sky described as “a whole new ball game” with the launch of the Premier League in 1992.
And while many will point to the ills of many aspects of the modern game, few can argue that football coverage – whatever you favour – hasn’t improved beyond recognition too.
That’s perhaps another reason that when standards slip the internet pile on is ruthlessly efficient.
Maybe Rio Ferdinand has slightly different views of the situation at Newcastle United now…
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