George Plimpton probably didn’t write Paper Lion with a British audience in mind. In the 1960s, Plimpton embedded himself within the Detroit Lions’ summer training camp and, like a sporting Louis Theroux, recorded his observations and experiences for posterity.
The author was awkward enough to be an everyman. In spite of his Harvard education and silver-spoon upbringing, he reacted as most would to his new teammates and, even though his journalistic subterfuge was quickly uncovered, most of the players seemed sufficiently charmed by the situation’s novelty not to mind.
To a contemporary reader, Plimpton’s initial attempts to place himself with an American Football team seem deeply naive. He wrote letters to owners and pestered bemused secretaries with endless phone calls, asking innocently whether they would allow him to take part in a training camp and perhaps even play a couple of downs here and there.
It’s staggering – for no greater reason than Plimpton’s unwavering belief that his project actually stood a chance of success; it’s something which he clearly believed should be possible.
It’s been nearly sixty years since Paper Lion was written and published and clearly much has changed. As sport has become dominated by financial imperatives, so the battlements have gone up. If a latter day Plimpton were to attempt what the original did under today’s conditions, he would either be laughed away or, more likely, entirely ignored. American sport is actually better than most at lowering the drawbridge and the value of doing so is shown in the success of NFL-sanctioned programs like Hard Knocks and All or Nothing. Still, it’s not an all-areas pass; there are clearly certain doors which, even in that faux-Big Brother environment, remain locked at all times.
In British football, the conversation surrounding access was inadvertently re-animated by Manchester City’s new Tunnel Club. The prevailing belief remains that the players only belong to the public once they emerge onto the pitch and that everything which happens before belongs, for whatever reason, in private.
It’s a fair point – not least because this new voyeurism exists only to the cash-rich. Do it for everyone or not at all is, inarguably, a mantra which the game would do well to better respect.
Clearly, the press is an important conduit in that process. The public has a craving for what they deem insight and it’s no coincidence that some of the best received articles are now those which are carved from fresh stone. Not pieces which are constructed from archived interviews or statistics, but those which feature a conversation with an active player or manager and colour part of football’s monochrome image. Henry Winter’s recent piece with Jonathan Walters, for instance, or much of Rory Smith’s recent roving work at the New York Times. The thirst is for work which treats football’s participants as living, breathing people, not as sprites on a television screen, clumped together or separated solely by their technical attributes.
Of course, there’s a reason why such articles are scarce. The occasionally intrusive nature of journalism – and the difficulties it can create – has bred a siege mentality inside clubs. The Premier League’s media staff, it seems, are tasked with being suspicious first and co-operative second and while many are impeccably polite and generally accommodating to basic requests, their primary function can often appear to be to create an obstruction. Their job now isn’t to facilitate a conversation between a player and a reporter, but to prevent one from happening at all. It’s not an unjustified caution. A large proportion of the digital world seeks to mangle, twist and contort quotations, bending them disingenuously to a saleable purpose, and so stopping that supply at source is actually very sensible.
Players, too, are rightly wary. Given his treatment at the hands of various tabloids, why would Raheem Sterling – for instance – expose himself to what he’s entitled to expect will be more of the same? He, like all of his top-flight contemporaries, is a fabulously wealthy young man under no obligation to discuss his life publicly. Although he might want to challenge the erroneous perception which has been created around him, the temptation to seal himself off inside a vacuum and enjoy his various material privileges must be overwhelming. It’s entirely understandable.
But it’s such a shame.
Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, Duncan Hamilton’s account of his two decades spent in audience with Brian Clough, is arguably the finest book written about modern English football. It helps, of course, that Clough was a complex and endlessly fascinating character and that Hamilton is an infinitely readable writer on any topic, but it’s the closeness of the relationship between the two which gives the book its life. The unspoken tragedy, which the reader is aware of but chooses to ignore, is that nothing like it will ever exist again. The notion of a manager ever being that candid with a reporter now is unthinkable.
Of course, the local paper/football club dynamic has changed beyond all recognition and that’s another prohibitive factor, but the combination of diminishing trust and a lack of necessity has destroyed the possibility of a contemporary manager’s career ever being recorded in the same way. The whims and workings of modern coaches may still be written about and explored, but generally in a different, more third-party way. As explorative as recent books about Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho have often been, they’re effectively works of espionage which depend on capturing information against their subject’s will. The author, well-intentioned as he or she may be, always comes across as a lurking eavesdropper or a shadowy background character at a cocktail party to which they weren’t invited.
It’s a sign of the times: football wants the public to know it by its press-conferences, the short snippets it releases in exchange for product placement, or just the side of itself it shows on the field of play.
The various justifications for that might well be sound and life may be easier as a result, but it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the game’s determination to hide its face – its true expression – is denying the sport an actual texture. Football’s personality, with its flaws, its vulnerabilities and its sense of humour, has been locked away and hidden from public view. It’s not a coincidence, for example, that many of its enduring anecdotes are now decades old; a commentary on growing professionalism certainly and modified behaviour in a post-internet age, but also a depiction of just how air-tight the seal is between the game, its press and its public.
Perhaps that’s the deepest regret. While rising ticket prices, detached owners and relentless commercialisation are irritations and inconveniences, maybe football’s determination to exist on its own island is the saddest measure of what it’s determined to become.
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