Football fans are used to the occasional pre-season fixture taking place 'behind closed doors'. Normally it means two sides meet at a training ground and put out experimental squads, free from the prying eyes of their public. It could be a high profile player is attempting to find fitness, or a manager is trying to get his team some match sharpness without the cost of staffing a football ground. But as the league season gets underway several teams have taken steps to put all their fixtures behind closed doors – at least as far as journalists are concerned.
To put out a fire you starve it of oxygen. Pull the tabs, open the case and throw the blanket over it. The same might go for a blaze of negative media coverage; if you don’t like what’s being written about you, throw a blanket over it. Deny journalists access. Access is their oxygen.
Swindon Town have gone down that route this season. Rather than opening up their press conferences to questions from local media, all interviews will be conducted and made available through the ‘Fanzai’ app, with the manager and players responding only to questions asked by Swindon’s in-house press team.
Throw a blanket over it.
In the Premier League, Newcastle United have gone a slightly different route. As a bigger club with fervent support, their blaze is more like a forest fire to Swindon’s oil drum. For a fire that size, you use different techniques. Get ahead of it and cut great trenches in the earth, clear patches of forest, fell trees to deprive the fire of fuel and help guide the direction of its progress.
Newcastle’s version of fire control measures is a system of ‘preferred media partners’. Handpicked news outlets are given additional access - often as part of a commercial arrangement - with the rest restricted to the minimum allowed under league guidelines. When Steve McClaren became the new Newcastle manager in June, only Sky Sports and the Daily Mirror were allowed to speak to him. And when the club held an open training session in July, the same two outlets were given additional access to the manager and his players. The club appeared to have a similar agreement in place last season, when only The Sun were allowed to cover the signing of French midfielder Remy Cabella, but with The Sun having fallen out of favour, Sky Sports and the Mirror are now the club’s the chosen partners. The Sun didn’t take well to being on the outside, screaming foul play.
Newcastle’s managing director Lee Charnley has explained away the policy allowing the club to protect and control the positive messaging they’re putting out. But when the club’s ownership has so often found itself at odds with its fans, closing the doors to all but the hand-selected friendly few serves only to heighten suspicion of the motives at board level.
Although the wholesale closing of doors is a new trend, the banning of individual journalists or outlets is not. Sir Alex Ferguson famously managed to keep up a boycott of the BBC for more than seven years after taking umbrage at a documentary featuring his son. North of the border, Rangers have begun the season under a boycott themselves, as the BBC refused to send journalists to cover the Old Firm side, after one of their number was shut out. A letter from the National Union of Journalists prompted FA chairman Greg Dyke to condemn the actions of the Glasgow club, but so far no action is forthcoming on what the NUJ is calling ‘censorship’.
The relationship between the press and football clubs has always been tetchy, and in the time of twenty-four hour news and falling print circulations, there is space to fill and livelihoods to justify - this encourages speculation, rumour and the manufacturing of conflict to attract readership. The insatiable appetite of the football fan for football news stokes the flames.
That insatiable appetite might be a contributing factor to the problem - sending journalists back to dig a little deeper, but it’s also the reason why the behind closed doors approach is destined to fail.
Football supporters will always talk about their clubs, and local reporters will always write about them. Enough can be seen from the stands to write a match report, and you cannot silence Twitter.
By refusing to engage, football clubs succeed only in leaving a space to be filled. The conversation will continue to be had, only now they’re talking about you rather than with you. By closing the doors, the clubs which choose to ban journalists are doing nothing more than forfeiting their right to reply. Getting football played and talked about on a local level is what supports the game on the national level - and it needs clubs that are part of their communities, not existing in sanitised corporate bubbles.
Accountability is vital to maintain that link, and a free press is vital for accountability. You don’t have to look far to find episodes of the soap opera of mismanagement playing out, with owners who have slipped past the fit and proper persons test being accused of treating clubs as playthings, or worse, with complete apathy and disregard - surely even the Oystons of Blackpool and the Cellinos of Leeds would concede they’ve occasionally been at odds with the fans. With this culture of suspicion happening in the light, imagine what would happen in the dark, without a scrutineering eye.
The FA needs to respond to the trickle of bans before it becomes a flood, protect local media access to football clubs and protect the link between club and community. The result would be a healthier culture in British football, with greater transparency and a closer relationship with the fans.