In Football and Gangsters, Graham Johnson reveals how, over the past decade, mobsters have assaulted the game and made the reporter’s task more hazardous. The Liverpudlian journalist has exposed hundreds of sordid stories, but now has said that he is lucky to have escaped with his life. “Top footballers have underworld security who act as their PR,” he explained. “Only they don’t e-mail you press releases. They shoot you in the face.”
It was during his investigation of Wayne Rooney’s “Auld Slapper” scandal that Johnson realised that mobster interference had reached unprecedented levels. “In the old days we would have just got the prostitute off to a hotel and got the story,” he said. Instead, Johnson had to battle to secure the CCTV evidence with local hoods who wanted it to blackmail the Manchester United player. “You can’t just charge forward like the old Fleet Street reporters any more,” Johnson said. “You have to figure out people’s agendas very carefully, otherwise you’re going to feel the pain.”
In ten years of rubbing elbows with criminals, the 38-year-old father of three admits to having received more than 20 death threats. There are two types, he says. “The subtle approach, when you’re quietly informed that if you carry on pursuing a story, you’ll ‘upset’ a particular godfather.” Then there is the not-so-subtle approach. When one gangster did not want Johnson investigating allegations about an international footballer, he phoned the journalist promising that he would chop him into pieces with a machete. “It may sound like he was exaggerating,” Johnson said. “But I knew the guy. That was his speciality.”
“In the old days we would have just got the prostitute off to a hotel and got the story. Instead, we had to battle to secure the CCTV evidence with local hoods who wanted it to blackmail the Manchester United player"
When it comes to stinging a footballer, rival journalists are as big a threat as any gangster. But instead of violence, they use dirty tricks. Hurt still registers in Johnson’s eyes when he recalls how one adversary stole an exclusive interview from him by dangling a dictaphone outside his hotel window on a piece of string. Revenge was served, however, when the two reporters were later chasing the same story. Johnson phoned his rival’s editor and sold him a fake kiss-and-tell scandal so extravagant (it included a Premiership footballer, a mountain of cocaine, some Page 3 models and a Big Brother star) that it threw them off the scent.
Should you manage to dodge the gangsters and see off your rivals to secure that exclusive, there is still one stumbling block that could scupper your story — the “Max Clifford factor”. You may have a footballer on film, snorting cocaine while having an orgy with a Thai ladyboy, but if Clifford phones the newspaper, he will make you drop all the juicy bits. “It’s sad, but every editor has got a black museum of stories he just can’t use,” Johnson said.
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