One of the most common questions I’m asked, after the wearily inevitable ‘who are Manchester United signing this summer?’, is about the mechanics of being a football writer: what the job entails, how it works and the social media fanatics’ favourite – ‘Why are you so negative and biased against my club?’. I’ve never understood the last point. Why are you biased against my club? Professionally speaking, it is an insult and only marginally less annoying than that other refrain – lazy journalism – which perhaps wouldn’t feel quite so bad if I didn’t fret over every element of what I write and its repercussions, legally and reputationally.
The bias accusation, for starters, implies an agenda, a vindictive element to my reporting, a wilful attempt to sabotage, a steadfast commitment to bending the truth to a warped logic. Just think about that for a moment. If bias and vindictiveness were my modus operandi I’d burn through contacts – the lifeblood of this job – in a matter of weeks and months and severely undermine hopes of forging other relationships in the future. It’s career suicide. And that’s before we get to the job’s myriad legal complexities – yes, the legalities.
Reputation aside, there can be costly penalties involved for being wrong. Getting things wrong is the thing that keeps you up at night. I’d far rather be second and right than first and wrong, even if the aim, of course, is always to be first. I haven’t got every story I’ve written right by a long shot, and in others I’ll have only established half of the fuller picture, but if I’m wrong it will have been wrong in good faith, and I’m not averse to putting my hand up when I am wrong. It sounds obvious yet often forgotten or overlooked amid the maelstrom of passions football ignites but I write about the good, bad and ugly at your club. Sometimes it may be more bad than good, other times more good than bad but it’s never one or the other and it tries not to be a sanitised view, even if the reality is that this job – for all its privileges and joys, which I do not take for granted – is a constant, bloody sucking exercise in walking on eggshells.
In fact, this raises an interesting issue. I could report on a game a team wins but, in fact, there were more areas of concern raised during that 90 minutes than the match that side narrowly lost the previous week. And you can bet the analysis teams and management at that club are pouring over what they did not do well in those wins as much as what they did right in those defeats. But the reaction if I pick out an area of concern during a win or highlight grounds for optimism in defeat is invariably one of indignation – and leads to those accusations again: bias, negativity. You might get it in the neck from the club, too, even if those are the same questions being asked internally.
For example, during that winning run United enjoyed over the winter months, the victories could not mask the issues with Fred’s first touch and the trouble it can invite but that was not a debate some of the more myopic supporters were prepared to entertain (and I stress the word ‘some’ here). Yet, several months later, with United struggling to convince again, few have a problem honing in on Fred’s shortcomings now. That perceived bias and negative is actually an attempt to take a clear, dispassionate view of the bigger picture, even if it does not fit the frustrating narrative of ‘extremes’ – everything is great or everything is dire – that has invariably taken hold these days.
Some other things I find odd. When Manchester City played West Ham at the Etihad last month, my colleague Sam Wallace was charged with writing the match report both for online and the Sunday newspaper. I had to do a ‘colour’ piece to accompany his match report – both for online and the Sunday paper – and was also responsible for writing something for the Monday newspaper/online on Monday morning. The colour tends to focus on a player or players or a specific theme whereas the match report is more a commentary on the game as a whole. So I did mine on Jesse Lingard, the West Ham midfielder on loan from United who, I subsequently came to discover, several figures within City’s management set-up felt was the best player on the pitch that day. I’d remembered how effective Lingard had been in the No. 10 position for United against City in a 2-1 win at the Etihad the previous season and thought, good or bad, he’d be an interesting topic of conversation. One City fan took exception and said I was the most biased reporter he’d encountered in 56 years of watching football by writing about Lingard and I’d do anything not to praise City. I suspect he’d wanted me to write about Ruben Dias and John Stones, both of whom scored, but was probably unaware I’d written extensively on both over the previous few weeks and did not want to repeat myself so soon. There was similar anger when I opted to write about Sergio Aguero – who had made his first start for four months and, undoubtedly, was a talking point – for the Monday.
Nor can I understand fans passing judgement on an article I’ve written without having read it or simply on the basis of the headline* alone. By all means disagree and tell me so – your opinions are no less important (and frankly probably put mine to shame) and constructive criticism is what I often have to deal in so why should I not receive it back? – but at least read the thing before telling me it’s crap. It’s like me informing you your better half is a cow when I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him/her.
*Ah, yes, headlines. You would not believe the amount of angst a misleading or inaccurate headline causes. For those who don’t know, reporters, in the main, do not write the headlines and can spend an unhealthy amount of time trying to get them tweaked to better reflect what they’ve written – or fretting for hours beforehand about what the headline may be on that revealing news story you’ve done that the club really did not want written. If it irritates you, trust me, it’s nothing next to what I feel. In the interests of balance, I could equally stand accused of being too soft in said instance.
I suppose it’s a strange thing to say given that it’s not an opinion that would be shared by anyone associated with either club, and nor should it be, but, believe it or not, I want the both clubs I cover on a regular basis to be successful. But that does not mean everything I write about United or City is going to be nice or that you stop holding either to account. I can praise Luke Shaw at the same time as questioning Anthony Martial. I can laud John Stones’ renaissance one day and ask what’s bugging Raheem Sterling the next. City running away with things does not make them immune to constructive criticism just as United’s struggles to keep pace does not mean there is not a positive news story or two there, even if covering that club really is like pushing food around a plate.
Anyway, I’ve got to go … I’ve got something biased to write against your club.
By : James Ducker @TelegraphDucker