Petulant clubs that can’t face the truth

It is not unknown for organisations under pressure to lash out at those who report on
their failings.

But some professional sports clubs seem particularly susceptible to this classic
shoot-the-messenger syndrome, and several currently have local newspapers in their
wonky sights.

Worcester Warriors Rugby Club, who are rooted at the foot of the Aviva Premiership,
have taken exception to some of the coverage the Worcester News (of which I am
deputy editor) has given the club.

They were first miffed by a perfectly reasonable column by the paper’s respected rugby
writer Tom Guest who suggested falling attendances at Sixways (the Warriors’ home
stadium) might be linked to poor performances from the team.

Director of rugby Dean Ryan later snapped at Tom at a press conference in which our
man dared to ask about the prospect of relegation following a sixth consecutive
Premiership defeat.

Ryan said: “To be talking about relegation — especially from a local paper — I think is
pretty poor.”

Most fans thought otherwise, as I recorded here.

Now tonight in his programme notes for the Warriors’ home game against Bath (which Warriors lost 6-21), executive chairman and long-term club backer Cecil Duckworth is taking a pop at “the chorus in the local press saying we are no hopers”.


Meanwhile, at Stoke-on-Trent, Port Vale Football Club banned reporter Michael Baggaley from the press box at Vale Park.

His crime was to ask the club (and chairman) about the delay in the arrival of limited
edition third change shirts.

Newcastle United Football Club were as quick as the Potters to take umbrage when their
local paper The Chronicle reported a protest march by fans disillusioned by owner Mike
Ashley’s stewardship of their club.

He and his sidekicks were angered by the Chronicle’s coverage, which they said was
“unfairly negative”, and later banned the paper and its sister titles from St James’ Park.

The Chronicle later responded with this magnificent front page.

A generation ago clubs like these took the rough with the smooth.

They were run by local businessmen (and they were, almost always, men) who were
rooted in their local communities.

They were close to the fans and did not give too much (if any) thought to fancy notions
about marketing, branding and public relations.

There is a different breed at the helm now.

They have millions of pounds of money from TV rights, sponsorship and merchandising
pouring into their clubs, and they are being tempted to believe that they own not only
their “product” but also the right to control what is said about it.

Some have persuaded themselves that the relationship between the Press and
themselves is parasitic.

Newspapers benefit from publishing reports about clubs without contributing a penny in
return or doing their bit by putting a positive slant on stories, they grumble.

So when the Press dares to criticise rather than come up with the cheer-leading the clubs expect they react with petulance.

This response betrays a stunning naivety about the function of the Press.

We are not fans and we are not public relations arms of the clubs; we are servants of the
fans (our readers).

We scrutinise on their behalf, we ask difficult questions on their behalf; at times we
despair with them and at others we celebrate with them.

But the thing clubs really need to remember is this.

Many of them, like us, have their origins in the 19th century.

Our reporters have watched through the decades in their bowler hats, trilbies and
beanies; their tweed overcoats, sheepskin jackets and cagouls.

Sport is glamorous and fashionable now, and clubs have friends in high places.

But we have been there since the start, through good times and bad. We are like old friends, and old friends are worth listening to… even though what they sometimes have to say hurts.


About John Wilson

Editor of Hereford Times, Ludlow Advertiser, Stroud News and Journal, Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard and Gloucestershire Gazette series. Journalist for more than 30 years.
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