I’ll be the first one to admit that English football has a serious arrogance issue. It’s almost as if when we won the World Cup in 1966 we ascended to egotistical heights and despite low success levels since we haven’t all fallen back down.
In the truly excellent book ‘Soccernomics’ written by Simon Kuper and Szymanski, they articulate the arrogance of the English brilliantly. They mention an array of England coaches who predicted World Cup wins, but came up with lacklustre results, dating back to Alf Ramsey, to Glenn Hoddle, and even to Sven Goran Eriksson. Closing off this stanza the two authors implement a quote from sociologist Stephen Wagg which states “In reality, England is a country like many others and the England soccer team is a soccer team like many others”. , As the book says, this truth is only slowly sinking in.
How slowly that truth is sinking is uncertain, but there is one facet of English international football that is slow in catching up to our calibrated expectations, and that is the media.
The english hype machine.
The level of expectation for achievement and entitlement that the English coaches had in the 60s and 70s may have left most of us, but a large portion of the media outlets still carry this mentality. Because of this, young players on the come up are hit with a thick wall of praise and are ultimately wrote cheques that they cannot cash, before being turned on by those same media outlets once failure goes their way.
Jadon Sancho, one of the brightest English talents in the game at the moment, has excelled since his move to Dortmund, and even his teammate Thomas Delaney mentioned how “here in England, you are world famous for hyping your own players”. Hype isn’t necessarily a total negative, as it could be construed as unwavering support, but it’s the usual next step in the media cycle that makes the participating news sources seem more like vultures circling its prey as opposed to genuine supporters and evangelists of homegrown English talent.
The usual follow up to the hype the media distribute to high potential internationals other than the pressure that places on young shoulders, is the criticism that is inevitable once a player gets that type of pressure. Once that young subject who was once promised to be the Barnsley born answer to Pele just last week comes into an error, they are immediately cast to the fire and receive scathing criticism.
This article post-2014 world cup from SoccerNews.Com does an excellent job of summarising the English media cycle when discussing Wayne Rooney, saying; “Take Wayne Rooney for example. The Manchester United star has been built up since he first arrived on the football scene with that goal for Everton against Arsenal at just 16. The moment he showed promise he was all of a sudden the saviour of English football…However, because he was supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread he is pilloried for his performances”.
This isn’t to say that football players don’t deserve to be criticised, as they absolutely do, just like they should be praised when they give a good performance. For me it isn’t the criticism of the players themselves, it’s the manner in which it is given out. Let me provide an example.
A recent example.
Perhaps the most recent example of the media turning on a player they swore to be great would be John Stones. Following his two genuine blunders against the Netherlands, Stones has been criticised by various different news outlets, writers, and ex players alike, but there are some culprits within mainstream media that have done so in a particularly malicious and uncomfortable manner.
Let me just say that I do believe that Stones’ performance did warrant criticism. He overplayed a simple pass to his goalkeeper, and put in a shoddy man marking job to say the least. But there is a manner in which you should hand out this criticism.
Take this above headline from The Sun, a well read paper in the UK who of course have a huge online audience. As you can see the general theme of this headline is to set the audience’s focus on the details of his relationship, which in itself is questionable from a news source that has this kind of audience. Not to mention that from a footballing perspective labelling John Stones a ‘flop’ is ridiculous after one bad game.
As you read through the article itself it is completely focused on Stones and his relationship with this new lady, with no intention of looking into the game and discussing what happened throughout the match. This is not valid analysis or sharing of a good opinion, it’s merely gossip about a professional athlete’s personal life.
I must also note that one of the writers of that piece, Stephen Moyes, also wrote this controversial article on a tattoo that Raheem Sterling got on his leg, so his tendency to put web traffic before journalistic integrity is something that is very much part of his profile.
The Sun are complicit in this use of personal life of athletes to draw in clicks and traffic, but not the only one. Here the Daily Mail do the same, actually providing Stones’ personal affairs on some kind of twisted summary, you know, so people can interpret his intimate details of his life better.
These are just two examples of many when it comes to the tactic of utilising personal details, true or false, as a means of attracting web traffic, and that’s awful to me. I understand pro athletes earn a lot of money but they’ve had to sacrifice plenty too, and I don’t feel it’s a good use of your role as a journalist to use it to clickbait and provide saturated content to a major audience. Like many others, I would Kill to have that kind of viewership, so it’s understandably frustrating when you see people who possess that audience yet do nothing but intrude on the personal lives of footballers for some shares and likes as opposed to generating good content and conducting a conversation.
All in all, the cycle of English media coverage when it comes to football is pretty damn negative. Even the phase of unwavering praise is not good for a young football players ego, and there is an excellent YouTube channel called Tifo Football who did a video on this ‘lazy punditry’, and the subject was Stones. The heartbreaking thing is that this video is from 3 years ago, but the motions in the video still exist to this day.
Now I’m not going to act dumb and pretend that I don’t know why these types of articles are created. We live in the era of the hot take, where an easy method for blogs and sites to attract traffic is to take a big name, especially one who’s being viewed through a negative lens at that time, and surround phrases that are bound to attract clicks. Gossip sells. I get that. I really do. But is there no integrity in the content these sites and papers produce? And why have the values of clicks surpassed the value of being able to stand back and appreciate a genuinely good or insightful article/video/etc.?
That isn’t to say that every single dimension of English media acts in this way, heck, it isn’t even the majority. It’s just a lot more than you would expect, and in my opinion there’s too many outlets with huge readership that just contribute clickbait attacks on England players, amongst other celebrities.
In my opinion this type of content that prioritises views and attention through all means necessary is rotten for both parties that the media serve. Football is a sport with a fanbase that I feel has an appreciation for learning more about the stars they watch play, as well as the technical features of the game. Take Monday Night Football on Sky Sports for example. Since it came onto our screens I feel that show has had a great audience, and the format is healthy. Two ex players, who understand the issues that arise with national media coverage, who provide genuine tactical insight and take its audience behind the scenes. From a consumer point of view I think MNF holds more value than a clickbait article published online.
It’s not to say that good analysis and genuine writing doesn’t exist, or that it doesn’t garner attention. One article I found on The Guardian on this topic was this one, which takes a look at Stones’ lack of use at Manchester City (not starting a game since April 2nd at home v Tottenham), and how rustiness may have contributed to his in game faux pas. The writer also looks at his evolution, or lack thereof under his previous England coaches to measure how far he’s come from his days as a young prospect in Everton. This is an excellent example of the content that I love to see.
To conclude, I’m not a fan of journalism that is cynical and seeks to simply heap criticism and stir the proverbial pot in the footballing rumour would. I feel like divulging these personal details only acts as a method of spreading gossip, and it’s honestly a little uncomfortable to read these types of articles with their loud headlines and content that doesn’t teach me anything about the game that I love so much.
I do believe that John Stones should be criticised for making what turned out to be two very big mistakes.
However, I also believe that writers at some of the biggest newspapers in the country should be able to do that without mentioning details on his relationship, value of his home, or how players feel about his new girlfriend.
Tabloid talk shouldn’t replace genuine analysis.
At least not in football.