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Journalist Q & A: Mark Ogden (Telegraph), Oliver Kay (Times) and Daniel Taylor (Guardian)

May 24, 2013

As the season drew to a close, I sent a few questions out on a number of topics to a few journalists whose email addresses I had successfully guessed.  Thanks to Mark Ogden (Daily Telegraph Northern Football Correspondent), Oliver Kay (Chief Football Correspondent for the Times) and Daniel Taylor (Chief Football Writer for the Guardian and Observer) for taking the time out of their busy schedules to reply. These were their answers to my questions:

Do you think that Roberto Mancini deserved to go?

Mark Ogden (MO):  If you base the decision on trophies won, then no, because Mancini’s success in winning the FA Cup and Premier League earned him the right to endure a trophy-less season.However, there was real disharmony in the dressing room, with many players unable to work for Mancini. The players must take some blame for that, but ultimately Mancini was the manager and if he could not motivate his players to perform then there really was only one outcome.There was no sign that the situation would have improved next season, so the club had to dismiss him on that basis.

Oliver Kay (OK):  I don’t know if “deserved” is the word, but it was the right decision. The dynamic between Mancini and his players had been unhealthy for a long time – as we’d been trying to tell you, but it seemed unsustainable by the end. I know some like to portray it as healthy tension, but the evidence on the pitch says it was unhealthy. For a group of such talented players, who are actually fairly close-knit, to look as demotivated as they did for much of this season, is a problem. Given the quality of players that City have had over the past few seasons – better, man for man, than United’s in my view – I always thought the Mancini situation was something of a leveller. I know some reporters believe Mancini was a source of strength for City. I thought he – or at least the situation – was a serious weakness.

Daniel Taylor (DT): I’m not sure I’d use the word ‘deserved’. Am I surprised? No, not at all. In fact, I’m just surprised that so many other people are so surprised. I think a few people have been found out on this one. It’s not a question of whether it’s harsh; it’s a question of whether you understand ADUG’s ambitions and expectations. And if you do, you know that they are not going to tolerate a team that is going backwards.
I feel like a bit of a stuck record on this, but it doesn’t matter to the people in Abu Dhabi, or Txiki/Ferran, what the fans think, or what happened in a game at Old Trafford almost two years ago, or even what happened a year ago. City were eight points worse off and 20-odd goals down on the same stage last season when Mancini was sacked. The league was all but over by mid-February and the performances in Europe were poor again. Of course he was vulnerable. It was just naïve, in the extreme, to think he wasn’t.

If you have had dealings directly with him – what was Mancini like to deal with?

MO: I always found him good to deal with. He was bold, outspoken, mischievous and very much his own man.
But we only saw the public side of him. The stories I hear from people who worked with him at the club talk of a different man entirely.

OK: I never had any one-to-one dealings with him – only press conferences etc. The Manchester reporters speak well of him on a personal basis. I was told by someone at City at an early stage that he seemed more interested in being courteous with the media than with his players or his staff. Even in this PR-sensitive age, that strikes me as a strange way to be.

DT: Good. Generous with his time, streetwise, tough. He could be charming (first season), he could also seem permanently dissatisfied (second season onwards). He’d take us out every Christmas to San Carlo. You could ask him anything in his press conferences, or anything in those social gatherings and he would be happy to talk on or off-the-record. He could be a bit aloof sometimes, he wouldn’t give out his numbers or develop relationships that way, but maybe I’m living in the past there. Very few modern-day managers do. Overall, he’s been good to deal with and he got on pretty well with the Manchester-based football writers. He generates good copy. He has an opinion, he shares it and that’s always welcome when so many other managers are trained to see nothing and say even less.

City appear to be carrying out something of a PR war v Mancini now to win over fans. Without referring to this episode, are journalists “fed” news from clubs on a regular basis?

MO: I wouldn’t say we are fed. It is more a case of asking the right people the right questions.Most of us operate on the basis that somebody will always have an axe to grind and, when they do, you have to decide whether their information is given with an agenda or not. If it is, then there will always be scepticism on my part. You don’t want to become a mouthpiece for either camp.
But the negativity about Mancini has not come from one, two or three people. It has been widespread for months.

OK: It depends on the club and the situation. There will be times when clubs will spin like mad, but it’s only usually when there’s an issue when someone else is spinning against them. Mostly I would say that Premier League clubs are reactive rather than proactive in a PR sense. Some aren’t even reactive. The real spin doctors in football these days are some of the managers..…

DT: Every club has press officers and, in a lot of cases, they are acting as spin doctors, bending the truth to help themselves. It goes on a club-by-club basis. Some clubs are just useless (Sunderland, Blackburn, Villa, Stoke etc). Others have very proactive press offices and realise there are benefits of leaking info. To clarify though, a lot of the stuff about Mancini is coming from other sources – disgruntled players, agents, staff, former colleagues etc.

And on a similar theme….It’s well known that Alex Ferguson can be rather, well “troublesome” to deal with. Has it been a constant struggle during your career to handle him, and are you bound by what your bosses demand? After all, United are big news, so being denied access to the club must hurt. And will your job be that little bit easier now?

MO: Even when you are not denied access at United, everything is still very limited and hard to get into. Much of the time with Ferguson, you knew that some things were guaranteed to annoy him, while there were other times when the most random things led to him banning people, myself included.
City tend not to ban journalists, so that is a good thing on their part, but I suppose it ultimately comes down to who the manager is and how he wants the club to manage the press.

OK: There are a few myths about Ferguson and the banning culture. If it had been successful, if it had brought people into line, he wouldn’t have spent the last few seasons handing out more bans than ever, would he? If you were talking about a teacher who gave out far more detentions than everyone else, would you conclude that he had more control over his pupils’ behaviour? Or less? It amuses me that people accuse the media of being sycophantic to Ferguson. If anything, I thought his approach to media relations meant that the inevitable praise, for his achievements, was slightly grudging from some quarters. People talk about “bias”. It doesn’t exist. Or rather, if there is any subconscious “bias” among sportswriters, it is more likely to be towards someone with whom you have good relationships. That’s human nature. There was never any of that with Ferguson. If he had a good press, it was because his achievements merited it, not because journalists were awe-struck or terrified. Newspapers always want to be in rather than out, but I don’t remember any journalist being in trouble for being banned by United. Some see it as a badge of honour for the paper and the reporter. I think things will probably be a little bit more cordial between United and the media next season. Provided they keep winning under David Moyes, of course …

DT: He didn’t make life very easy for me. I’d been banned since 2007 for writing a book he never actually read (“one of us is going to have to read this shite and it isn’t going to be me,” as he told his press officer). I’m sure you know about his bans – the PA for “asking too many questions”, MUTV (MUTV!) because one presenter was impertinent enough to suggest the team played 4-4-2,. Sky for (again) asking too many questions – and only allowed them back if their reporter didn’t sit on the front row, etc etc . .
It’s always been a struggle for any journalist covering him on a regular basis (well, anyone below the age of 60) but that was the culture under him and it’s not much good me wandering in halfway through and saying it should change. Was it unpleasant? Yes, frequently. Was it an incredible experience covering the guy? Totally. He also generated more back-page headlines for us than any other manager in history.
Ironically, it was easier in some ways being banned because, after that, you don’t have to worry about the ‘rules’ that are in place. For example, he banned me once because I’d flown out to Antwerp to interview Dong Fangzhou. There was no reason for it. He just wanted to get the message out there that people shouldn’t do that sort of thing (I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s all about his control). At least when you’re banned, you don’t have to worry about that kind of nonsense. But equally, you always knew you were covering one of the really great football managers. So there were good bits and bad bits.

Has the Premier League been weaker this season, especially compared to the other major European leagues?

MO: I think it has been weak for a few years now. Since Cristiano Ronaldo left, only City have been able to attract world class stars to the Premier League and that is because of the money they were prepared to pay to sign the likes of Silva, Aguero and Yaya Toure.
Nobody else had that kind of money, so the European clubs have been able to close the gap and now overtake the Premier League.
Still, beyond the top two in Germany and Spain, there is not a great deal of depth, so let’s not beat ourselves up about the quality of our league. You would not get the Spanish or German equivalent of Wigan beating one of their CL clubs in a cup final, so maybe the strength of the PL is its depth, rather than its absolute quality.

OK: I’ve been arguing since 2009 that the top teams are not as strong as they were, particularly relative to the top teams elsewhere. I don’t think United’s post-2009 team has been anything like as strong as their 2006-09 team, yet they’ve ended up winning two league titles and missing out on the other on goal difference. Likewise, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool look weaker than four or five years ago. If City had become as formidable a team as they could be – and I do appreciate the difficulties they’ve had with Champions League draws – then they would be a serious force within Europe, but they haven’t. If City had punched their weight this season in the Premier League or the Champions League, the perception would be a different, but I’d say all the English clubs have to improve if they are to make a stronger challenge in the Champions League next season.

DT: It’s been a strange Premier League. Just look at the number of clubs who you could say have had a good season and there aren’t many: Man United, Southampton, Swansea, West Ham, Everton maybe, Chelsea-ish (it hasn’t felt that way), anyone else?
The title race was never going to match the previous season’s but, then again, it’s been a one-horse race in Germany, France, Italy and Spain too. So it’s not just us. I think it’s been duller and the fact City have regressed has got a lot to do with it.

Do you think the Financial Fair Play rules are a good thing?

MO: Yes, but only on the basis that they will make clubs more responsible and end the ridiculous escalation of player salaries. Nobody wants to see clubs going into meltdown like Leeds or Portsmouth and FFP will help stop that happening.
And from City’s perspective, while FFP obviously eats into the power of Sheikh Mansour’s weath, the flip side is that the club is having to grow off the field and become a bigger entity commercially.
Long-term, that is good news for City.

OK: The principle of (lower case) financial fair play is undoubtedly a good thing, but I really dislike the version that UEFA have ended up with. It’s not about “fair play”. It’s about ring-fencing an established elite and it is obvious that it will increase the enormous gap between the rich clubs and the poor. FFP was an opportunity to combat all kind of financial excesses – leveraged buyouts, debt, parasitic owners, exploitative ticket prices and unfair distribution of TV money in certain countries – but after talking to the ECA, which is dominated by the very biggest clubs, UEFA decided that it should all be about controlling spending. Funny, that.

DT: No. I think it’s unfair on City. They’re being implemented so the rich can stop the super-rich from catching and overtaking them. Yet that has been the history of football for donkey’s years. They want a closed shop at the top and so they have established these rules purely as a means of safeguarding themselves.

Are you worried about the future of print journalism?

MO: You have to be concerned, but also have the attitude that the Internet is a great opportunity for the industry to survive and grow. When Fergie retired and Mancini was sacked, you heard it first via national newspaper websites. It didn’t break on Sky or via club websites, so that week was a good one for newspapers in that it reminded people of the relevance of good journalism.

OK: Naturally, yes. It’s depressing when you’re on buses or trains and so few people are reading a (paid-for) paper. The quality and content of most newspapers is extremely good, depending on what you’re looking for. They’re certainly extremely good value. I can’t understand why most papers persist in giving away their content online. The future is in paid-for tablet apps etc. I really enjoy the football coverage, and much else, in The Guardian, but what incentive are they giving anyone to buy their app – never mind the paper – when the whole thing is published for free on the website? Buy The Times (or the digital app  – £2 a week for the first three months, £4 a week thereafter) and hoover up all the free content you can find. Impartial advice, there.

DT: No. It’s a strange time for the industry and everything was a lot more straightforward a few years ago when people actually bought newspapers but this is the age we live in. The Guardian has been the first to go digital-first and you can see the others – Mail, Telegraph, even the Sun now – putting more and more into their websites. I don’t think that means the end for newspapers, it’s just moving with the times.

Similarly, how do you feel about stories breaking on the internet first, rather than stories being held back for the morning newspapers?

MO: It’s fine. I suppose we’re facing the same dilemma as the guy who made carts for horses when cars started to be made. You either look to the future or live in the past.

DT: I had this when I interviewed Mancini earlier in the season and we broke it around 3pm. A lot of journalists at other newspapers couldn’t work it out. But we want people to see what we have written and, by doing it our way, we ensured X times more hits. Stories are still held back for the morning in certain cases but, to go back to the previous answer, it’s a moving industry. You can’t afford to be a dinosaur or you will be left behind.

Do you ever wish Twitter had never been invented? Or do the pros outweigh the cons?

MO: Twitter is a pain in the arse and the cons outweigh the pros. However, it does have its pluses. They are becoming fewer and fewer though.

OK: I do actually. It’s just this ever-present noise and you can’t ignore it, so instead you have to embrace it. You could say I embrace it more than most. There are some very good things about it, particularly on the football side, and I do like engaging with and explaining myself to readers, but, like most journalists, I would say I preferred life BT.

DT: Twitter’s fine. It’s so big now it’s difficult to have an opinion – or, at least, you know that you might have to brace yourself for weeks of abuse if that opinion is different to someone else’s. It can all get a bit silly but I’ve tried to kick the habit, I’ve gone cold-turkey for a few days. I always come back. #addict

Your Premier League player of the season?

MO: Tough one. I won’t say Bale or Van Persie because neither has done it from August to May.
I’d go for Christian Benteke. Great first season at Villa and a player who will become a huge star.

OK: Van Persie.

DT: Boringly, Gareth Bale. You just have to put together a portfolio of his goals. From a City perspective, Zabaleta (but from a small pot of candidates).

The biggest disappointment/flop of the season?

MO: Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers.

OK: City were one of the biggest disappointments. Newcastle were another. QPR were terrible. As far as individual players are concerned, I was really disappointed by Tiote and Cabaye at Newcastle. They were magnificent last season, but unrecognisable this season. But the same could be said of a few of City’s players.

DT: I support Forest, and losing in the last minute of the last game, against your local rivals, is always going to hurt . .

What would you change (briefly!) in the game?

MO: 5.30 kick offs on a Saturday. Just a waste of time. I don’t know anybody who thinks they’re a good idea.

OK: Briefly? It has to be something to stop investors coming and committing the type of ruinous ownership we’ve seen at Blackburn, Portsmouth etc. I would add Manchester United to that, but somehow, despite draining £500m+ from the club’s accounts since 2005, the Glazers seem to have got away with it. People will say “it’s business”. Well football shouldn’t be about “business”. Something should be done to give football clubs a special status that protects them from ruinous owners.

DT: It’s not going to generate any widespread sympathy but it would be nice – selfishly speaking, anyway – if football clubs knew how to deal with the media properly. It’s amazing how many non-qualified people are in charge of media departments for big clubs and regularly make a pig’s ear of it.

Leading on from that…I’ve followed closely (and written for fanzines about) the call for cheaper tickets for fans. Do you think that day will ever come? Is it a topic that newspapers plan to give major backing to in the future?

MO: The new TV deal should ensure cheaper prices, but players and agents need to drop salary demands first, otherwise clubs won’t be able to afford the best players.
City and United appear to be sensible with prices at the moment, but yes, it will become an issue if things don’t change and I think the German model will be used as justification for that.

OK: It depends what you mean by major backing. It’s hard to have a formal campaign when market forces say that the demand is still so big. I’ve spoken to people at clubs who suggest that the price paid in secondary ticket sales (to touts, agencies etc) suggest that, if anything, tickets are under priced. I completely disagree. With the TV deals and commercial deals as huge as they are, regular ticket sales – as opposed to corporate, hospitality, boxes etc – are no longer a major driver of revenues. I suggested that there should be some consensus reached on maximum ticket prices as part of the Premier League’s new financial regulations – and particularly something to encourage younger fans. It’s not something the big clubs seem interested in.

DT: We’ve covered it quite extensively already. It’s a worry – even in the last two of three years you can see a sharp drop in the number of away fans at games. You hear people moaning about the atmosphere at games and clubs bringing in sound engineers or tinned crowd noise and it’s fairly simple – the decibel levels have gone down because so many hardcore football fans are being priced out of it. I’ve lost count of the number of my mates who used to devote their entire lives around going to games and just can’t be bothered any more because of the money and the way they’re messed about.

Embargos – why are you asked to hold back news sometimes?

MO: To keep stuff fresh for the morning papers, otherwise who will want to pay for old news in the morning?

OK: Mostly for our benefit and at our request. Daily newspapers want fresh coverage, fresh material and fresh quotes, so where possible we look to place an embargo so that people aren’t running it on websites during the afternoon. And because there is this embargo culture, sometimes clubs ask us to do likewise with statements that they are announcing on their club website or whatever. That’s fair enough in most cases.

DT: So the Telegraph can break them, of course (only joking).

And finally, what’s been the highlight of your job over the past season?

MO: Being involved in Champions League games.  It really is the best place to work and streets ahead of international football. We are so lucky in Manchester to be able to cover two CL teams and long may it continue.

OK: There hasn’t been a moment to compare with City’s title triumph last season. At risk of upsetting you, I’ll say the send-off for Ferguson at Old Trafford was the most memorable occasion. In terms of matches I’ve reported on, I’ll pick from opposite ends of the scale: at the Allianz-Arena for Bayern Munich 4 Barcelona 0 in the Champions League and at the Coral Windows Stadium for Bradford’s wins over Aston Villa and Arsenal. The best nights are those when a crowd are wide-eyed in disbelief at what they’re seeing. The Bradford games were the perfect example.

DT: Probably the interview with Mancini I mentioned earlier. It might not sound much but those interviews are so rare these days. It took 13 months to set up and there were 11 different PR/marketing people involved (including three Etihad air stewardesses who turned up on the day in case we needed them for the photos). It’s all a bit ridiculous, to be honest, but the top managers pretty much don’t do one-on-ones these days so that was a nice one to get.

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