Cautious Mac Shut Up Shop For Scribes

AMID the ‘England Go Large With Big Mac’ frenzy that neatly destablised Boro UEFA Cup preparations the Gazette Sports desk was bombarded with pleading phone calls from the likes of Radio Five Live, Sky Sports and TalkSport, or Radio White Van Man, as I like to call it. They all wanted one of us to do their job for them and fill loads of airtime with views and analysis of Steve McClaren’s time at Boro and what England could expect with Mac in charge.
Generally I refuse point blank to assist them, especially Radio WVM, a organisation assembled from ratings chasing second divisions shock jocks and which seems to have in it’s charter a clause that insists any mention of Boro must be inserted into a script constructed entirely by rummaging around Alan Brazil’s big bag of derogatory cliches.
But one of them, while so far wide of the mark as to put a six yard sitter out for a throw, inadvertantly touched on a very important dimension of our everyday working practice with a poorly researched question. “So, Steve is leaving,” he said. “I bet all you boys in the local press are gutted aren’t you?” Er … how long have you got?

Most Boro fans tumbled early on that Mac wasn’t big on making passionate statements to the media. He wasn’t going to slate players for mistakes, admit to tactical errors or make sweeping claims of any kind. He rapidly became widely ridiculed for the ‘magnificent’ mantra and reality defying assessments of the team’s performance.
Mac’s first task after every match was to talk to Bill Beswick, a keen advocate of stressing the positive, to decide on what public pronouncements should be made. Furious in the dug-out, steaming in the tunnel, incandescent in the changies… then after his brain storming session with his sidekick became one dimensionally non-commital and blandly supportive as soon as anyone with a notebook, camera or microphone appeared. Ask a dozen questions and you will get the same phrase of the day over and over.
Mac was a nightmare to work with. He was inaccessible, as much through his own choice as through the defence mechanisms of the club’s spin machine. He rarely took the press into his confidence, had a formal and often frosty relationship with most and seemed reluctant to comment or even accept that marketing and PR was part of
the job.
Partly saying little to the press – and by extention to you lot, the Gazetteshire public – was down to the changing nature of news management in the game. There is a need for clubs to pander to the piper paying Sky Sports juggernaut and give them exclusive stuff at the press conferences. There is also a need to give the club websites anything significant first. But those pair work to different agendas and ask different questions, not always the ones the readers want answering.
But partly it was the choice of Mac to keep the local press at arms length. He was a coach not a talking head. To be fair that was probably wise. When he did speak out it often went down the wrong way.
He was oblivious to the angst and fury some of his glib comments were causing among the Red Book regulars. “The fans need to be educated.” That was a good one. “It is just another game to me,” after a lacklustre derby defeat at home to Newcastle was a hand-grenade too. As was “it is not on my list of priorities,” when quizzed about the need to provide entertainment. Often the Gazette had to try to calm the storm afterwards, try to offer a face saving route away from the controversial quotes and so often that went wrong too.
Of course Mac was trained under Fergie, a master of media manipulation who has an abrasive approach to the press. Cross him, criticise, question or report objectively on set-backs and defeats – that is, do your job – and you will be frozen out. That threat is held over evryone who apllies for a press passs. Entire organisations will be cut out of the loop, as were the BBC last season. And the local press in Manchester are shamefully disregarded.
There was an element of that with McClaren too. At the expense of building warm relationships with the local media he courted his favourites in the national press, those who would not get their hands dirty in the nitty-gritty of match by match criticism or comment but coud be relied on for a sympathetic hearing on the big issues unburdened by any trivial local difficulties.
He turned to Paul McCarthy in the People to tell of how “his world was turned upside down” when he was approached by Newcastle. There was never a quote on the issue in the local media at all, and not fo rthe want of trying. It was off limits. As was the mooted Leeds move which collapsed at the eleventh hour. And he chose Louise Taylor in the Guardian to hit back at attempts to “undermine” him after Keith Lamb revealed on the Three Legends he had not signed his contract. Not a peep for either the Gazette or Century. He has had a lot of time for the national rat-pack in the months since Sven departure was announced .
While he has always be acutely aware of his presence in the nationals it was only in the last six months that he even attempted to address his poor PR image on Teesside – and brush up prior to his big push for the England job – by taking expensive expert media training . “That is one of the problems we will have to address,” he said, talking of his relationship with the fans after the season ticket chucking incident.
After that some of his statements could have been thrashed out by a focus group in the Ironopolis after the match, although obviously he never called for his own sacking. There were still the odds slip back into old habits – saying “anyone would lose to Arsenal with ten men” despite it being 6-0 when Doriva was sent off was a cracker that brought ridicule – but generally he was more honest, more quotable and more empathetic with the fans… but for many it was too little, too late.
On balance, while we have all enjoyed the beanos to Cardiff, Lisbon, Rome and Eindhoven and will universally agree that he is the most successful manager the club have ever had, most in the local press were delighted to see the back of Mac. He could be a nice enough bloke and at times was charming and a good networker but when the notebooks came out so did the media mask. On a professional and techinical level he made it hard for us and by extention, hard for the public to get a full picture and feel engaged.
Maybe we were all spolit by Robbo and Lennie. We went up to Hurworth every day and Robbo would answer absolutely anything without hesitation, treat you warmly like one of the lads, give some unprintable assessments of the issues and personalities of the day and sometimes offer to buy you a beer. Lennie was a shrewd operator would never tell a lie and if you asked him the right question he would cough. Sometime he even hinted which questions to ask him. Often he would ring us up and tell us what he wanted in the paper.
So why bring this up now? Well, on Monday we had a call from TalkSport. “So all you local press boys in Middlesbawwa must be looking forward to El Tel then”. Er…


10 thoughts on “Cautious Mac Shut Up Shop For Scribes

  1. Now you tell us!.I hope the next manager realises that if you are honest with the fans and get them on your side it buys you a lot of time.

  2. My son echoes some of your thoughts, Mac was better when he stopped some of his spin. I have always maintained that he was probably a clever and skilled coach (I use probably not as a put down but like many I am not qualified to judge) as good as we are likely to get. The apart I didnt like his spin, bewildering tactics and innate cautiousness (that does however, have its place).
    Most Boro fans cant stand claptrap, we are not idiots and can see for ourselves. In the earlier years we had a spell of 1-0 defeats away from home, I went to some of them and they were appalling performances. Bill or Mac would be trotted out with mostly ‘on another day’ followed as the number increased by some ‘unacceptables’.
    The TLF saga struck me as odd, we had brought in a new strike force and TLF never got a run with them. He came on at half time at a pre season friendly and by all accounts (including the gazettes article) played a blinder but not a mention on the website. Suddenly it was ‘if he wishes to speak to Celtic….’ Postings on the message board suggesting TLF’s stats were tailing off etc – where did that info come from? My personal view was that if TLF was past his sell by date that was fair enough but from a distance things didnt seem quite right in the way it was handled.
    The spin that broke my camels back came with the announcement of the England squad for the Spain match. National press had noted Downings electrifying form and appeared to be a possible answer to the left side. Questioned about the squad Mac said it was up to Sven, he selected the squad and nothing to do with Mac. Subsequently Downing didnt make the squad and sat on the bench for the U21’s. It was several weeks later that Tord Grip came out with his comments that it was Mac who said dont pick him. Shortly after came all the quotes about not entertaining etc.
    That was when I stopped chuckling at the nonsense and took more notice of Mac/MFC speak. Ultimately he alienated a large section of fans, clearly all was not well, Gibson and Lamb on Legends phone ins, stories of unrest, mixed messages – eg Premiership a priority became we were building a cup side.
    In the end our most succesful manager was unloved by many despite obvious progress. My own view is that it was the right time for him to move on and saved the club a tricky situation with season ticket renewals, it was going to bad enough in the aftermath of Eindhoven, live TV and many dull home home performances without the hate Mac section making things worse.

  3. Very incisive article on the problems you as a journalist had with our past manager, let’s hope the club take note and attempt to address the communication breakdown between the club and local public who rely on the local press for more of an insight into what is happening.
    We all appreciate that he is not going to come out and slate the players after a bad performance but don’t insult our intelligence by not being at least honest in his assesment.
    I have the utmost respect and admiration for “Sir” Steve Gibson but sometimes the people around him let him and the club down with there lack of professionalism and in this category I include the Press office, PR and ticketing side.
    I know a lot of work is done in the community and with schools but more needs to be done to win the general local community back onto the terraces.

  4. Yet another good article from you Mr Vickers.
    In the times of ‘media advisors’,’PR Consultants’ and ‘Spin Doctors’ it does seem odd that Mac did not support the local news or at least employ someone to help him out.
    When the dust settles we will look back and think the time he had in charge dramatically changed the club and brought a profressional and business like face to the Boro.
    This was in stark contrast to the ‘Robbo yours mate’ policy of the previous regime. I personally would like to see a mix of the two styles in the next manager, a manager who can relate to the Boro faithful but has the business acumen to ensure the professional attitude is maintained in future Boro squads.
    I am heartened to hear that both Keith Lamb and Steve Gibson have stated the next manager must take on the back room team if they come on board, this will ensure that Macs legacy is maintained.
    We have to remember that the Boro was Macs first venture into senior management and as such he was learning all the time. This was obvious because his news conferences and interviews did improve a little bit over his time in charge.
    All in all, I agree with the previous postings, it was time for Mac to go, he’d taken us as far as he could and we needed some fresh ideas. I don’t know if El Tel is the answer, although I would welcome him in a ‘Director of Football’ position and bring in Tony Mowbray as Manager who can only benefit from the knowledge that Tel would bring along. I feel that partnership will bring the Boro greater success in the future.
    Keep up the good work, yours and Erics columns are the only news columns we can trust.

  5. Aww diddums, did Mr mcclaren not talk to you. Give me one good reason why he should. For years the Gazette has been losing the battle against the internet and the nationals for exclusives and the same will happen when Venables/Mogga/whoever takes over next.
    Ten years ago the local paper was the first port of call for Boro news, now i’ll read it once in a blue moon. Wasnt your last ‘exclusive’ that Darren Fletcher was signing on loan for a year…..

  6. I heard that Steve Mac wouldn’t talk to the Teesside local media as they were/are “too often influenced by a certain mundane football message board”.

  7. Mark and Ben, I must admit that because I dont live in Middlesbrough all the news the gazette carries is ‘old’ and on the internet the next day. I would however trust it more than the official website.
    My views are based on watching from afar via nationals and the internet. The Downing story I quoted came from the nationals.
    Whether Mac cooperated with the local press or not still wont make him popular, it was his statements and actions that decided his popularity.

  8. Maybe the reason why Steve McClaren was so cold towards the local press, was probably due to the depressing, inaccurate, inexperienced and ill informed clap trap that is repeatedly written by journalists, non-stories that cause upset and put a spanner in the works. Reap what you sow Gentlemen!

  9. Why did you feel the need to protect him, if he made your job difficult? The real educated fans amongst us were always able to differentiate between critiquing McClaren and an attack on the club. All we wanted was a few snippets of inside info on footballing matters and honest without Blair style spin, what was he afraid of?
    The complete lack of interest we paid in his private life shows he had nothing to fear.

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