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
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…